In a digital age, where paper remains king

In an old limestone mine in Boyers, Pa., the Office of Personnel Management processes checks for retirees — without using computers.

Washington Post

In an old limestone mine in Boyers, Pa., the Office of Personnel Management processes checks for retirees — without using computers.

BOYERS, Pa. — The trucks full of paperwork come every day, turning off a country road north of Pittsburgh and descending through a gateway into the earth. Underground, they stop at a metal door decorated with an American flag.

Behind the door, a room opens up as big as a supermarket, full of five-drawer file cabinets and people in business casual. About 230 feet below the surface, there is easy-listening music playing at somebody's desk.

This is one of the weirdest workplaces in the U.S. government — both for where it is and for what it does.

Here, 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.

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.

This odd place is an example of how hard it is to get a time-wasting bug out of a big bureaucratic system. Held up by all that paper, work in the mine runs as slowly now as it did in 1977.

"The need for automation was clear — in 1981," said James Morrison, who oversaw the retirement-processing system under President Ronald Reagan. In a telephone interview this year, Morrison recalled his horror upon learning that the system was all run on paper: "After a year, I thought, 'God, my reputation will be ruined if we don't fix this.' "

Morrison was told the system still relies on paper files.

"Wow," he said.

The existence of a mine full of federal paperwork is not well known: Even within the federal workforce, it is often treated as an urban legend, mythic and half-believed. "That crazy cave," said Aneesh Chopra, who served as President Barack Obama's chief technology officer.

But the mine is real, and the process inside it belongs to a stubborn class of government problem: old breaking points, built-in mistakes that require vital bureaucracies to waste money and busy workers to waste time.

In some cases, the breaking point is caused by a vague or overcomplicated law.

In New Jersey, for instance, one researcher found that the approval process for a bridge project dragged on for years in part because officials were required to do a historic survey of all buildings within 2 miles and to seek comment from Indian tribes as far away as Oklahoma.

In other places, what breaks is the government's technology.

The rollout of healthcare.gov, of course, was ruined by glitches in the website, but there are other examples: The Census Bureau had a failed experiment with hand-held computers, then reverted to paper, which cost up to $3 billion extra. The Department of Veterans Affairs had trouble with an online records system and, while they struggled with it, accumulated so much paperwork in one office that auditors feared the floor might collapse.

Obama took office with the hope that these hangups could be separated from Washington's endless wars over the size of government. In theory, these are problems everybody wants to fix.

"The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works," Obama said in his first inaugural address.

In many places, however, these federal systems still don't work well. Some of the explanation can be found here, in this baroque underground bureaucracy.

Over 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.

So now the mine continues to run at the speed of human fingers and feet. That failure imposes costs on federal retirees, who have to wait months for their full benefit checks. And it has imposed costs on the taxpayer: The Obama administration has now made the mine run faster, but mainly by paying for more fingers and feet.

The staff working in the mine has increased by at least 200 people in the past five years. And the cost of processing each claim has increased from $82 to $108, as total spending on the retirement system reached $55.8 million.

In a statement issued Saturday, Office of Personnel Management director Katherine Archuleta said: "I do not believe that the current level of service is acceptable." She added that modernizing the system is a priority for her.

In an interview inside the mine this month, another federal official called the operation very successful. But that official balked when asked if it was modern.

In a digital age, where paper remains king 03/23/14 [Last modified: Sunday, March 23, 2014 9:18pm]

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