The Office of Personnel Management (OPM) reinvention labs are initiatives that directly address the goals of the Vice President's National Performance Review (NPR): quantifiable achievements in the areas of cost savings, responsiveness to customer needs for service, and empowerment of employees to identify and implement improvements in the way OPM does business.
The three reinvention labs identified for the NPR in April 1993 are briefly summarized below. Two of the three labs involve use of improved technology and automation to provide staffing (employment) services that save time and money, providing greater value at lower cost. In the third lab, a claims processing branch is being recast as a self-managed work team. Expected results include both greater productivity and higher employee morale.
Ten other OPM initiatives are also underway or have results to report.
Description of Labs
1. Telephone Application Processing.
OPM's search for better ways to serve its customers now lets job seekers file a job application directly to OPM's computer database in Macon, Georgia, by using a touch- tone telephone and a toll-free number. This initiative provides a simple way for interested individuals to apply for federal jobs and enables federal agencies to compete more effectively in the job market for qualified applicants. The system became operational on June 14, 1993, and covers professional nurses, an occupation for which there are continuing shortages of qualified candidates. Information about applying for jobs by telephone is provided to those who inquire about nursing jobs through OPM Service Centers, through the Career America (telephone) Connection, and an electronic bulletin board--the Federal Job Opportunities Board.
Applicants use their touch-tone telephones to provide information to the data-base about their education, experience, and availability for employment by responding to a series of automated voice prompts. The entire process takes about 10 minutes, and the applicant' s name and background information is available for referral to agencies within 24 hours. Agencies gain direct access to the applicant database using a touch-tone telephone. The referrals they request are telefaxed automatically within a matter of minutes.
2. Project Able Beneficiaries Link to Employers (ABLE).
On May 21, 1993, OPM launched an initiative to help disabled workers who are looking for work find suitable employment. The objective is to link disabled beneficiaries of Social Security programs with employers. Numerous studies show that people with disabilities want to work and can work, yet fewer than 1 percent of Social Security disability beneficiaries actually return to employment.
Under Project ABLE, OPM, the Social Security Administration (SSA), and state vocational rehabilitation offices in Virginia, Maryland, and the District of Columbia are working in partnership to create a new referral system that will place federal employers in direct contact with members of this targeted group. The project is designed to equip vocational rehabilitation counselors with the knowledge and tools to identify and certify job ready clients for referral using an OPM-sponsored automated referral database.
Training has been completed for 100 state vocational rehabilitation specialists, and disabled beneficiaries are being enrolled in the program. Beginning in October, federal agencies in the pilot areas will be able to obtain lists by telefax of job ready enrollees.
OPM anticipates that Project ABLE will be an excellent source for employers to locate job ready, qualified individuals with disabilities--increasing the hiring of these persons and enhancing the vocational rehabilitation services that are available to them. SSA believes that the project will increase access to rehabilitation services provided by the states and enrich understanding of SSA work incentives, employment safety nets, and other resources available to beneficiaries. SSA believes that Project ABLE will reduce dependence on disability, supplemental insurance, and other entitlement programs; increase opportunities for beneficiaries to gain independence; and enable them to become fully participating members of society.
3. Self-Managed Work Teams for Processing Retirement Claims.
OPM designated as one of its internal reinvention laboratories a retirement claims processing branch that is being recast as a self- managed work team. The goal is to forge a group of highly trained and highly motivated employees who are fully responsible for turning out a well-defined work product. As the employees' role changes, supervisors also change their role to that of coach, mentor, team facilitator, or team member.
The creation of self-managed work teams is a long-term investment. The first phase involves intensive training for team members, including supervisors and managers. Ultimately, the team will be strictly accountable for accurate and timely processing of retirement cases. To assess whether improvements are realized in these outcomes, the team's timeliness and error rate will be compared to historical data for the team in its more traditional configuration and also to data for comparable organizations not participating in this reinvention lab.
Other Reinvention Initiatives at the Office of Personnel Management
1. Annuitant Tax Withholding.
In the past year, OPM's Retirement and Insurance Group has received more than a quarter million requests from its total 2.3 million annuitants to change the tax withheld from their retirement annuities. To make a request, annuitants must use a four-page set of instructions and worksheets to comply with Internal Revenue Service (IRS) regulations. Many are multiple requests from annuitants who are not happy with the amounts being withheld from their monthly retirement benefits.
Most applicants know the amount of tax they would like to have withheld, but they are required to supply information, make calculations, and transfer the results to an application sheet to change the actual amount of tax withheld. OPM staff have created a computer program that allows an annuitant to enter the amount of money he or she wants to have withheld; the program changes the withholding amount accordingly, then calculates all of the proper withholding information that is required by IRS.
A test of the new, simpler, customer-oriented system is underway. It is expected to cut the average monthly volume of requests considerably. The first months for which data are available indicate progress--in June 1992, 32,000 requests were received; in June 1993, the number of requests had fallen to 15,000.
2. Health Benefits Enrollment Administration.
Federal employee health benefits program administration historically has been decentralized. Agencies send premiums to OPM and enrollment information to insurers. Frequent problems arise when insurers try to reconcile enrollment information they get from agencies and the actual premiums they get from OPM.
In response to the errors and the high cost of correcting them, OPM is conducting a pilot that demonstrates how to prevent the errors in the first place. In initial tests of the pilot, OPM has forwarded premiums and enrollment information to insurers at the same time. If the test proves successful, its scope will be expanded.
Two results are expected: (1) carriers will be able to match enrollees and the premiums paid; and (2) enrollees will be promptly and accurately recognized as members of the health insurance plan they have selected.
