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And You Thought “Sinkhole Of Bureaucracy” Was A Metaphor

29 March 2014 @ 19:22

A special guest post by Friend In The Ether Adobe Walls…

Think “Sinkhole of bureaucracy” is just a metaphor? Well it is, but not just a metaphor, it’s also a Washington headline for an article written by David A. Fahrenthold and a place in Boyars Pennsylvania. It’s actually an old limestone mine where 600 government workers are employed by the Office of Personnel Management to process retiree benefits by hand, shuffling paper which they keep in 28,000 file cabinets. But not to worry the work is done at the speed of 1977.



First in a series examining the failures at the heart of troubled federal systems.

I’m not sure just where David A. Fahrenthold is heading with this series but I shall certainly keep my eye out for more articles. Breaking points is certainly an apt description of what government does and does to us. At some point I’m sure we’ll discover that the fault lies with white privilege or the Tea Party. Another example from the WaPo article:

In some cases, the breaking point is caused by a vague or overcomplicated law.

In New Jersey, for instance, one researcher found that the approval process for a bridge project dragged on for years, in part because officials were required to do a historic survey of all buildings within two miles and to seek comment from Indian tribes as far away as Oklahoma.

Wow, just what the hell. Well there’s no law or rule that says government must be slow and stupid so I suspect it’s tradition.

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.

They couldn’t.

Once again what the hell. But that’s OK they didn’t blow all that on only one failed attempt.

A recent study by the Standish Group, a firm in Boston that researches failures, found that only 5 percent of large federal IT projects in the last decade fully succeeded.

Of the rest, 41 percent were failures, canceled before they were turned on….

At the time of the healthcare website rollout I seem to recall a couple different IT folks pointing out that most if not all big and successful IT projects start out small and grow from there. There’s a moral in that statement somewhere. For some context is neither part of the 5% successes nor the 41% scrapped before startup.

In an interview inside the mine this month, another federal official called the operation “very successful.”

But that official balked when asked if it was modern. “What does ‘modern’ mean?” the official said….

A fair question I suppose if you work in a cave.

Read the whole article — having what one suspected but didn’t really know, revealed in some detail is always enlightening/appalling. But here’s the really scary part at least for me:

This is how the mine works:

Step 1 begins when a federal employee submits retirement paperwork to his or her own agency. That happens at least 100,000 times a year….

Wow that’s 1 million additional federal retirement benefit recipients every ten years. At what point will retired government workers outnumber current federal employees? If I remember correctly Detroit has more retired city workers than current employees.

Obviously something has got to give. Surely there is a solution. I don’t know maybe we could shermanize the Fourth Branch.


  1. 29 March 2014 @ 19:33 19:33

    Reblogged this on That Mr. G Guy's Blog and commented:
    Blame the public sector unions.

  2. 29 March 2014 @ 19:36 19:36

    Public sector unions can take a lot of the blame for this. The voting public also shares some blame for sticking our heads in the sand and letting this monstrosity grow so big.

  3. 30 March 2014 @ 09:04 09:04

    Processing paperwork isn’t a complex physics problem. Inevitably, the reason a manual-to-digital migration project fails is because enough people in the organization want it to fail, so they make it fail. And not with bad thoughts, as the Democrats have asserted the Republicans have done with ObamaCare, but by withholding information and/or constantly changing project specifications. That kind of resistance happens in the private for-profit sector but it doesn’t last nearly as long.

    My favorite private sector example is the real estate business. For too many years agents resisted putting the MLS online because how could consumers possibly navigate the complex and rough-and-tumble world of real estate listings without a knowledgable agent to hold their hands and pre-filter listings for them? But what happened when they finally accepted the inevitable and the MLS finally went online? The real estate market went crazy and agents made piles of money. (Whether that was good for everyone or not is, of course, debatable.)

    When you’ve got the kind of decades-long IT project failure in someplace like the retirement cave, and nearly every other place within federal bureaucracy, you can be sure that that failure is happening because there are enough people within the organization who think what they do is indispensable and thus they must protect their phony baloney jobs by sabotaging the project. And, of course, as The Mr G Guy points out, the phoniest and baloneyest of them all are the public sector union goons.

    Sure, you could see efficiency and cost-savings on the scale of the Online MLS implementation, but I will bet that even with a massive taxpayer outrage campaign that things will never ever change in the retirement cave and we can thank unions for that.

