Sinkhole of bureaucracy
In 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 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.
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 Obama’s chief technology officer.
Gives a whole new meaning to “data mining”.
On the other hand not all the government’s efforts to join the 21st century are that great either. A few years ago I was out of work for several months after a hospitalisation and my private disability required that I apply for Social Security disability – well and good. But, the SS Admin. trying to streamline had me send all my paperwork to Kentucky where it would be scanned and sent to my local office. This led to repeated calls form the local office that they had not received a completed Form ZX-123 and if they didn’t get it by yesterday I’d be disqualified.