Modernize? Oh wait. It didn't happen.
The photo attached to the Washington Post's report on government efficiency tells the sad story. Yes, those are rows and rows of five-drawer file cabinets. No, the system is not computerized. Yes, the work is done underground in an abandoned Pennsylvania mine by scurrying humans.
They seem to have laptops on their desks but those laptops are, so far, almost superfluous.
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 W. Morrison Jr., 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,’ ” he said. ...WaPo
Those who blamed Obama for the glitch during the initial rollout of the Affordable Care Act could well be the same complainers who withhold money for modernizing ancient government systems. Purposefully neglectful members of Congress are not the only ones who allow this: we all need to get our heads straight and recognize the lunacy of relying on costly old systems.
Meanwhile, as the Post report points out, government employees go to work in a old mine in the morning when it's still dark and emerge when it's getting dark in the evening. Working there is claustrophic and it's grim. The system tends to be inflexible, and -- with computers used only at endpoint -- and a single case can take weeks to work through.
The nightmare cases are the “reemployed annuitants.” A government worker retires. Then un-retires. Then gets another job with the government. Then retires again.
The law allows that. But it is a heck of a mess to deal with.
“I’m working on one, and it’s going on three weeks,” said an employee sitting near McCandless.
When all the data are entered into the computer, it is onto Step 5. Another employee reviews the case to be sure the data were entered correctly. Then, at last, the case is “triggered.” The retiree gets the full check.
That process now takes, on average, at least 61 days. That’s the same amount of time it took in 1977, according to a federal audit from that time. Many state retirement systems, which also handle large loads of employees, do it much faster. Florida takes 47 days. The California teachers’ retirement system takes 23. Texas takes two. ...WaPo
Infrastructure! Infrastructure! But hey, we'd rather continue those tax breaks for our overseas corporations than spend money on the basic health of our government, our budget, and our people, right?
Inside the mine, officials said they were gradually increasing the number of records that are stored digitally. Eventually, they said, the entire operation would run on computers. They had faith in the government’s ability to eliminate this breaking point.
“There’s a rover on Mars, mister,” one OPM official said. ...WaPo