OPM takes first step toward employee digital records with blockchain

The Office of Personnel Management already has its first blockchain prototype for part of its new Employee Digital Record system, and it's performing better tha...

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The Office of Personnel Management already has its first prototype for part of its new Employee Digital Record system, and it’s performing better than expected.

David Vargas, director of the HR Line of Business for OPM, helped launch this initiative last November. It took about two months to develop the prototype using agile processes, he said, during a panel at the May 24  Think Gov conference sponsored  by IBM.

“We have a prototype. We’ve actually prototyped a blockchain for an employee transfer,” Vargas said. “My goal was 30 minutes; we can actually do this in minutes, like a couple minutes, to do a transfer between two agencies. Imagine the power of that just in terms of the amount of effort it takes.”

He said using the distributed ledger technology will vastly streamline and simplify the process it takes to onboard, terminate and transfer federal employees. Right now, it takes about 60 days to get leave transferred from one agency to another. It takes about two months for a retirement determination.

“There are 28 different forms it takes to do an onboarding transaction in the federal government,” he said. “When you transfer from one agency to another, you are basically terminated in one and onboarded on the other. Imagine the business value that it brings to government if we are able to figure this out.”

And this is just one small part of what OPM envisions as a reimagining of the federal human capital system. The agency wants an employee digital record that can follow feds from agency to agency, and even into the private sector and back again.

“The future of HR shared services is foundationally based on organizing the government around a single HR service catalog to facilitate a governmentwide common user experience,” Vargas said in an email to Federal News Radio in December.

That’s why this prototype is so important: It proves the concept is possible. But it won’t be easy. Vargas said there are in excess of 800 human capital applications, between 1,900 and 2,000 data standards and 762 human capital forms and counting. That leads to a lot of duplication of data.

And OPM is not the only agency working in this direction. Agencies are all trying to figure out the best way to take advantage of the Technology Modernization Fund. Some of them are turning to new technologies like AI and blockchain, and the General Services Administration wants to help with that.

“We’re partnering with the technology modernization fund that recently came out … this summer we’re partnering with them to work with agencies and companies to help them craft their proposals on things like blockchain and robotics and AI in order to tap into that fund and deliver on these things that we sometimes think and talk about like they’re three to five years from now,” said Justin Herman, the lead for emerging citizen technology at GSA, during the panel.

But they aren’t three-to-five years away, he said. One of the main obstacles his office sees is that people don’t realize how prevalent blockchain already is. They don’t see an agency policy on it, they don’t see it on the website, so they think it’s too early to start creating any structure around it.

“Blockchain is our most requested resource right now, and we have almost 1,000 people participating in our GSA governmentwide blockchain program, both from the private sector, from government,” Herman said.

Agencies have been investing, testing and building proof of concept in technologies like blockchain for years, he said. The Emerging Citizen Technology Atlas, a website set up by Herman’s office, showcases some of these efforts. What agencies are seeing right now is not the appearance of a brand new technology. It’s that technology going mainstream.

“In the cases where it is working — and it is working, as we’ve heard — these are going to fundamentally transform in ways that are exciting and interesting,” Herman said. “So don’t get all worked up about the hype and dismiss for anything. This is real, this is now, and this is working for agencies whether you’re reading about it or not.”

Of course, that’s not to say these technologies work for all agencies. Herman said there are plenty of bad ideas, and 90 percent of the proposed use cases his office has seen won’t work. But even exploring the possibility can be valuable, because in the process, agencies can learn to reconfigure their systems in new ways they never realized. So while they might not find a solution in blockchain, they can still solve their problems.

“If your goal is, ‘I want to do blockchain,’ that’s fantastic. Go out and check out the demos out there,” Herman said. “But if your goal is that you want to solve your problems, there’s a good chance blockchain can play a role in that. But even if it doesn’t, just understanding your problems is going to open you up to different things.”

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