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The Office of Personnel Management: Processing Paperwork at the Same Rate as the 1970s



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On Sunday, the Washington Post’s David A. Fahrenthold had an incredible reported piece about the way the government deals with paperwork in the 21st century. The answer: the same way it did in the 1970s, by hand and entirely with paper. The process for processing a retiring federal employee’s pension paperwork takes as long on average — about two months — as it did 40 years ago, too. He writes:

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.

Adding to the bizarreness of the whole thing is the fact that the place is an actual mine and the filing cabinets are stored in caverns. It’s worth reading the piece for the description of the place alone.

The process itself:

Step 1 begins when a federal employee submits retirement paperwork to his or her own agency. That happens at least 100,000 times a year. Within a few days, the government starts sending “interim payments” to the retirees — checks worth about 80 percent of their full pensions. This is meant to tide them over while the mine works on the case.

Then, the paper begins to move. The retiree’s agency assembles a paper file of personnel records and ships it off at rush speed. …

For workers inside the mine, Step 2 in the paperwork process is to take the retiree’s newly arrived file and match it up with any records already stored in the mine. . . .

In most cases, however, Step 2 can be completed without a walk. The retiree’s files have been scanned into a digital archive and can be looked up on a computer.

But there’s a problem: All the information must go in the retiree’s manila folder.

And you can’t put a computer file in a manila folder.

In most cases, however, Step 2 can be completed without a walk. The retiree’s files have been scanned into a digital archive and can be looked up on a computer. …

Now, Step 3: The file moves around the corner to an adjacent cavern. The workers there have a vital but frustrating job. They must call, e-mail, fax, badger and harass workers in other federal agencies to find paperwork that has been left out of the file.

But there’s a problem: All the information must go in the retiree’s manila folder.

And you can’t put a computer file in a manila folder. …

Finally, when all the file’s missing papers are found, the file moves on to a new set of workers in a new set of caverns.

This is Step 4.

Now that all the retiree’s digital data have been turned into paperwork, these workers turn that paperwork into digital data again. They type all the pertinent information into a computer, by hand….

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.

The whole process takes an average of 61 days, which is exactly what it took in 1977. It’s sped up slightly not because of modernization but because President Obama has added “fingers and feet,” as Fahrenthold notes. In the last five years, the number of employers working in the mines increased by 200, driving up the cost of the process from $82 a claim to $108. The whole pension system now costs $55.8 million a year to administer.

While that total number may not make this outdated process the mother of all wastes, it certainly is a good illustration of the gap between how things are done in government and in the private sector. Consider the mini and not-so-mini IT fiascoes that have taken place over the years when agencies have actually tried to modernize their operations. The result is often something that looks similar to our recent experience with the launch of Obamacare’s HealthCare.gov. Here is an infuriating data point:

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. The reasons often echoed the problems in the mine: Federal officials either tried to buy a technology they didn’t fully understand because they lacked the technical skill, or they didn’t test what they were getting until it was too late.

In other words, the government can’t do IT projects right, and the predictable result is that taxpayers end up spending millions just to be left with the outdated systems they had in the beginning.

The whole thing is here. I recently wrote about the underlying reasons why government often fails to deliver on what it undertakes – you can find my paper here



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