This is what President Obama wrote when he took office: “Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in government.”
Apparently no one at the Office of Personnel Management got that memo. Reporters from several publications are openly venting their frustrations to one another that getting even simple answers from OPM is a nearly impossible task. Several of our inquiries have gone unanswered for months or were declined with dubious — or no — explanations.
My favorite? “You ask too many questions,” OPM Communications Director Sedelta Verble told me two months ago when I called to follow up on several unanswered inquiries.
And it’s not just reporters getting stonewalled. As Federal Times reported last month, thousands of angry federal retirees get no answer from OPM when they try to find out how long it might take before they get their full pension. Verble’s response to our original query on the matter was to insist, “This is not news.”
It might not have been news to her, but tens of thousands of readers disagreed. Their huge response to my coverage forced OPM Director John Berry to hold a press conference and grant me an interview to insist the agency takes the problem seriously and has a plan to tackle it.
The Bush administration wasn’t known for its transparency, but OPM was far more open to the public and the press then than it is today. These days, OPM’s strategy appears to be, ignore all inquiries until bad publicity and embarrassment dictate otherwise. That is, unless you want to talk about bike shares, food drives and fitness campaigns, which Verble apparently thinks are more newsworthy than when you’re going to get your full pension.
So much for the president’s pledge to create “unprecedented levels of openness.”
Now OPM’s failure to engage the media has left the agency in a weak position just when it needs the press most: To help satisfactorily explain the agency’s questionable pay survey measuring the difference between public and private salaries. This cedes the upper hand to those who argue feds are paid too much.
OPM doesn’t get it. It’s not about the media. It’s about the agency’s duty to serve and inform the federal workforce — and the press shouldn’t have to shame them into meeting that responsibility. Retirees deserve to know what’s going on with their annuities when it takes the agency half a year or more to calculate their correct amounts. And feds deserve to know what’s going on with their health care benefits — especially when their premiums are going up — yet OPM discontinued the previous administration’s practice of holding detailed briefings each fall outlining the changes.
In September, after another classic blunder where a press release announcing a 9:30 a.m. hiring reform event went out at 1 a.m., Berry said to Verble, “We’ve got to do better.”
We’re still waiting.