Office of Personnel Management Needs to Improve Transparency of Its Pricing and Seek Cost Savings

February 28, 2012

OPM's reported costs to conduct background investigations increased by almost 79 percent, from about $602 million in fiscal year 2005 to almost $1.1 billion in fiscal ear 2011 (in fiscal year 2011 dollars). However, the extent to which OPM's cost data are reliable is unknown because an audit of OPM's revolving fund, which finances business-type operations, has not been conducted. Independent audits of OPM's overall financial management system, where revolving fund transactions are recorded, identified material weaknesses in internal controls, which could affect the reliability of these cost data. OPM's background investigation program has three principal cost drivers. The first cost driver is investigation fieldwork and support contracts, which represent nearly half of OPM's fiscal year 2011 reported costs— about $532 million. These contracts allow OPM to assign an investigation to a contractor and buy clerical support for case-management. The second cost driver is personnel compensation and benefits for OPM's background investigation federal workforce, which represents about 25 percent of OPM's fiscal year 2011 reported costs—about $265 million. The third cost driver is OPM's information technology investments. While these investments represent less than 10 percent of fiscal year 2011 reported costs, they have increased more than 682 percent over 6 years (in fiscal year 2011 dollars), from about $12 million in fiscal year 2005 to over $91 million in fiscal year 2011. OPM attributed cost increases to more comprehensive subject interviews, increased FBI fees, and compliance with investigation timeliness requirements.

OPM develops prices for background investigations using aggregated operating costs and does not provide customer agencies with transparent information underlying its prices and price increases. Customer agency officials expressed dissatisfaction that OPM does not provide more transparent information about how it derived its prices. According to previous GAO work on the management of revolving funds and user fees, agencies should provide their program information to customer agencies, stakeholders, and Congress, to help ensure transparency of costs. Given the lack of transparency underlying the prices and price increases, some agencies believe they may be overcharged and are looking into alternative means for carrying out their investigations, which could lead to duplication that is contrary to the goals of the governmentwide suitability and personnel security clearance reform effort. OPM has information regarding its aggregated operating costs, including federal personnel costs and information technology investments, that could improve customers' understanding of how OPM determines its prices if shared. 

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