Following the Paper Trail of Federal Retirement Processing

Photo of 2019 FERS Retirement FormThe Office of Personnel Management receives over 100,000 federal retirement applications each year. But the time it takes to process these applications can often be delayed. In fact, between 2014 and 2017, OPM didn’t meet its goal of processing most applications within 60 days. Today’s WatchBlog explores some of the reasons why from our recent report.

The retirement application paper trail

OPM manages the federal retirement program, which covers more than 2.4 million active employees. Almost 32% of federal employees who were on board at the end of FY17 would be eligible to retire in the next 5 years.

When employees are ready to retire, they submit retirement applications in paper form to their agency’s human resources office. The process is complete when an individual begins receiving regular monthly benefit payments.

Figure Showing Overview of Federal Retirement Application Process

Over several decades, OPM has attempted to move away from paper-based functions and replace antiquated information systems. However, the agency has experienced numerous challenges and has a history of undertaking modernization projects that didn’t yield the intended outcomes.

Compiling accurate information

Agencies we interviewed use 3 strategies to compile accurate retirement applications: they provide retirement counseling; conduct retirement application training on various topics, like retirement eligibility; and have procedures for compiling applications, such as checklists.

Figure Showing Selected Agencies Use Three Strategies to Compile Accurate Retirement Applications

Nonetheless, OPM officials told us that about 10% of applications are missing information such as a form or signature.

Why the delay?

Between 2014 and 2017, OPM didn’t meet its goal of processing most retirement applications within 60 days. OPM identified 3 main reasons for processing delays and has taken actions for each area.

  1. Continued reliance on paper applications and manual processing contributes to delays. While OPM has developed a strategic vision for modernizing the application process, it was unable to provide estimated time frames or costs.
  2. Insufficient staffing is a problem, particularly during peak season, according to OPM. To address this issue, OPM uses overtime pay and has hired additional staff. However, OPM generally doesn’t assess the effectiveness of these actions or whether they reduce delays.
  3. Incomplete applications also increase processing time. OPM provides assistance to agencies through guidance, communication through liaisons and email, and monthly error reports to agencies which include information on the type of error found and the volume of applications with the same error. However, agency officials we interviewed said that parts of the error report weren’t user-friendly, which may limit its usefulness in improving retirement applications.

Further actions OPM can take

We made 6 recommendations for additional actions OPM can take to improve retirement processing times. For example, OPM should:

  • develop a retirement IT modernization plan for initial project phases
  • develop and implement policies for assessing staffing strategies intended to improve processing times
  • determine if there are cost-effective ways to make the retirement application error report more user-friendly

Read our report to learn more.


  • Questions on the content of this post? Contact Yvonne Jones at jonesy@gao.gov.
  • Comments on GAO’s WatchBlog? Contact blog@gao.gov.
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