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Why US Gov't Retirement Involves a Hole in the Ground Near Pittsburgh

timothy posted about 7 months ago | from the it's-just-that-simple dept.

Government 142

Increasing automation worries some people as a danger to the livelihood of those who currently earn their livings at jobs that AI and robots (or just smarter software and more sophisticated technology generally) might be well-suited to, as the costs of the technology options drop. The Washington Post, though, features an eye-opening look at one workplace where automation certainly does not rule. It's "one of the weirdest workplaces in the U.S. government" — a subterranean office space in what was once a limestone mine, where 600 Office of Personnel Management employees process the retirement papers of other government employees. The Post article describes how this mostly-manual process works (and why it hasn't been changed much to take advantage of advancing technology), including with a video that might remind you of Terry Gilliam's Brazil. As the writer puts it, "[T]hat 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."

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We need communism (0)

For a Free Internet (1594621) | about 7 months ago | (#46560239)

Workers soviet government will clean out this mess.

This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (1)

tloh (451585) | about 7 months ago | (#46560265)

Of course! I know where I've seen this before.

"The X-Files" Season 3 Episode 2 "Paper Clip" /* insert witty comment about government secrecy and overreach */

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (2)

rmdingler (1955220) | about 7 months ago | (#46560413)

... insert witty comment about government secrecy and overreach */

Government secrecy and overreach aside, I'm not certain the power of technology is ready to challenged an entrenched army of bureaucrats.

Long after every assembly line job is automated, government functions will still be as efficient as they were in the fifties.

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (1)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | about 7 months ago | (#46560579)

Have you been asleep for the whole 'NSA' thing? I'm not heartened by this; but if that isn't efficiency, I'm not sure what efficiency looks like...

Re: This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (2)

peragrin (659227) | about 7 months ago | (#46560755)

The NSA is the exception. Still snowden proves the NSA relies on 50's era trust for documents. Why wasn't secure connections established for Hawaii? How many other sites does the NSA allow full access to their documents.

Also the NSA fired 90% of their Admins shortly afterwards. If they were that overstaffed what else is their bureaucracy screwing up?

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (5, Insightful)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about 7 months ago | (#46560893)

if that isn't efficiency, I'm not sure what efficiency looks like...

The NSA may be efficient at amassing lots of data. But I doubt if that is an efficient way to achieve their real mission of identifying useful intelligence. They are efficient at creating haystacks, but that doesn't mean they are finding many needles.

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (1)

mozumder (178398) | about 7 months ago | (#46561531)

The NSA may be efficient at amassing lots of data. But I doubt if that is an efficient way to achieve their real mission of identifying useful intelligence. They are efficient at creating haystacks, but that doesn't mean they are finding many needles.

Since you're speculating, it's just as useful to say that the NSA has the ability to find exactly what they need from vast quantities of data.

Look! I can make up shit too!

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (2)

NettiWelho (1147351) | about 7 months ago | (#46561559)

The NSA may be efficient at amassing lots of data. But I doubt if that is an efficient way to achieve their real mission of identifying useful intelligence. They are efficient at creating haystacks, but that doesn't mean they are finding many needles.

But is NSA's job really to 'idenfity useful intelligence' or create the databanks ready for when they do actually find a needle throught other means, that all they have to do is write the needles name into the search box and they get a list of needles friends and relatives and all juicy little dirty secrets as well, unabridged, in-detail history of you and your relations?

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (2)

Sique (173459) | about 7 months ago | (#46561799)

Then the NSA does a hell of a non-job. It wasn't able to find the nadle named "Tsarnaev brothers", though there were warnings about them. Same with "Abdulmutallab", which seems to have turned up nothing despite even his own father was warning about him.

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46562053)

I would guess their job is spending as much taxpayer's cash as possible on contractors, hardware from preferred vendors, and so on. This involves keeping tabs on the various members of Congress who have their grubby hands on the money faucet.

And as a sort of afterthought, if there are no foreign tradesecrets to steal and pass on to same private sector, I suppose some of them might be trying to find needles in all that data. You know, when it is expedient and doesn't get in the way of its core activities, in order to be able to claim "we tried" when shit does hit the fan.

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (2)

Jim Sadler (3430529) | about 7 months ago | (#46561697)

I believe that law enforcement catches as many criminals as it can afford to catch. There are probably millions of Americans who could feel a hand on their shoulder at any moment but the simple truth is catching a criminal creates a huge expense in many cases. It is rather like an IRS auditor who can easily catch far more cheaters than the system could ever hope to deal with. It is also part of the reason that arrests are sometimes seen as racial in nature. If you were running a cop shop and knew that one segment of the public could afford good lawyers while another segment almost had to plea bargain due to lack of funds from a tax payer perspective you simply don't want to arrest those with enough money to fight back. Racial issues and money issues are welded together and it is only when a society is willing to hurt itself economically that the cops can go after well heeled citizens.

