Stephen E. Arnold: US Government Content Processing – A Case Study

Government, Ineptitude, IO Impotency
Stephen E. Arnold
Stephen E. Arnold

US Government Content Processing: A Case Study

I know that the article “Sinkhole of Bureaucracy” is an example of a single case example. Nevertheless, the write up tickled my funny bone. With fancy technology, USA.gov, and the hyper modern content processing systems used in many Federal agencies, reality is stranger than science fiction.

This passage snagged my attention:

inside the caverns of an old Pennsylvania limestone mine, there are 600 employees of the Office of Personnel Management. Their task is nothing top-secret. It is to process the retirement papers of the government’s own workers. But that system has a spectacular flaw. It still must be done entirely by hand, and almost entirely on paper.

One of President Obama’s advisors is quote as describing the manual operation as “that crazy cave.”

And the fix? The article asserts:

That failure imposes costs on federal retirees, who have to wait months for their full benefit checks. And it has imposed costs on the taxpayer: The Obama administration has now made the mine run faster, but mainly by paying for more fingers and feet. The staff working in the mine has increased by at least 200 people in the past five years. And the cost of processing each claim has increased from $82 to $108, as total spending on the retirement system reached $55.8 million.

One of the contractors operating the system is Iron Mountain. You may recall that this outfit has a search system and caught my attention when Iron Mountain sold the quite old Stratify (formerly Purple Yogi automatic indexing system to Autonomy).

My observations:

  1. Many systems have a human component that managers ignore, do not know about, or lack the management horsepower to address. When search systems or content processing systems generate floods of red ink, human processes are often the culprit
  2. The notion that modern technology has permeated organizations is false. The cost friction in many companies is directly related to small decisions that grow like a snowball rolling down a hill. When these processes reach the bottom, the mess is no longer amusing.
  3. Moving significant information from paper to a digital form and then using those data in a meaningful way to answer questions is quite difficult.

Do managers want to tackle these problems? In my experience, keeping up appearances and cost cutting are more important than old fashioned problem solving. In a recent LinkedIn post I pointed out that automatic indexing systems often require human input. Forgetting about those costs produces problems that are expensive to fix. Simple indexing won’t bail out the folks in the cave.

Stephen E Arnold, March 24, 2014