March 27, 2014
Your Government at Work
Sinkhole of bureaucracy
Deep underground, federal employees process paperwork by hand in a long-outdated, inefficient system. Inside the caverns of an old Pennsylvania limestone mine, there are 600 employees of the Office of Personnel Management. Their task is nothing top-secret. It is to process the retirement papers of the government’s own workers.
Posted by Jill Fallon at March 27, 2014 9:14 AM
But that system has a spectacular flaw. It still must be done entirely by hand, and almost entirely on paper. The employees here pass thousands of case files from cavern to cavern and then key in retirees’ personal data, one line at a time. They work underground not for secrecy but for space. The old mine’s tunnels have room for more than 28,000 file cabinets of paper records.
During the past 30 years, administrations have spent more than $100 million trying to automate the old-fashioned process in the mine and make it run at the speed of computers. They couldn’t.
The task takes so much time in part because Congress has made the federal retirement rules extremely complex. The center’s workers must verify and key in information that answers a huge range of questions: What were the retiree’s three years of highest salary? Was the retiree a firefighter? A military veteran? A cafeteria worker at the U.S. Capitol? What about part-time service?
All those answers can change the final pension payment. “One hundred years of bad laws,” McCandless said.
A recent study by the Standish Group, a firm in Boston that researches failures, found that only 5 percent of large federal IT projects in the last decade fully succeeded. Of the rest, 41 percent were failures, canceled before they were turned on.