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (3)

oji-sama (1151023) | about 7 months ago | (#46562231)

I believe that law enforcement catches as many criminals as it can afford to catch. There are probably millions of Americans who could feel a hand on their shoulder at any moment but the simple truth is catching a criminal creates a huge expense in many cases.

Considering the prison population in the USA in comparison to many other countries, the American law enforcement would seem to be rather well funded.

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (1)

rmdingler (1955220) | about 7 months ago | (#46562447)

I believe that law enforcement catches as many criminals as it can afford to catch. There are probably millions of Americans who could feel a hand on their shoulder at any moment but the simple truth is catching a criminal creates a huge expense in many cases. It is rather like an IRS auditor who can easily catch far more cheaters than the system could ever hope to deal with.

Yes. There's simply not enough manpower to corral all the tax dodgers, but enough of them are audited and prosecuted to create a general deterrent.

It is also part of the reason that arrests are sometimes seen as racial in nature. If you were running a cop shop and knew that one segment of the public could afford good lawyers while another segment almost had to plea bargain due to lack of funds from a tax payer perspective you simply don't want to arrest those with enough money to fight back. Racial issues and money issues are welded together and it is only when a society is willing to hurt itself economically that the cops can go after well heeled citizens.

Your theory on arresting folks based on their socioeconomic standing runs counter to my experience. Don't forget the police are but a small part of the legal system, and from there it goes jailers, bondsmen, lawyers, judges.... arresting merely the have-nots will not provide that greenish grease the system requires.

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46562181)

"But I doubt if that is an efficient way to achieve their real mission of identifying useful intelligence."

You're under the false understanding that there mission is just intelligence. The NSA is basically the arm of the rich to do their dirty work, I wouldn't put it past them that they are trying to gather data to perfect propaganda techniques to re-shape society.

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (1)

darrylo (97569) | about 7 months ago | (#46560827)

No, this is the cover story for the Umbrella Corporation's Hive ....

Re:This is a glitch in the Matrix...... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46560899)

Brazil pre-dates The X-Files by quite a bit

This is NOT a glitch in the Matrix...... (1)

Errol backfiring (1280012) | about 7 months ago | (#46562297)

It is merely a branch of L-space. If you encounter an ape, please pass him my greetings and give him a banana.

Mutants (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46560279)

Mutants living below New New York? That is New Pittsburgh...

Re:Mutants (4, Funny)

nitehawk214 (222219) | about 7 months ago | (#46560383)

Mutants living below New New York? That is New Pittsburgh...

Actually that is the regular Pittsburgh. We call them "yinzers".

Re:Mutants (2)

TimMD909 (260285) | about 7 months ago | (#46561939)

Their pontifications about the Steelers make it an amusing town to live in 'n'at. Yinz don't even know...

process the retirement papers (-1, Flamebait)

grep -v '.*' * (780312) | about 7 months ago | (#46560281)

600 ... employees process the retirement papers of other government employees

Politicians are OUR employees (even though they instead might think they're gods.) Instead of storing their retirement papers, I suggest that we store THEM. All of that hot air could be used for geothermal, too.

After all, you never know when you might need an extra politician, and I'd sure hate to run out of them.

Not surprising (3, Insightful)

Megahard (1053072) | about 7 months ago | (#46560333)

My wife worked 30+ years for two different government agencies. Getting OPM to figure out her pension correctly was a nightmare.

Cue The Jokes... (1)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about 7 months ago | (#46560347)

... about asses and holes in the ground.

Re:Cue The Jokes... (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46560387)

... about asses and holes in the ground.

Isn't a "Hole in the Ground Near Pittsburgh" that is full of government employees funny enough without resorting to rectal humor?

Re:Cue The Jokes... (3, Funny)

Jane Q. Public (1010737) | about 7 months ago | (#46560429)

"Isn't a "Hole in the Ground Near Pittsburgh" that is full of government employees funny enough without resorting to rectal humor?"

To be honest, I thought they fit together rather well.

walmart meat burgers (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46562135)

your eating ass boys.....

Awesome cover story (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46560351)

Awesome cover story

Re:Awesome cover story (1)

Provocateur (133110) | about 7 months ago | (#46561029)

I agree; I couldn't let go of the paper (also ran on Washington Post); somewhere out there is my dream job! Bringing in a chromebook would mean you are from the surface and if I brought in bottled water it would be a crime--just kidding!

