Here, inside the caverns of an old Pennsylvania 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 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.