    • MPH permalink
      30 March 2014 @ 11:18 11:18

      I goes even beyond what you detailed. I’ve seen what you speak of multiple times in my software engineering career (I’ve specialized in government contracts, mainly DoD and NASA). For instance, I know of at least 3 times that the FAA has failed to add automation to the Air Traffic Control system (because, of course, we can’t possibly do something that would reduce the number of people we need; how would we justify asking for more money next year if we did that?).

      But I want to look at something that was new, not entrenched, and so there was nobody who needed to prevent the project to succeed in order to feel safe in their job: the International Space Station. I worked on a project that was for the test and checkout of the ISS modules prior to launch (it was called CORE). Each year there was debate in Congress about whether we should be spending so much money on the ISS. One year, there was a Congressman who pointed out that the project was 10 years old, and had not yet produced anything. The next Congressman then pointed out that for each of the 10 years of the project, Congress had changed the funding for it, requiring NASA to essentially start over each year. He even asked a question like: if you were building a house, and every week you went to the builder and told him the amount of money he was to spend had just changed, sometimes upwards, sometimes downwards, how much progress would you expect after 10 weeks?

      When politicians control what money is being spent, decisions are made based on politics (meaning, what the politician thinks will get them reelected), not based on good engineering reasons. Nobody involved in this debacle (either what you describe or what I describe) cares because it isn’t their money that’s being wasted; it’s mine and yours, and the rest of the tax payers.

      And since there’s only 70,000,000 eligible voters who pay federal taxes, and there’s 170,000,000 eligible voters who do NOT pay federal taxes, the politicians know who they need to pander to for reelection.

      • 31 March 2014 @ 08:58 08:58

        I agree with your general point but I’m afraid I have to disagree with your example. If you consider that GHWB got the ball rolling using the same erroneous and misguided theory which was the impetuous for ASTP (that somehow cooperation in orbit will lead to cooperation on the ground) and that Clinton used the program almost exclusively as an excuse to out-and-out funnel money to the Russians, with GWB continuing the program mostly because it’s a legacy of his father (while admirably trying to turn NASA toward a new major program) and Obama half-hearted extending the program because…reset, or something, I’d say that ISS is almost completely a political project and only incidentally a scientific/engineering one. In that sense, it’s completely appropriate for politicians to meddle in it.

        As much as the Rand Simberg/NewSpace crowd wants to pretend that there was once an era, at its very beginnings, when NASA manned space flight was apolitical and dedicated to science (“living up to its original charter” is, IIRC, the way Simberg likes to put it) and that if senators would just shut up and let the NewSpacers run things, we would return to the approach of those halcyon days and things would turn around for our federally-funded space program, they’re just trying to kid everyone. NASA — in particular, manned space flight — has always been almost entirely about politics.

    • Adobe_Walls permalink
      30 March 2014 @ 19:46 19:46

      Actually I very much doubt that those workers in the cave have ever had an opportunity to sabotage the various efforts to computerize their work. I doubt anyone whose departments had the 41% failure to launch had an opportunity either. They certainly have no reason to fear losing their jobs merely because they became superfluous. One of the problems with what they are attempting in creating is the new system must be able to interact with other systems both government and private sector that were created in four different decades. The people whose government jobs in theory (but almost never in practice) might be eliminated by computerization don’t get a crack at the new system until it’s implemented. The reasons government is so bad at creating and integrating computer systems are basically the same as why government fails at everything else. It’s too big and tries too solve problems it shouldn’t. Whatever government doesn’t f**kup it sh!ts on.

      • Starless permalink
        31 March 2014 @ 09:07 09:07

        Except that is an entirely new system, unlike the retirement cave, it isn’t attempting to replace a previously manual system with a digital one.

        AFA whether grunts in the cave had a “crack” at any of the attempted systems prior to failure, I don’t think the article is clear about that. At a bare minimum, some level of management would have to be involved, and those are the people who are usually the Luddite saboteurs. (In my experience, anyway.)

        • Adobe_Walls permalink
          31 March 2014 @ 16:52 16:52

          That is almost entirely new is beside my point. Like HC.G for instance the cave’s work would have to be able to interface with every other government agencies computer systems.


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