Makes perfect sense (5, Interesting)

Dan East (318230) | about 7 months ago | (#46560369)

This makes perfect sense. Who are people eligible for retiring? People who have worked for the government longer than 30 years (lesser time depending on age). Thus a lot of the records having to deal with these employees are on paper, because that was what was in use when they were hired.

So there are two options - spend a ton of money all at once and digitize everything, or simply process the old paper records only as needed when those long-term employees retire. The first option is very inefficient because a significant number of the records will not be needed by the Office of Personnel Management for individuals who have died or no longer work for the government.

As time goes on, more and more people retiring will have all digital records, and eventually the whole paper thing can go away. As the article quickly glosses over, only 15% of the cases require referencing the old paper records actually stored in the mine. And that number will constantly be dropping as those older employees retire.

So the current method is more cost effective and will naturally "go away" on its own after another decade or so.

Re:Makes perfect sense (-1, Troll)

Charliemopps (1157495) | about 7 months ago | (#46560423)

Um, you have no idea how the government works do you? This agency has absolutely no reason to change. So they wont. This has been, and always will be the problem with government run institutions. The money still comes in weather you do it right or not. In fact, if you do it wrong, they might hire more people and promote you to manager.

Re:Makes perfect sense (2, Insightful)

pseudofrog (570061) | about 7 months ago | (#46560483)

Did you even read what he said? Or did you just seize up with anger when you read the word "government"?

I mean, he gave a thoughtful comment pointing out that this system is probably the cheapest way of dealing with the move to digital records. Why did you then respond with "Herp derp! Government sucks!"

You libertarians don't seem to even care if your rants are on topic these days.

Re: Makes perfect sense (-1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46560583)

He comments aré thoughtfull but history tell us goverment do not change and aré not efficent.

Re: Makes perfect sense (1)

luis_a_espinal (1810296) | about 7 months ago | (#46560779)

He comments aré thoughtfull but history tell us goverment do not change and aré not efficent.

Should I bring a couple of counter-examples from, you know, history to counter that claim (the one I made in bold)?

Re: Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46562241)

It would take a revolution, or people disliking the way things are for change .

Re:Makes perfect sense (2)

InvalidError (771317) | about 7 months ago | (#46560815)

The point he was probably trying to make is that if the government wanted to make things more efficient, they should have converted most of those 30 years of paper backlog to digital form since they probably have to do that to make things fit with current administrative systems anyway.

Doing as-needed data entry spares the trouble of converting documents before they are necessary but has more overhead for hunting down files on a case-by-case basis while bulk data entry spares the trouble of hunting down individual files at the expense of filing some data that might never get called up for. Bulk entry done right would also have the benefit of automated cross-checking to highlight discrepancies and potentially dead files.

In other words, if the government wanted to be efficient about it, they would re-file data electronically for their primary working set and keep paper records for backup/reference purposes in case someone disputes electronic records instead of relying on paper records as their primary source.

Re:Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46560887)

One might argue that the cost of maintaining all those records "forever" might dwarf the cost to digitize them all once. How will we know when we no longer need those records? Do we just hang onto them until 90+ years past when all of the records started being kept digitally so we make sure we don't toss 110 year old Joe Bloes paperwork because he started the day before the records went digital?

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46561189)

Seriously, this get tired fast, especially when the rants these crazies make are made from ignorance.

At least with the DoD, I started with all paper records (SF86's ,etc.) and a year or so ago they switched to electronic SF86's. So they are doing exactly what what was said above and the idiot who responded to it doesn't get. Government is slow and inscrutable sometimes, but with respect to retirement records things are improving.

Re:Makes perfect sense (2)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | about 7 months ago | (#46561715)

Remember back before January 20, 2009? When the government was automatically bad because Bu$hitler was in charge? Yup, everyone spun on their heels and suddenly the government was a force for good and anyone who opposed it was doubleplusungood. We have always been at war with Eurasia, we have always been allied with Eastasia.

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

Megol (3135005) | about 7 months ago | (#46562375)

No. No actually I don't remember that.

But then I actually understand that "government" includes also the bureaucrats that actually does what the elected leaders decide. And that everything doesn't flip because a figurehead changes.

Re:Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46561819)

"Government sucks!"

You libertarians don't seem to even care if your rants are on topic these days.

All my conservative friends use "Government sucks" as support for deregulation and cutting public services. You think they are libertarians?

Re:Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46562725)

Sounds like textbook libertarian stuff, so yes?

