Can you imagine?

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from The Washington Post,

Deep underground, federal employees process paperwork by hand in a long-outdated, inefficient system.

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.

The existence of a mine full of federal paperwork is not well known: Even within the federal workforce, it is often treated as an urban legend, mythic and half-believed­. “That crazy cave,” said Aneesh Chopra, who served as President Obama’s chief technology officer.

Behind the door, a room opens up as big as a supermarket, full of five-drawer file cabinets and people in business casual. About 230 feet below the surface, there is easy-listening music playing at somebody’s desk.

This is one of the weirdest workplaces in the U.S. government — both for where it is and for what it does.

But the mine is real, and the process inside it belongs to a stubborn class of government problem: old breaking points, built-in mistakes that require vital bureaucracies to waste money and busy workers to waste time.

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.

Obama took office with the hope that these hang-ups could be separated from Washington’s endless wars over the size of government. In theory, these are problems everybody wants to fix.

“The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works,” Obama said in his first inaugural address.

In many places, however, these federal systems still don’t work well. Some of the explanation can be found here, in this baroque underground bureaucracy.

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.

So now the mine continues to run at the speed of human fingers and feet.

The government moved its old records here in 1960. At first, it was just a file room. Records were shipped to Washington for processing. But over time, the government began to hire more people to work in the mine itself.

That process now takes, on average, at least 61 days. That’s the same amount of time it took in 1977, according to a federal audit from that time. Many state retirement systems, which also handle large loads of employees, do it much faster. Florida takes 47 days. The California teachers’ retirement system takes 23. Texas takes two.

Those three process their files digitally, not on paper. Since the 1980s, the U.S. government has been trying — and failing — to do the same thing here.

In early 2008, the system went live.

Then it broke and was eventually scrapped, after more than $106 million had been spent. In the mine, the files continued to move on paper.

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.

At the low point, in the first years of Obama’s presidency, the processing time dragged out to 156 days. In response, officials did not try to eliminate the glitch. Instead, they hired more people to wrestle with it and rearranged the old process so that the paperwork moved more quickly.

Jonathan May, a recent retiree from the Justice Department, was pleasantly surprised that his case only took three months to process. He’d expected far worse.

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