‘For the First Time In Many Years,’ OPM Has a Plan To Fix Its Tech


The agency will need funding, a skilled staff, consistent leadership and more funding to successfully implement the CIO’s latest plan, according to the inspector general.

The Office of Personnel Management is beset by numerous management challenges—as are all federal agencies and most nongovernmental organizations—with IT management among the top four, according to the agency inspector general’s annual report.

While OPM struggles with financial and governmentwide challenges of varying criticality, there is a clear path toward fixing its IT issues, so long as the agency follows a plan laid out by Chief Information Officer Clare Martorana and independent consultants.

The report cites the 2015 breach of OPM networks that exposed sensitive information on tens of millions of Americans and notes the agency’s IT security has greatly improved. However, the focus on security issues and the piecemeal move of background security work to the Defense Department has left the rest of the agency’s IT in dire need of a revival.

“While OPM has made significant progress with respect to its technical security environment, consolidation of data centers, data encryption, and multifactor authentication, the agency is still burdened by legacy, mission-critical applications, outdated infrastructure and processes, and an ineffective technology business model,” the report states, citing frequent turnovers in leadership in the Office of the CIO and at the top of the agency.

“For the first time in many years, OPM is in a position where its chief information officer has combined a persuasive vision with a detailed plan to successfully see it through,” the IG wrote. “If the agency can achieve the phase one modernization goal, it will stabilize its critical IT functions and reduce the risk of compromising sensitive data.”

Martorana contracted with a consulting firm to verify the feasibility of the new plan. The consultants recommended “a phased approach that starts with modernizing and stabilizing core IT systems and processes, and building an effective organizational structure within the agency’s OCIO to implement the modernization initiatives.”

Phase I includes meeting four critical objectives to mature and stabilize OPM’s IT environment. The report enumerates the issues around each focus area but does not offer advice on achieving those objectives.

1. Complete the transition of the legacy background investigations systems to Defense Counterintelligence and Security Agency.

The responsibility for conducting background investigations on potential and current federal employees was shifted over to the Defense Department’s DCSA in October 2019. However, DCSA is not ready to take over the mainframe system that manages the process, according to the IG. The agencies have a plan to fully transfer ownership of the system to DCSA by October 2021.

“This full migration of systems will be a critical move to reduce distraction and risk, and allow management to focus on the modernization effort,” the IG wrote.

2. Recruit the staff needed to implement a successful IT modernization program.

“OPM’s OCIO is severely understaffed, especially at crucial leadership positions,” the report states. “The OCIO also needs staff with skills well suited for modernization programs such as agile development, cloud architecture, and data/application integration.”

3. Promote an enterprise-oriented mindset to reduce the complexity of OPM’s IT environment.

As with most organizations in and out of government, employees at OPM have found workarounds when OCIO hasn’t been able to provide IT solutions in the past, causing a proliferation of shadow IT throughout the agency.

The consultants stressed the importance of having an enterprise approach that looks at needs across OPM and fulfills them with the same tech, managed by OCIO.

“It also creates a culture where the OCIO is not considered a strategic partner in achieving organizational goals,” the report states. “Creating an OCIO that can deliver solutions and changing the stovepipe mindset will be a major challenge for the agency going forward.”

4. Secure the funding necessary to achieve the phase one modernization goals.

All of this will be moot if OPM cannot fund these efforts, expected to cost between $205 million to $234 million over three years and another $55 million a year for operations and maintenance once the systems are stood up, according to figures from McKinsey and Company consultants.

The report notes the transfer of background check services from NBIB to DCSA makes this harder. OPM operated NBIB on a fee-for-service basis, netting $18 million more than expended by the program in fiscal 2019, “which essentially subsidized IT services for other OPM program offices,” the report states.

These four priority objectives would set the stage for future modernization efforts, including “the long held vision of automating the federal employee experience from hiring to retirement,” the IG said.

“The agency’s challenge is to take advantage of this opportunity, seek appropriate funding, and start on its modernization journey,” they wrote. “It will also have to minimize the voices of the self-interested naysayers, and start to change the agency culture to an enterprise-wide mindset that values the role of the federal chief information officer as a strategic business partner who is critical in reaching organizational goals.”