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

MacTO (1161105) | about 7 months ago | (#46560569)

Government run institutions are among the last to change, except when they are among the first to change. The thing is that there are a lot of government institutions out there. Some of them have a lot of motivation to institute change, because the scale of the problem is so large that traditional methods won't work. Some of them have a lot of motivation to avoid change, because the amount of effort required to institute change exceeds the returns. So you are in a sense right: there are cases where there is no reason to change. Yet you are also wrong: it is a feature (i.e. they aren't changing in order to control costs) rather than a problem.

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

plopez (54068) | about 7 months ago | (#46560699)

Ummmm... nope. They work as they do primarily due to acts of Congress. They are mandated to process the records and if they want to change they need to get money from Congress and any enabling legislation which may be needed. Which may or may not be "pro forma" depending on who has their snout in the public trough and which comittee(s) have oversight.

Re:Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46560931)

Yes, you're the only person in the world who hates government and believes that they're profligate spenders. Everybody just loves throwing their tax dollars at boondoggles. Ergo, in a democracy, with such an idiotic citizenry, it makes sense that government would be feckless and wasteful.

Except, almost everybody thinks like you. They elect politicians who think like you. And government is nowhere near as wasteful as people believe it is, especially when you compare it to how most companies are managed. Are you going to tell me that your work place is a wonderland of efficiency and thrift?

You wanna know where money actually gets systematically wasted? The military. Why? Because the gung-ho nut jobs want bigger guns more than they want lower taxation. That's democracy at work.

Re:Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46561291)

Arguing that the military is an example of inefficient government is idiotic. When it comes to their primary mission, breaking people and things, I'd argue that the US military is second to none. Most of the useless shit the military does can be traced back to 535 self-serving assholes, most of whom have only ever seen the business end of a weapon on TV.

Re: Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46561335)

The core operations of our military are highly efficient. It's what makes us so formidable, more so than our technology.

But Congress is obsessed with blowing money on new gadgets. That's where the money is wasted. Anything "security" related is a money pit.

Re:Makes perfect sense (2)

jimbolauski (882977) | about 7 months ago | (#46562533)

If you cared to RTFA you would know that there were two failed attempts to digitize the records one in 1987 that was canceled in 1996 and the second in 1997 which had a delivery date of 2008 that was scrapped because it didn't work. The first attempt failed because of lack of technical oversight as an English lit PHD was in charge of the oversight. Both programs had issues processing the vast array of documents with slight variations to them. Large government IT projects have a history of failing miserably, Obama care is the most recent, a research group found only 5% of these large projects succeed. I imagine the scope of the project is not clearly defined due to lack of technical expertise when writing the requirements, the technical oversight is lacking, and the magnitude of the project is underestimated in most of these cases. Anybody that has experience managing these large projects is not going to take a huge pay cut, move to Pittsburgh, and work in a cave. It's not lack of desire that these projects fail it's lack of expertise to get these projects to succeed.

Re:Makes perfect sense (3, Interesting)

guruevi (827432) | about 7 months ago | (#46560519)

Not necessarily. I know at least one institution where day-to-day purchase orders have to be submitted in writing, signed off by two or three people, in triplicate, sent by inter-office mail, typed up into a minicomputer, printed out (using a daily batch print job), sent back by inter-office mail for verification, sent back again by inter-office mail with confirmation after which they'll create a purchase order send it back by inter-office mail after which you can send it to the vendor. Then once you got the product, the vendor sends an invoice where it has to be processed again in the minicomputer, printed out, sent out for verification, sent back with confirmation after which they'll write a check, send it back to you for sending to the vendor. Then once the vendor cashes the check, there is a final verification sent out and sent back.

Oh and none of these processes are connected with a database. If you send them anything at any step, you have to include the entire purchase order because they won't know what you actually ordered when you simply say Purchase Order Request 135595. This process is supposed to take 2 weeks however they currently have a 3 week backlog.

Replacing the system hasn't been done because (back in the day) they decided to go with a closed source solution and all that data is forever locked in a binary system. They're attempting to replace it with a closed source cloud-based system from an Australian vendor (this is in the US) which will take 2 years and 7 Aussie developers on-site (at ~$250/h each + room and board) just to implement the business processes, data extraction is done by another vendor to the tune of ~$1M. Your tax dollars at work!

Re:Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46561203)

a fellow employee!
i'm in cubicle 14G, where are you?

I'm here all week... (2)

Hognoxious (631665) | about 7 months ago | (#46562517)

Wow. What was it like before you implemented SAP?

