OPM database that tracks telework, sick leave is unreliable, GAO says

The Office of Personnel Management is missing out on an opportunity to use potentially valuable payroll data to make decisions about federal employees’ pay, leave and other work related activities.

Payroll data that OPM collects and stores in its Enterprise Human Resources Integration (EHRI) system is unreliable and largely unavailable to other agencies and organizations, the Government Accountability Office found in a recent study.

Agencies typically use human resources data for a variety of purposes, from monitoring mission skills gaps and making decisions about hiring and staffing.

The payroll database, which became operational in 2009, is one of four databases in the EHRI system.  It collects information about federal employees’ time and attendance, as well as more specific data about their use of official time or telework.

OPM routinely checks the EHRI personnel database to make sure its data is reliable, but it hasn’t reviewed the payroll database, GAO said.

Payroll is also the only database that OPM has not made available to the public, and the data itself has rarely been used at all and only for congressional or GAO’s reporting purposes.

“Because the EHRI payroll database has potential to be used for accountability, research and data-driven human resource management and policy decision making, making it available would support OPM’s strategic and open data goals,” GAO said.

OPM hasn’t sifted through the payroll data and prepared it for statistical analysis or further research, nor has the agency repackaged the information to make it more easy to use or published it on Data.gov.

And the agency is missing out on an opportunity to strengthen the data’s accuracy, GAO said.

“Because reliability issues are often identified during the use of the data, greater use of the EHRI payroll data by other parties would also have the benefit of helping to improve and establish the data’s reliability,” GAO said.

With potentially unreliable payroll data — a little feedback from outside sources to comment on the data quality — OPM isn’t using valuable information to better inform its mission-related research and analysis.

“EHRI payroll data includes detailed information on pay incentives, leave, work activities, telework and other aspects of the federal workforce that could support OPM’s strategic and open data goals for data-driven research in areas such as audits and human resource analytics and decision making,” GAO said.

Other agencies have found this kind of data helpful in the past.

For example, the Veterans Affairs Department’s inspector general used payroll data and found that VA officials responsible for reviewing and approving retention incentives were not accurately justifying and documenting awards in the correct way, GAO said. The VA IG found potential issues with 80 percent of the incentives it reviewed, which totaled more than $1 million in fiscal 2010.

OPM could also use this data to study the federal workforce and its use of sick leave, telework and other programs. The agency could use those reviews to evaluate the effectiveness of those programs and could make changes to them to better meet federal employees’ need, GAO said.

This comes a few months after an August GAO study found that few agencies are reporting the benefits and savings they realize from their telework programs.

OPM soon after announced that it would look more closely at how agencies use and report on telework. The agency said it would collect information on federal employees’ usage and eligibility on a biweekly and monthly basis through the EHRI system status data feed and payroll data feed.

GAO in 2014 raised similar concerns about the quality of OPM’s data on official time.

GAO also found weaknesses in the internal controls OPM put in place to make sure its payroll data is accurate. Those shortfalls could limit the agency from using payroll data to make informed decisions for the workforce.

“OPM officials told us that in 2015, they discovered a problem related to data on sick leave,” GAO said. “Specifically, due to a programming error, the data received from payroll providers that sum the number of sick leave hours an employee used in a year was populating an unrelated field in the EHRI payroll database. As a result, according to OPM officials, the amount of sick leave an employee used in any given year was not accurate. … This suggests that OPM’s edit checks, which were designed to maintain a minimum level of quality  control, may not sufficiently reduce the risks of these types of errors.”

GAO recommends that OPM make EHRI payroll data more publicly available, improve the system’s internal controls and develop a plan to integrate payroll data into the larger suite of EHRI databases.

OPM agreed with all five of GAO’s recommendations.

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