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A limestone mine and government paperwork

The Capitol building.

"In 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."

That's how David Fahrenthold, a staff writer for the Washington Post, begins his recent story on a disused limestone mine in rural Pennsylvania that plays a crucial role for employees of the federal government. It processes their retirement paperwork.  

"They have 28,000 file cabinets, full of paper," says Fahrenthold. 

The file cabinets full of paper and the massive amounts of space they require are necessary because the system hasn’t changed since the 1970s. Employees at the Office of Personnel Management create individual physical file folders for each retired employee. Even if a piece of paperwork associated with the file starts off in digital form, it has to eventually become a physical paper in the file because there’s no computer system yet that can manage the detailed calculations involved.  

Not that they haven't tried. Fahrenthold says there are have been at least three attempts to digitize the process since the 1980s but they were ultimately unsuccessful.  

"They spent a bunch of money and nobody until the very end was sure that what they were paying for was going to work," je said. In 2008 for example, over $100 million dollars was spent to automate the system. When it crashed, the employees at OPM went back to paper.  

Some say these problems arise because calculating and managing pensions for federal employees is needlessly complicated, thanks to a long list of "rules" laid out by Congress over the years. But Fahrenthold doesn’t totally buy that as the reason for the digital failure.

"Computers are made to do complicated tasks so it’s, to me, impossible to imagine Congress, as good as it is at writing complicated laws has written a law so complicated that a computer couldn’t handle it," he says.

About the author

David Gura is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the Washington, D.C. bureau.

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