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Why US Gov't Retirement Involves a Hole in the Ground Near Pittsburgh 142

Posted by timothy
from the it's-just-that-simple dept.
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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Why US Gov't Retirement Involves a Hole in the Ground Near Pittsburgh

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  • by cold fjord (826450) on Sunday March 23, 2014 @08:12PM (#46560315)
  • Makes perfect sense (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Dan East (318230) on Sunday March 23, 2014 @08:22PM (#46560369) Homepage Journal

    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.

  • by guruevi (827432) <evi@@@smokingcube...be> on Sunday March 23, 2014 @08:54PM (#46560519) Homepage

    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!

  • by swillden (191260) <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Sunday March 23, 2014 @10:59PM (#46561069) Homepage Journal

    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.

  • Not that bad (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Animats (122034) on Monday March 24, 2014 @12:28AM (#46561419) Homepage

    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.

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