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

fermion (181285) | about 7 months ago | (#46560571)

Someone who started work in 1985 at age 30 would be able to retire now. They would have to wait for social security and medicare, but retirement would be not only possible, but encouraged as the US tries to reduce the overcapacity built up during that time, overcapacity generated by the lack of the highest administration to understand effectiveness that would be generated by the maturing technology of the time.

Computers had been in use for over 30 years at that time by the US governement. By the 80's computers were in wide use for many purposes. I would suggest that many records are in computers, but one issue we have seen is that the government has not be able to get the computers to work together.

Re:Makes perfect sense (2)

plopez (54068) | about 7 months ago | (#46560733)

I was working for a uni. on a mainframe system doing maintenance programming. One of my co-workers had the job of getting old records off of 7 track tape and migrating them onto an IBM OS380/MVS system in EBCIDIC. It took her 6 months to figure it all out.

Re:Makes perfect sense (2)

dbIII (701233) | about 7 months ago | (#46560837)

Meanwhile in geophysics we just send the old stuff on reels to people that transcribe tapes like that onto new media nearly every month. However some current geophysical standards still have EBCDIC file headers and a lot of current software can read the old stuff, so that's probably only replacing the easiest bit of the above process.
Vim can be used to edit EBCDIC and "dd" can convert it to ASCII.

What is hard is getting stuff from low contrast scans of dot matrix printouts, or even from the original printouts if they have faded a lot. Reels of tape hold up better than some uses of paper.

Re:Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46562745)

Ah, the joy of SEG-Y headers. Frankly I'm just glad I've had to deal with SEG-D less and less, these days...

Re:Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46560761)

A lot of people would prefer they didn't talk amongst the departments. If your info is wrong in one of them, you're not as screwed as if its wrong in the one place where it matters to all. And with government, it always seems that something is screwed up due to the sheer volume of information.

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

hink (89192) | about 7 months ago | (#46562743)

... Computers had been in use for over 30 years at that time by the US governement. By the 80's computers were in wide use for many purposes. I would suggest that many records are in computers, but one issue we have seen is that the government has not be able to get the computers to work together.

Getting the wildly heterogeneous systems to talk together is the major sticking point. I have been REQUIRED to enter duplicate information into multiple database systems during the over 20 years I have worked in the federal government. The worst offender for this duplication is systems that track "mandatory" training requirements. A major cause of the smokestacks is that the people who pay for a system do not want to pay money so that "other groups" can use the data. Another driver is the mindset that not providing an interface makes for better security.

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

plopez (54068) | about 7 months ago | (#46560767)

Better a gradual approach than an SAP, PeopleSoft, or $OtherHorridSystem. A cloudified distributed BYOD 24/7 converged SaaS mobile soultion. And the security breaches are free!

Re:Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46561101)

I tend to agree. The big mistake was not looking at the whole legislative shebang and realising it was not economical to digitise at this time. They could have spent a fraction of the money they have spent and speeded up the processing by simply hiring and training more staff. It probably would help if they put in a more reasonable working environment as well as I'm sure they have trouble retaining competent staff who'd rather not work in the Black Hole of Calcutta.

Re:Makes perfect sense (2)

alen (225700) | about 7 months ago | (#46560809)

RTFA article, it's a business rules problem
due to lots of laws on the books calculating pensions differently for different agencies and different years of service it's almost impossible to code the business rules to take in different factors into account

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

OhPlz (168413) | about 7 months ago | (#46561049)

due to lots of laws on the books calculating pensions differently for different agencies and different years of service it's almost impossible to code the business rules to take in different factors into account

If that's true, I wonder how the IRS processes tax returns. I can't imagine anything more complex than our tax laws. I doubt it's that bad, more likely it's that our government is really bad at taking on big projects.

At least they've put a new spin on the term "data mining".

Re:Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46561733)

COBOL. On a mainframe.

I read about this several years ago - still was able to find this post [cnet.com] from 2007. I would assume they made some progress since then but surely not that much (if I recall there was some noise last year about fraud with IRS contract to buy new mainframe but I am too lazy to find link).

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

Megol (3135005) | about 7 months ago | (#46562405)

COBOL. On a mainframe.

I read about this several years ago - still was able to find this post [cnet.com] from 2007. I would assume they made some progress since then but surely not that much (if I recall there was some noise last year about fraud with IRS contract to buy new mainframe but I am too lazy to find link).

Why would they need to "progress" from a working system? COBOL works and mainframes works. The most used mainframe series are still developed and are in most cases more cost efficient than porting or emulating.

So again why the need to "progress"? Try to answer that without any technical prejudices please.

