The Spectacle Blog

The Federal Government Runs a Paperwork Mine

By on 3.24.14 | 6:56PM

The Washington Post reports that retirement paperwork for federal employes is still processed by hand — in an abandoned mine 230 feet below the surface of the earth:

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. […]

During 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.

Yes, yes, let's please put the federal government in charge of American health care. Single payer: What could go wrong?

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