OPM’s customer service falters as Employee Express is overwhelmed

CORRECTION: The Interior Department doesn’t host Employee Express. It is hosted by OPM. Federal News Radio regrets the error.

Few federal employees will fault the Office of Personnel Management for taking extra steps to protect their data. But recent cyber upgrades to the Employee Express platform are not only leaving federal employees frustrated, the effort is yet another lesson for other agencies of what not to do when it comes to customer service.

First a little background: Employee Express is the online portal run by OPM. The website lets federal employees control their payroll-personnel information by making changes or updates to information such as their addresses, tax withholdings, health coverage and the Thrift Savings Plan.

According to OPM’s website, the departments of Education, Interior, State and Transportation use the portal, as well as more than 70 medium and small agencies — such as the General Services Administration, the National Archives and Records Administration and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

So this brings us to the latest problem for OPM: The extra cybersecurity requirements are slowing down the system, causing federal employees to call the help desk, thus overloading the help desk and slowing the entire process down during a critical time of the year, Open Season. And this isn’t a typical Open Season, when 95 percent or more of federal employees don’t make any changes to their insurance. With the addition of the self-plus one option, the volume of calls and website visits is huge.

“How are employees supposed to review and change their federal benefits when Employee Express is not functioning?” wrote one federal employee on OPM’s Facebook page.

Listen, the idea to upgrade security features during the busiest time of the year make sense. If a hacker was going to try to use the data stolen in the massive data breach, now would be the time.

The security upgrades, according to an OPM spokesman, included modernizing the hardware and database platform, improving overall application and data security and enhancing the user interface.

“The system environment was upgraded with improved database design and enhanced security features including stronger encryption of sensitive data,” the spokesman said by email. “An intuitive user interface was built with responsive design allowing ease of use from a personal computer or mobile device. Personal Identity Verification (PIV) card capability was expanded to allow more employees to easily and securely access the system. For users not using PIV access, the password requirements were strengthened and users are empowered to reset their login credentials once their accounts are set up with their initial login.”

In September, OPM finished the upgrades and soon after the portal started having problems, according to federal employees, who contacted Federal News Radio and posted comments on OPM’s Facebook page.

“They changed their log-on interface, with the most visible thing being the addition of security questions,” wrote one federal employee, who requested anonymity, in an email to Federal News Radio. “Since then, many users have had problems, and telephone customer service is next to impossible to reach. There are long wait times, and the queuing system is extremely frustrating. More than one person I know has been in the queue on hold over 30 minutes, only to be told an automated ‘goodbye,’ or to be sent back to the initial menu. In my case, I gave up on calling and sent an email. They answered me six days later saying my problem couldn’t be handled through email, and that I had to call and speak to a CSR!”

The comments on Facebook express a similar level of frustration.

“Couldn’t get on the website, so I decided to call. I waited one hour on the phone, and was disconnected! Why is it so difficult to decide for yourself what insurance you want?” one federal employee wrote. “The government has ‘fixed’ a problem that didn’t need fixing for most of us who are responsible citizens, who want health coverage. Unbelievable! Needless to say, I have to start all over again, and spend another one or two hours waiting on the phone for a real person to answer! Then again, I may not even get the information I need!”

Another employee wrote, “Have been waiting on hold for 1.5 hours now to make a change because none of the online systems … even express … will not accept the CSA number!”

A third commented, “Finally got thru (sic). Took over an hour … telephone system overloaded so voice was broken … eventually got to the change to self/1 … then disconnected when trying to get online access resolved. Told today (after 1 hr 45 min hold) the website is overwhelmed and try in a few days and the phone system ‘has problems’ … the people trying to help us with Open Season must be so very frustrated with not able to hear us clearly etc. I called the CIOs office yesterday to alert to the issues…I called a few other numbers … everywhere is voicemail …”

There are dozens of other comments about the slow response times and online access problems.

Here’s the rub, and something for other agencies to pay close attention to: The decision to make security upgrades is laudable, but once again OPM’s planning and execution were highly questionable. Like what happened with the first security clearance contract to Winvale — which by the way did you see the inspector general’s initial take on that one? — the system either wasn’t load balanced to handle the volume of users and/or the agency didn’t understand the call volume that was on the way with Open Season starting and the new self-plus one option becoming available.

On top of that, OPM’s poor communication about the problems and the solutions they are providing seems like a systemic problem.

It took me two emails to get specific answers about the steps OPM is taking to fix the wait times and challenges employees are having.

But there have been no emails to employees — as far as my sources have told me — or online notices about problems and fixes.

Finally, after going back and forth, OPM admitted the help desk volume “increased significantly and users were experiencing very long wait times.”

But without any obvious public notice, the spokesman told me that “OPM recommended and the Employee Express user workgroup decided to temporarily discontinue the use of the phone-in help desk and divert all resources to the Employee Express email help desk. The Employee Express help desk can process almost three times the number of email tickets than phone-in help desk tickets, and taking this action has significantly increased the number of users assisted.”

OPM also is temporarily extending the hours of the help desk operation by four hours daily. “Even so, with the significantly increased volume, turnaround response times now range from 24-hours to 72-hours for Employee Express help desk tickets,” the spokesman said.

So now we know OPM is on top of the problem, but not after a week of frustrating employees at a critical time when the agency needs to do be about customer service and the customer experience.

Instead, OPM reverted to its old ways and hoped no one would notice the problems.

The spokesman said federal employees who need assistance accessing their Employee Express account may email EEXHelp@opm.gov from their government email account and include their full name and daytime telephone number. For security reasons they should not include their Social Security Number, or Employee Express Login ID and/or Password when submitting their email.

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