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

dcw3 (649211) | about 7 months ago | (#46562591)

So, you're insinuating that the people doing it by hand can do the "almost impossible" work easier than having it coded? Seriously?

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

ShanghaiBill (739463) | about 7 months ago | (#46560977)

People who have worked for the government longer than 30 years ...

Military pensions start at 20 years. So someone can enlist at age 18, and then retire and start collecting a pension at age 38.

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

dcw3 (649211) | about 7 months ago | (#46562617)

Or, 17 with parental consent.

Re:Makes perfect sense (3, Interesting)

swillden (191260) | about 7 months ago | (#46561069)

Thus a lot of the records having to deal with these employees are on paper, because that was what was in use when they were hired.

So there are two options - spend a ton of money all at once and digitize everything, or simply process the old paper records only as needed when those long-term employees retire.

Because there are no personnel-related actions between hiring and retirement which could benefit from automation?

And, in any case, the fundamental assumption behind your argument -- that records were all paper-based 30 years ago -- is simply false. I know from personal experience that one significant federal employer, the Department of Defense, managed all personnel records electronically 30 years ago. And, in general the notion of any large organization not having digitized such record-keeping in 1984 stretches credulity. Even in 1954 automation wasn't rare in large organizations, though it was of the punched card variety (and the punched card processing was often mechanical, not electronic). In 1964 it would still have been unsurprising to find a large organization that did everything on paper. In 1974 it would have been surprising and a bit backward, but not shocking. In 1984? No.

In fact, the article even quotes a man who oversaw the system in the early 80s and upon discovering the fact -- in 1981 -- he was shocked and dismayed, and concerned that being near such backwardness would destroy his reputation. 30 years ago was well past the point when everything of the sort was all electronic.

Re:Makes perfect sense (2)

tlhIngan (30335) | about 7 months ago | (#46561555)

And, in any case, the fundamental assumption behind your argument -- that records were all paper-based 30 years ago -- is simply false. I know from personal experience that one significant federal employer, the Department of Defense, managed all personnel records electronically 30 years ago. And, in general the notion of any large organization not having digitized such record-keeping in 1984 stretches credulity. Even in 1954 automation wasn't rare in large organizations, though it was of the punched card variety (and the punched card processing was often mechanical, not electronic). In 1964 it would still have been unsurprising to find a large organization that did everything on paper. In 1974 it would have been surprising and a bit backward, but not shocking. In 1984? No.

The DoD is probably a special case - most fhe 'employees' it manages are probably there for under 10 years, and the number of "lifers" is relatively few. Plus, DoD gets a huge budget every year and they can afford to modernize. They probably digitized the information because they found some loose change after the war, and the ones that weren't digitized mostly cleared out through attrition.

Meanwhile, you have podunk departments who probably are staffed by people for 30, 40, 50+ years, whose budget rarely exceeds $100K, and all that, and you have to manage their information somehow. You could digitize it (it's at most 2 employees), but given it's just two people who probably know each other very well, doing it by paper is just as efficient. And they were probably there since the 70s and 80s (really, that's only 30-40 years ago) where they only time t hey saw a computer was when they bought a Commodore 64 for their kid.

Yeah, you could digitize it all, but you'd probably need a whole new department of people whose sole purpose is entering data into a computer. For information which for 99.99% of the time, will never be looked up ever.

Paper works just fine in that case - the probably is you don't know WHICH 0.01% will be needed, so you have to do it all, but you also know doing it all is pointless as the vast majority of it will just rot away on some hard drive somewhere.

And really for that 0.01% case, the cost of looking it up manually probably is lower than entering in the bulk of the data.

Especially as the problem will work itself out in the end.

It reminds me of the xkcd that shows how much time one can spend automating something versus how much time it will save. The government probably did the calculation and saw it wasn't beneficial. The records are old, seldom looked up, and the more recent stuff is in the computer already.

Re:Makes perfect sense (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46561233)

You seemed to have missed a crucial part of the article:

If they have digital records, they print them on paper and put them in a manilla folder. Then they take the manilla folder to a different department to be digitized.

The problem will not go away without seriously overhauling the process.

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

Mr. Freeman (933986) | about 7 months ago | (#46562531)

Get your logic out of here! I want to blindly hate the government and if the only way I can do it is by misinterpreting everything in order to push a narrative of inefficiency then so be it!

Re:Makes perfect sense (1)

usuallylost (2468686) | about 7 months ago | (#46562609)

That assumes that the other parts of the government are actually starting to digitize the processes that input into this. They are attempting to do so but as the article states only 5% of large scale government IT projects succeed and 41% completely fail completely. Some of those other projects are very likely ones that will provide the digitized inputs into this process. So while I think your over all analysis is correct that this problem will eventually self correct I suspect your time line of "another decade or so" is probably optimistic.

