Somewhere in the Pennsylvania countryside, the US government operates a vast underground facility.
600 federal employees toil away 230 feet beneath the surface. In the winter they arrive “in the dark and leave in the dark,” never seeing the sun. These are not miners (though the facility used to be a mine); nor are there any state secrets involved.
But deep below ground, something is being carefully stored away – employee records, millions of them. Every year, approximately one hundred thousand US government employees retire and their pensions are administered from the subterranean processing centre.
There’s a very good reason why they’ve used a disused mine. As David Fahrenthold explains in the Washington Post, they need the room for all the filing cabinets:
“[The] 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.”
One might ask why, in the 21st century, it isn’t all done on computer. In fact, that’s something that occured to the administrators back in the 1980s:
‘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.’”
Three failed attempts and a lot of money later, they gave up – and simply hired more people instead:
“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…
“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…
“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.”
It now takes as long for the US government to process a retirement as it did in 1977 – 61 days:
“Many state retirement systems, which also handle large loads of employees, do it much faster. Florida takes 47 days. The California teachers’ retirement system takes 23. Texas takes two.”
This is further evidence that however inefficient local bureaucracies might be, central bureaucracies are usually worse. Here in Britain, it’s worth noting that while local government has massively reduced its headcount in the face of austerity, Whitehall is lagging behind.
One also recalls that before the Big Society, David Cameron’s big idea was the ‘Post-Bureaucratic Age’, which he said was dawning:
“We’re living in an age where technology can put information that was previously held by a few into the hands of almost everyone. So the argument that has applied for well over a century – that in every area of life we need people at the centre to make sense of the world for us and make decisions on our behalf – simply falls down.”
America may have a literal paperwork mine, but Britain has many metaphorical equivalents – in Whitehall, the NHS, the BBC and many other places besides. The continued existence of such grotesque inefficiency is sad testament to the fact that the Bureaucratic Age is still very much with us.