3. Simplified Selection Process.
OPM is sponsoring a Department of Agriculture demonstration project, the first to test simplification of hiring systems for both blue- and white-collar employees. The primary intervention is the simplified examining system, which uses two eligibility groupings (quality and eligible) rather than the rating and ranking process and rule of three in the traditional system. Managers can choose any individual from the quality group but must give absolute preference to veterans.
The simplified system has been a success. Asked about what they liked best, agency managers said they liked (1) more local control through direct hire, (2) more direct involvement by managers in the hiring process, (3) advertising for positions in professional journals and newspapers, and (4) having a larger pool of candidates referred for selection.
4. Automated Rating System.
The Microcomputer Assisted Rating System (MARS) is an automated system to rate and rank applicants for jobs where no written test is required. The system uses a computer scanned application form and a database of validated assessment procedures; that is, a machine creates a roster of applicants for a job. The system eliminates the need to prepare written crediting plans. The system also eliminates the need for manually rating the applications for each individual job. MARS currently is being tested in OPM's Dallas and San Francisco Regions; processing cost reductions are expected to be verified in the coming months.
5. 24-Hour Results for Clerical Testing.
OPM is looking for ways to streamline and improve the effectiveness of the clerical hiring process. Prior to October 1992, OPM examined and referred clerical candidates using methods and processes that required mailing test scores to computer facilities in Macon, Georgia, and certificates of scores to agencies who sought to hire clerical employees.
Now, OPM's San Francisco Service Center uses high-speed optical scanners for scoring written test answer sheets and qualifications information. The results will be entered into the inventory of certified eligible candidates for clerical jobs within 24 hours of testing--in many cases, on the same day the test is administered. Use of existing technology for this purpose will prevent loss of applications or testing documents and reduce the need for staff to process paper. Preliminary estimates indicate that reductions in processing costs could drop from $17 to $6 per application. Other benefits include a faster turnaround for agencies as well as for job applicants.
6. Job Information Services.
The Boston Service Center is one of a number of OPM offices implementing cost-effective improvements for providing customers with the latest federal employment information. In Boston, OPM's Service Center provides live operator service during business hours to callers from throughout New England. Local callers also have the option to switch calls to the National Jobline in Macon, Georgia, if they want information about jobs nationally and they do not need to speak to an operator. During non-business hours, local calls in Boston can be switched to the 24-hour National Jobline.
7. Managing Investigations of Prospective Federal Employees.
OPM's Federal Investigations Processing Center at Boyers, Pennsylvania, is the central receipt and control point for all OPM investigations of prospective federal employees. During the latter part of 1990, teams at Boyers began to analyze the Center's work to identify opportunities for process improvement. Measurable results can be seen in more timely completion of cases with less rework, and no increase in staff. The two highest volume types of cases are the National Agency Check and the National Agency Check with Inquiries. The Center produces over 150,000 of these work items annually. In the past two years, the average time to complete a National Agency Check has been cut from 49 to 23 days, and to complete a National Agency Check with Inquiries, from 64 to 52 days.
8. Agency-Based Recruitment Strategy.
OPM's agency-based recruitment strategy is designed to delegate to agencies all appropriate recruiting activities and decisions. One significant initiative under this strategy is a project called "Improved Timeliness of Examining Through a Shared Approach with Agencies." In examining and referring lists of candidates to agency managers with vacancies to fill, the Washington Area Service Center has reduced processing times by 67 percent since 1986--from an average of 30 work days to an average of 10 work days--while increasing the quality of candidates referred. This was done by inventing a new approach to examining--sharing the process with agencies as co-producers, and replacing the traditional, often ineffective, register system. Agency customers (managers) have shown their satisfaction with candidates by increased usage of OPM's Washington referral lists. In 1988, managers made selections from only 60 percent of these lists. Since 1988, usage rates have moved up, with managers currently making selections from 89 percent of the lists.
9. Serving with Pride and Reaching for Quality.
OPM's Washington Area Service Center has adopted a continuous improvement approach that they call SPARQ--Serving with Pride and Reaching for Quality. The Center has used this approach to identify and respond to customers' requirements in the delivery of staffing, training, and investigations services in the Washington area. The Washington Federal Job Information Center is by far the busiest in the OPM nationwide network, answering hundreds of thousands of employment inquiries each year. Under the SPARQ initiative, major customer service improvements were made while actually decreasing staff costs. A nationwide survey of customer expectations of federal employment centers found that the job-seeking public wanted real job vacancy information and access to a live person who could answer their questions. Because staffing up the Center was not financially feasible, the Washington staff developed a number of less costly alternatives.
They voice-recorded all of the current federal vacancies on an automated phone system and made it available to the public 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They expanded hours during which the Center is open, introduced regularly scheduled walk-in (no appointment necessary) employment seminars, and rearranged the recorded information message matrix to clarify how to choose to speak to an information specialist without wading through numerous recorded messages. Results were remarkable. The number of customers served annually rose from about 30,000 to more than 90,000 telephone contacts and from about 25,000 to more than 47,000 walk-in or seminar contacts. The staff was simultaneously reduced overall by 15 percent from 1990 levels or about $165,000 per year.
10. Training Course Registration.
Employees who have been nominated for OPM training courses need to know whether their attendance is confirmed, whether they have been assigned to another class, or whether the class has been can-celled. Customers require this information so that they can schedule work assignments in their organizations and make economical travel arrangements. Therefore, when customers call to inquire about their status in a particular class, OPM must be able to reply accurately and promptly.
To keep customers satisfied and informed, OPM's Washington Area Service Center has established a uniform participant registration process that clarifies information about each course and sets a standard for mailing acceptance letters to registrants 15 days before classes start. An OPM team is currently studying the process to determine where other economies can be achieved and service to customers improved.
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