Does the video play for anyone (1)

halfdan the black (638018) | about 7 months ago | (#46560405)

Does the video play for anyone (without Windows?) Won't load flash on Firefox, Chrome or Safari...

Re:Does the video play for anyone (3, Informative)

scarboni888 (1122993) | about 7 months ago | (#46560487)

Played for me in FF 28 under 64-bit UBUNTU Desktop 13.10.

Check your add-ons. Sometimes I have issues with Ad-block plus or No-Script blocking stuff.

Re: Does the video play for anyone (1)

mexsudo (2905137) | about 7 months ago | (#46560511)

Android works

Re:Does the video play for anyone (1)

Jarik C-Bol (894741) | about 7 months ago | (#46561015)

I played for me in safari, but it was larger than my fullscreen window, so I gave up on it immediately.

Flaw? (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46560609)

You presume too much to say this system is flawed. I trust the longevity of information on paper in a file cabinet stored in a subterranean cave far more than anything requiring electricity and magnets. Sure, you can save vastly more information more densely if you do it digitally. But I really don't have that many important bits to store. Just a few essential pieces of information will do just fine, thank you very much, and I'd rather keep them safely and well. And I don't much care about instantaneous retrieval either.

Re: Flaw? (1)

peragrin (659227) | about 7 months ago | (#46560835)

Paper files last longer but the basics of updating, storage, and retrieval sucks majorly. In fact error rates as high as 30% are not unheard of. Digital files tend to be updated more frequently and access is generally easier.

Not to mention storage space is considerably smaller

already posted on soylent news (0, Redundant)

El_Oscuro (1022477) | about 7 months ago | (#46560677)

I submitted this to solyentnews.org [soylentnews.org] yesterday. soylentnews is a fork of /. after the beta fiasco. If you hate dice, check it out. No ads or trackers either. My ghostery seems to look lost whenever I go there. :)

Re:already posted on soylent news (1)

Gertlex (722812) | about 7 months ago | (#46560959)

Alrighty. Bookmark replaced.

Re:already posted on soylent news (1)

DNS-and-BIND (461968) | about 7 months ago | (#46561723)

Nah, they suck. I tried that site...within DAYS of being founded, it posted a dupe. No I'm not kidding. It's also a hostile environment unless you agree with the left-wing groupthink. They're not real big on tolerating dissent.

what it means (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46560703)

All DVD's of Brazil will have to be reclassified as nonfiction.

Disaster recovery (1)

manu0601 (2221348) | about 7 months ago | (#46560785)

I am not shocked by the use of paper. It works, and it has a very good record on the data leak front.

However there is a problem with disaster recovery. What happens if paper burns or is flooded?

Re:Disaster recovery (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46562283)

Government thinks an EMP is more likely than water and fire damage. Scary stuff.

Re:Disaster recovery (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46562641)

This. They should have TWO old mines to keep this stuff in. They could even have some kind of long-distance Xerox machine that would take in the papers at one end and send the copy printouts to the other mine for safekeeping. A long row of high-res fax machines would be ideal for this job.

non-pork spending (1)

meglon (1001833) | about 7 months ago | (#46560993)

At least they didn't invest (aka: give a private company) billions to provide them with a completely useless computer system over the course of a decade that was totally outdated before the first dollar was spent, and wasn't compatible with anything.

Not exactly throwing money at the problem (1)

Trax3001BBS (2368736) | about 7 months ago | (#46560995)

"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."

Stating the obvious, that's is chump change for the Government. Which isn't a bad thing, the article mentions other services money was tossed at to no avail.

Why do something once when you can (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 7 months ago | (#46561017)

get paid for doing it over and over.

Maybe it keeps a congress person in office.

It's really tough to have to figure out how to apply the complex set of laws covering retirement.
    Plan a: Figure it out once, and code it up in S/W and then don't have to worry about it.
    Plan b: Hire folks to figure it out for each case.
    Plan c: Get the folks who did the Affordable helath care site to code it up and hope the paper records are still around to do plan b.

Well, at least they didn't do plan c.
    And the folks have to show up to work to get their check.
    And the system, for the most part, pays out retirement benefits.

I guess I should be thankful that at least a part of my tax dollars are actually sort of working?

Raiders of the Lost Ark (1)

leighklotz (192300) | about 7 months ago | (#46561021)

Probably looks like this [wikipedia.org] .

