Many Americans were shocked by the colossal failure of HealthCare.gov, a site plagued by glitches and dead-ends until expensive, agonizingly slow-moving rescue operations were undertaken. Technological progress continues to accelerate, and the digitization of American life continues apace. Yet the United States government, which patrols the skies of the Hindu Kush by remote control and explores the wilds of outer space, could not effectively operate a web platform for top-priority policy. Americans are increasingly tech savvy folks, and even those who lag behind are being forced to catch up (e.g. the federal mandate regarding electronic medical records). The HealthCare.gov debacle could be seen as an isolated incident, but far more likely is an explanation that points to systemic ineptitude and mind-numbing bureaucracy within the federal government.
Case in point: 600 employees of the Federal Office of Personnel Management work every day in an abandoned limestone mine processing the retirement protocols for thousands of the government’s own employees. Here’s the kicker: they do it all by hand. The U.S. government cannot process its own employees’ retirement documents without shipping them to Pennsylvania where an underground platoon manages tens of thousands of filing cabinets. David Fahrenthold of the Washington Post investigated this massive site, and his findings indicate a bureaucratic nightmare of epic proportions. James W. Morrison, Reagan’s choice to head the OPM, saw that “the need for automation was clear — in 1981.” But the process persisted, as employees demonstrated that paper files remained the lifeblood of the retirement processing system. Retirement documents are shipped to the subterranean behemoth in Boyers, Pennsylvania, where workers (whose shifts prevent them from ever viewing sunlight, in a particularly unsettling twist) cross-check the requests with existing files. Workers spend weeks, even months, hunting down missing pieces of information over the phone with other agencies. The backlog of retirement cases, which must be processed before pensions can be authorized, consists of some 23,500 cases. Today’s average case is processed in 61 days. In 1977, the average case took 60 days.
It’s astounding, really, that anything is accomplished in Washington. Government is profoundly un-innovative, as the 28,000 file cabinets housed 230 feet below ground in Boyers attest. Sure, this is a shocking example, but it’s indicative of the government’s fundamental inability to keep up with the times. Perhaps those young people who so love big government should take note of the less attractive side of federal largesse.
THE EDITORS: The federal government also uses floppy disks.
—John Henry Thompson is a junior studying political science and economics
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