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March 24, 2014

Retirees' paperwork, stuck in a mine, points to government's balky IT problems

(Continued)

BOYERS, Pa. —

Danbeck quit. 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.

Contained in all those failures, experts say, is a very brief history of the federal government's recent troubles with information technology.

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. The reasons often echoed the problems in the mine: Federal officials either tried to buy a technology they didn't fully understand because they lacked the technical skill, or they didn't test what they were getting until it was too late.

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 Department of Justice, was pleasantly surprised that his case only took three months to process. He'd expected far worse.

"I was actually bracing for it. I had saved up all my annual leave . . . went out with about 440 hours [of stored-up leave], just in case I had to live off of that for a while," May, who lives on Long Island, said in a telephone interview. "I was just amazed at how smoothly everything went."

Inside the mine, officials said they were gradually increasing the number of records that are stored digitally. Eventually, they said, the entire operation would run on computers. They had faith in the government's ability to eliminate this breaking point.

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