OPM IT outage sparks Trump administration’s efforts to again make case for GSA merger

A data center outage took systems offline at the Office of Personnel Management last week, prompting the Trump administration to double down on its efforts to persuade Congress of the need to reorganize and merge the agency’s functions with the General Services Administration.

“Significant OPM programs and missions were impacted for multiple hours last week during an incident that impacted OPM information technology,” Stephen Billy, the agency’s deputy chief of staff, told Federal News Network in a statement.

The incident occurred within the data center at the agency’s headquarters, an OPM spokeswoman said. The incident triggered OPM’s automated disaster recovery systems, which shut down “multiple OPM capabilities” and began the process of transferring those capabilities to a backup location, the agency said.

“Unfortunately, some of the backup systems failed to operate as designed. There is no indication of malicious activity that led to this outage,” the OPM spokeswoman said. “The backup system just failed to respond when called into action.”

Acting OPM Director Margaret Weichert is expected to brief senators on this incident, the agency’s broader IT challenges and the status of the OPM-GSA merger on Wednesday, a person close to the meeting told Federal News Network.

Some sources said Weichert is using this IT problem as yet another example of the “poor” state of OPM’s systems. But sources say the administration is exaggerating both this problem and the overall state of OPM’s technology.

A government source close to OPM said construction at the agency’s building caused last week’s IT outage. A contractor tripped the main breaker to OPM’s data center, which brought the mainframe system offline, the source told Federal News Network.

OPM systems were offline for less than an hour, the source said. The outage impacted OPM’s applications in Washington. But many of the agency’s signature legacy systems that handle retirement claims processing and security clearances, for example, live on an internal private cloud hosted in OPM’s facilities in Boyers, Pennsylvania, and Macon, Georgia, the government source said.

Additionally, the source said OPM’s systems have stabilized over the last few years, evidenced by the reducing in the security clearance backlog and the improvements in retirement claims processing as well as the overall cyber architecture is considered by many to be a model for other agencies.

OPM employees who would typically resolve problems like last week’s sudden outage or the agency’s long term IT challenges have been sidelined as others from GSA or the U.S. Digital Service have come in as detailees, the government source said.

OPM has had its fair share of IT challenges in recent years. The administration has cited these challenges, which have been well-documented by the agency’s inspector general, the Government Accountability Office and lawmakers over the years, as a key reason for its proposed merger of OPM with GSA.

The government source said last week’s IT incident was dramatized to prove the administration’s case for the OPM-GSA merger.

The administration has already begun the process of using GSA’s Centers of Excellence initiative as part of a concerted effort to modernize its legacy IT systems — and begin a series of inter-agency agreements and partnerships designed to advance the Trump administration’s proposed OPM-GSA merger.

GSA last week issued a solicitation for industry help to implement a modern mainframe disaster recovery plan at OPM. GSA’s partnership will help OPM remediate the issues, which the agency had already identified but were brought to the spotlight during last week’s outage, Billy said.

“The support of GSA will allow OPM [Office of the Chief Information Officer] to quickly implement a stabilization project to mitigate the recurrence of future, more serious events,” he said.

Congress continues to demand more on OPM-GSA merger

Wednesday’s meeting with senators comes as Democrats on the House Oversight and Reform Committee have requested additional information on the OPM-GSA merger and again expressed their frustration with the administration’s proposal itself.

“We wish to convey in the clearest possible terms that we oppose the administration’s intentions for OPM,” committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and Government Operations Subcommittee Chairman Gerry Connolly (D-Md.) wrote Monday in a letter addressed to Weichert.

This time, Connolly and Cummings have requested transcribed interviews on the topic with two political appointees and one career employee.

Committee leaders want to hear from Michael Rigas, deputy OPM director, Peter Warren, associate director at the Office of Management and Budget, and Dustin Brown, a deputy assistant director for management at OMB, by July 31.

“Because of your failure to provide the committee with documents to inform us of the actions the administration has taken or plans to take, we must seek this information in other ways, Connolly and Cummings said.

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The administration hasn’t fully complied with the committee’s March request for documents that explain its rationale and legal justification for the proposed OPM-GSA merger, Connolly and Cummings wrote.

Billy, who appeared before the subcommittee in late June, told members the administration hadn’t yet finished a legal analysis of its plan to merge OPM with GSA. Subcommittee Democrats and Republicans appeared openly frustrated by this information.

“The committee has repeatedly attempted to work with OPM staff to get information that would demonstrate that the administration performed its due diligence when offering this proposal,” members said in Monday’s letter. “But OPM has failed to provide — and in at least one case create — even basic documents that would allow for oversight of the plan.”

Connolly and Cummings said the administration intends to provide a compilation of inspector general and the Government Accountability Office recommendations that explain OPM’s challenges.

“As members of the committee of jurisdiction over OPM, we are aware of and have reviewed these publicly available documents, none of which suggest abolishing the agency,” they said. “Sending a compilation of existing reports already provided to Congress would not be responsive to our request.”

Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee Ranking Member Gary Peters (D-Mich.), along with Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.), last week requested additional information from the administration about the OPM-GSA merger. They specifically asked for alternatives that would resolve OPM’s budgetary challenges next fiscal year.

The discussion of furloughs for OPM employees, they added, was “premature and unnecessary” without a final agency budget for fiscal 2020.

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