Government paperwork, stuck in time

By David A. Fahrenthold The Washington Post Published Mar 24, 2014 at 12:01AM

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 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 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 Morrison, 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.’”

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.

But the mine is real, and the process inside it belongs to a stubborn class of government problem: old breaking points, built-in mistakes that require vital bureaucracies to waste money and busy workers to waste time.

Over 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.

So now the mine continues to run at the speed of human fingers and feet. That failure imposes costs on federal retirees, who have to wait months for their full benefit checks. And it has imposed costs on the taxpayer: The Obama administration has now made the mine run faster, but mainly by paying for more fingers and feet.

The staff working in the mine has increased by at least 200 people in the past five years. And the cost of processing each claim has increased from $82 to $108, as total spending on the retirement system reached $55.8 million.

How the mine works

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.

Most agencies send these files using FedEx, and their packages arrive the next day. The Postal Service, however, ships its own retirees’ paperwork by U.S. mail.

Its packages arrive in two days, officials in the mine said.

Nearly all of those packages come here — over the winding roads, into the tunnel and through the door with the American flag.

“You don’t forget that it’s a cave,” said Ashley Weber, a former temp who worked on the mine’s incoming files. “But they try to make it look as not-cave-like as you can.”

But why is it in a cave at all?

The answer to that question is that, back in 1958, the U.S. government was in the market for storage space. It needed 30,000 square feet to hold personnel files that were being relocated from a building in Washington. Officials looked at buildings in Richmond, Va., and Syracuse, N.Y., before choosing this place, an underground complex where 1,000 workers had once cut limestone to feed the steel mills.

A private company had turned the place into an enormous safe-deposit box: safe from the weather and the Soviets, kept naturally cool as a cave. Today, the complex is owned by the company Iron Mountain, which leases out other caverns to store old Hollywood movie reels and photo archives.

The government moved its old records here in 1960. At first, it was just a file room. Records were shipped to Washington for processing. But over time, the government began to hire more people to work in the mine itself.