Senate calls for more agency transparency from OPM director nominee

Office of Personnel Management Acting Director Beth Cobert sailed through her nomination hearing Feb. 4 with relative ease, but not without a warning to improve on the agency’s transparency and communication with Congress.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee had plenty of praise for Cobert. Several members said they hoped they could move her nomination to be the permanent director as quickly as possible.

But as the agency begins to rebuild its image in the wake of two massive cyber breaches, members wanted Cobert’s word that her agency would more accurately respond to the committee — and its House counterpart — when they asked for OPM documents.

When the committee asks the agency for more information, in return it often receives thousands of documents unrelated to the topic or pages that could be found on a public website, said Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.).

“If we walk through the nomination process, I want to know that when we make a request, you can come back and tell us, ‘That’s irrational, you’re asking for too many things, let’s talk about it,'” he said. “But when we make a request, it’s probably going to be related to [what] we need to know to do some basic oversight. Can we have that commitment?”

“Senator, if confirmed, you have my commitment and we will continue to work with you,” Cobert said.

Cobert’s nomination hearing comes one day after House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) issued a subpoena for more documents related to the OPM cyber breaches. The committee has asked for documents on the agency’s cybersecurity efforts five separate times since July.

OPM has been working with the House committee to get them the information they requested, Cobert said.

“We’re going to want to know more about that,” Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) said. “It is troubling that the House Oversight Committee was forced to resort to a subpoena, which from my standpoint, is something I’m going to do as a very last resort.”

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), urged Cobert set up a private meeting with Chaffetz and the House ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.).

Two days earlier, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) threatened to stall Cobert’s nomination over a special exemption given to members of Congress and their staff in an OPM rule amending the Affordable Care Act. He said he hasn’t received the documents he asked for more than two years ago.

“I understand there were some issues around that,” Cobert said when asked about Vitter’s letter. “I have not spent time understanding the specifics.”

OPM issued the rule in question in October 2013, well before Cobert assumed the acting director’s position in last July.

“This will be a serious issue,” Johnson said.

Beyond improving its relationship with Congress, the committee wanted to know how Cobert planned to rebuild its trust with federal employees — and its own inspector general — particularly in the wake of the agency’s major cyber breaches. OPM IG Patrick McFarland called into question the agency’s cybersecurity and IT modernization plans over the summer.

Cobert reiterated cybersecurity is, and always has been, one of her biggest priorities since her first day at OPM.

“We’ve been in the process of looking again at the modernization plan in light of some of the changes,” she said. “We’ve looked at it again post-the breach, because we needed to understand what we learn from that context and how to incorporate it. We’re going to be looking at it again in the context of the recent decision to stand up the NBIB [National Background Investigations Bureau].”

Retirement backlogs, employee hiring and morale

The committee’s questions were wide-ranging and hit everything from the retirement backlog to employee hiring and morale.

Lankford spoke of the “corporate groan” he hears from his state staff and constituents who are frustrated with OPM’s immense backlog of unprocessed retirement claims.

Cobert said the goal is to process 90 percent of retirement applications within 60 days. OPM also added new capabilities that retirees can handle themselves online, like changing their address or other pieces of personal information without having to fill out a separate form or speak with a claims representative. Cobert said that those new services will help some, but not all, retirees. And there’s still more work to do.

“We’re working with agencies continually to make sure the information we get from agencies is fully complete so we can move things through faster,” Cobert said. “We are moving forward in the next phase of automating the retirement systems. I know we’ve worked on that in the past at OPM. We’re going through it in a different way this time. It’s much more modular. We’re starting with the case management system because we get some information digitally now, and we want to be able to continue to use it digitally. That will help us get responses to people faster.”

The committee acknowledged that after months of responding to requests and concerns from cyber breach victims, Cobert must also rebuild morale within her own agency.

“I am incredibly proud of the team at OPM and how the entire organization has actually pulled together in the face of the challenges coming out of the breaches,” she said. “There’s a whole part of the organization that is working on that, and at the same time the rest of the organization has continued to deliver.”

Cobert said she will look at the results of the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to measure how OPM can improve its own morale.

“We’re going to continue to work on rebuilding confidence inside OPM and outside OPM by making sure our systems are secure, by making sure that we continue the progress we’ve made in strengthening those systems and working with our inter-agency partners [and] doing work around hiring,” she said. “It’s all about just doing the work every day, being disciplined, retaining our commitment to customer service and moving forward.”

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