Not that bad (4, Interesting)

Animats (122034) | about 7 months ago | (#46561419)

This clerical shop processes once in a lifetime events. Once the retirement data for an employee has been calculated, it goes into a pension payout system that automatically generates the checks every month. So it's not bad that it's mostly manual.

Some years ago, I got a look at the USAF Satellite Control Facility, which until the mid-1990s controlled all USAF satellites from a big blue building in Sunnyvale, CA. They "drove the bus" - handled orbital insertion and adjustment, stabilized the satellite orientation, monitored solar panels and batteries, and handled operational problems. (Payloads, such as cameras, radars, and such were controlled elsewhere by the owning agency over separate data links. Very USAF.) The systems used were so antiquated that one was a custom-built emulator for a tube computer. For each satellite pass, physical patchcords had to be set up to interconnect three computers (one to buffer data, one to decode it, and one to compute orbital mechanics) to process the data for the pass. The consoles looked and worked exactly like the 1960s ones from the Apollo program. The operation took about 600 people to run.

Yet they never lost a satellite through an error made at that faciilty. The USSR has lost satellites through such errors. NASA has. COMSAT has. But not all those old guys in Sunnyvale.

There were two attempts to modernize the facility; one using mainframes, and one using VAX computers. Both failed. It was finally replaced, cautiously, with a new facility at Falcon AFB. I have no idea what they're using. I wouldn't be surprised if some of the old software for some of the older satellites is still running in emulation.

Re:Not that bad (2)

Beyond_GoodandEvil (769135) | about 7 months ago | (#46562671)

Yet they never lost a satellite through an error made at that faciilty. The USSR has lost satellites through such errors. NASA has. COMSAT has. But not all those old guys in Sunnyvale.
How'd they do all that while being on top of a Hellmouth? Didn't the frequent vampire attacks make their jobs difficult?

Welcome to LesterCorp. (1)

schreiend (1092383) | about 7 months ago | (#46561493)

How may we meet your filing needs?

I wonder what world that author lived in (2)

Casandro (751346) | about 7 months ago | (#46561721)

I mean paper doesn't have to be inefficient, in fact it rarely is since paper based workflows are often optimized. Everybody working with paper understands the process and can therefore come up with ways to optimize it.
I once worked at a hospital which had paper files. It makes sense since the documents in there can be in a lot of different types. The process of dealing with it was rather efficient on the paper side, you had some numbers and got the file with that number from a cabinet. The actual bottleneck was the computer based indexing system. We had something similar to E-Mail called "Outlook/Exchange". We ended up printing out those pseudo E-Mails, looking up each number individually in the indexing system, and writing the number of the file next to it. There was no way of sorting the entries to be able to reach them efficiently, nor was the system well designed. (it had SQL injection bugs!)
This is just one example of how badly designed computer based workflows can be.

Then there is the other point of governments being supposedly less efficient than companies. I have no idea where that idea comes from. I have 2 retirement funds, one run by a private company, the other one run by the government. While the government one manages to pay out millions of pensions every month and flawlessly adapts to any changes in my life, the private one can't even get a simple address change right, twice in a row!

Why should companies change? Companies mainly act to self-preserve. Any change is not just constructive, but also destructive. For a company to change it would need to have a vital reason, without that reason it cannot change.
Some people claim that there is the magic hand of the market which will somehow fix the problem though something called "competition". Those people go on citing exotic areas where their dogma actually worked and there was competition. However look around you. Go to an electronics store with a list of brands that come from the same manufacturer and then look at how many different prices exactly the same product gets sold. If there was competition, everyone would buy the cheapest of the otherwise identical products. There is no competition on many markets.

Corporate Lobbying and reform sabotage? (1)

Coward Anonymous (110649) | about 7 months ago | (#46562107)

The reason this relic still exists is likely explained at 0:41 into the video where you can see the words "Iron Mountain" above the entrance. What can be processed with a few low power computers in a rack for a few hundred dollars a year is generating a mountain of cash for Iron Mountain in rental and consulting "fees".

Follow the money.

Subterranean workers probably need extra vitamin D (1)

Paul Fernhout (109597) | about 7 months ago | (#46562273)

http://www.grassrootshealth.ne... [grassrootshealth.net]
http://www.vitamindcouncil.org... [vitamindcouncil.org]

Of course, that goes for most indoor workers in general, from lack of direct sunlight. But it might be a bit more extreme for those working underground, who might be less likely to take lunch breaks up in the sunlight.

Don't retire them (1)

gelfling (6534) | about 7 months ago | (#46562347)

Just keep paying them their salary for life and beyond. It's cheaper that way.

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