It’s a bit long, but this recent story in The Washington Post, “Sinkhole of bureaucracy,” is worth a read. The exposé of the federal government’s retirement system processing – conducted by hand with paper files in an old mine – contains all the elements of bureaucratic failure that drive taxpayers mad. If we learn the most from failure, let’s try to learn all we can from this shining example of Dumber Government.
Like many bureaucratic failures, those working on this one had the best of intentions but not the best follow-through. As far back as 1980, the hand-processing of retirement paperwork was deemed impossibly antiquated. The site administrator from that time was shocked to learn from the reporter that, 34 years later, nothing has changed.
Change had been tried. Several attempts were made to automate and digitize the process, but the reasons for those expensive failures could be culled from any number of failed bureaucratic projects: those in charge didn’t have the technical knowledge to evaluate progress until failure was assured, after much expense; integrating data from many different systems was a huge headache; the process they were trying to update was made much more complicated by political choices made from above.
And so, after many failures through several administrations and many millions spent on now-useless code, the process marches on as it has for decades, with paper files mailed to an old mine in Pennsylvania where employees slowly process it through many different hands and into the facility’s ample file cabinets. Post-failure, the bureaucracy gave up and stayed antiquated.
It’s reminiscent of a high-profile local failure, at a cost comparable to this one. King County’s first attempt to combine the separate King County and Metro payroll systems cost $42 million and achieved nothing. $77 million was budgeted for the second attempt. As summarized by the Seattle Times: “A post-mortem study of the failed project found it was run by managers who had virtually no experience implementing a program of that magnitude, some departments didn’t support it and software was customized at a high price.”
Sounds familiar. Bad decisions can lead to expensive failures, but the opposite can be just as costly. The decision to do nothing, or its net-result equivalent, the decision to not make a decision, leads to absurdities like thousands and thousands of government-owned buildings sitting vacant, costing taxpayers money, even though many of the properties are prime redevelopment locations. We can see that at some near-useless federal facilities in our area. Too often, it’s easier for agencies to keep an old building they’re not using than to make a decision to dispense with it.
Sinkhole of bureaucracy
Deep underground, federal employees process paperwork by hand in a long-outdated, inefficient system
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.