Refugee of the 60s

If you’d like a nice example of a point I’ve repeatedly around here, that the federal government is stuck in the past from a business processes standpoint, this description of the Office of Personnel Management should give you the general idea:

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.

That approach had been obsolete for a decade or more when it was adopted. Yet another example of how the federal government does not handle technology well.

6 comments… add one
  • Cstanley

    With the need so obvious, why does no one think of this for a stimulus project?

  • jan

    Stimulus project? What about attending to our electrical grid! There are so many obsolete layers of bureaucracy, redundancy, and vulnerable infrastructure, but what is the urgency called for in the current WH — global warming, raising the minimum wage, war on women issues etc.

  • Ben Wolf

    It doesn’t want to handle technology well, at least not in certain applications. Notice the House is now trying to do away with technology that enables a person without a team of attorneys to know what regulations are on the books.

    I’d say that’s a major fuck you to small business owners.

  • Ben Wolf
  • Andy


  • Andy

    OPM also handles security clearances and hiring for my department. I’ve noted before that it can take over a year to fill a vacant position from the time it appears on the USAJOBS website to the time a person actually starts working. And, it can take up to six months to get an open positioned advertised.

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