The Washington Post Finds That The U.S. Government Is Still Remarkably Inefficient

It’s an old joke that governments are painfully inefficient, but it’s also true, to some degree. But government inefficiency is perhaps unintentionally best symbolized by how the United States government processes its retirement paperwork. As in, it still uses paper. That’s filed in a cave. Seriously.

The Washington Post went spelunking in this particular cave, and discovered, well, exactly the kind of government inefficiency you’d find from people stuck doing paperwork in a cave. But even if it weren’t on paper in a cave, even the people who work there point out the laws would make it a difficult job:

The task takes so much time in part because Congress has made the federal retirement rules extremely complex. The center’s workers must verify and key in information that answers a huge range of questions: What were the retiree’s three years of highest salary? Was the retiree a firefighter? A military veteran? A cafeteria worker at the U.S. Capitol? What about part-time service?

All those answers can change the final pension payment. “One hundred years of bad laws,” [Bonnie] McCandless said.

Bonnie McCandless, by the way, is the president of the union for the workers in this cave. This process gives her and the people she represents job security… and they hate it. The article finds a former employee who enjoyed it so much he quit to handle explosives instead.

That little slice of the process alone doesn’t communicate the bizarre nature of the process in this branch of the government. You might be wondering where the computers are: There are plenty! The workers use them to print out the digital records that must be put into a manila file, before taking them to another department where all those digital records are entered into another computer by hand. By the way, it’s in a cave because the government needed raw space: Every single retired government employee has a file in that cave.

In all, it takes the average government employee two months to actually start seeing their pension checks, assuming that they don’t come back and take another government job. If that weren’t enough for you, millions of dollars have been spent over the years to modernize the system, but it’s just too complex: There’s too much data from too many systems from too many branches of government to standardize and turn into a system that makes sense and processes the data.

In short, unless there’s a massive overhaul of all government IT, or the government finally invents a filing robot, the retirement process will continue to be a perfect metaphor for bureaucracy gone mad. But, hey, if you’re willing to spend forty-five sunless hours a week, every week, for decades, at least there’s job security!