NU Online News Service, March 21, 12:35 p.m. – The Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration could do a better job of keeping employers from mismanaging health plans, 401(k) plans and other employee benefit plans, according to a recent agency review by the General Accounting Office.

The PWBA is responsible for overseeing enforcement of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.

The agency has has strengthened what is, overall, a well-run program by putting the majority of its resources in enforcement, decentralizing investigative authority, and upgrading its computers, Barbara Bovbjerg, a GAO director, writes in a report summarizing the review team’s findings.

“However,” Bovbjerg adds, “we found that PWBA currently provides limited national oversight and coordination in key areas.”

The GAO has identified weaknesses in the areas of strategic planning, management of “human capital,” performance measurement, and fostering of cooperation.

Some of the specific findings:

  • Planning. The GAO says the PWBA should do more to estimate the nature and extent of plans’ noncompliance with ERISA for planning purposes, and maintain a centralized review process to help ensure that investigations are meet internal quality standards.
  • Human capital management. The GAO says the PWBA has given limited attention to succession planning and workforce retention. Moreover, the GAO adds, the performance appraisal system for investigative staff might actually undermine the selection of cases and the quality of investigations.
  • Performance evaluations. Today, the GAO says, PWBA performance measures focus primarily on program outputs rather than on the agency’s overall effect.
  • Cooperation. The PWBA culture now keeps investigators from sharing ideas about ways to select and investigate cases, the GAO says. Managers and staff members in one regional office told the GAO that such information is considered “proprietary,” and that it belongs to the investigator who developed it.

The GAO is also recommending that the PWBA conduct regular reviews of the sources of cases that lead to investigations; help investigators share ideas about “best practices” for selecting and conducting investigations; and develop a closed-case quality review process that focuses on substantive technical case issues.