Government sometimes looks like a backlog backwater

Agencies could enhance customer experience if they could permanently end their backlog of cases. But that requires investment in new staff, processes or tools.

The National Archives and Records Administration recently said it had eliminated a backlog of records request coming in from veterans to its giant file cabinet in Saint Louis, Missouri. The backlog sprang up during the pandemic. It’s a big one: 600,000 requests.

Basically, NARA did this through brute force. In its words, it “added staff, expanded work hours and contract labor,” and also made technology and physical building improvements.

Backlogs remain a challenge elsewhere in government, especially ones that require adjudication or judgement couple with detailed documentation. That’s a different animal than locating a file, copying it and mailing it.

The Merit Systems Protection Board has chipped away at a backlog of appeals cases. The board itself decides these after one of the parties in a dispute disagrees with the administrative judge. Its backlog resulted not of the pandemic but rather because the board lacked a quorum of Senate-confirmed members from January of 2017 to March of 2022. Its most recent report showed the board cut its backlog of 3,793 cases at the start of the current quorum to 1,701. It decided a total of 2,296 cases in the last 21 months.

Cases like these may have their genesis years earlier. In one case the board recently decided, it upheld the firing of a U. S. Naval Academy English professor for  unprofessional conduct. His supervisor moved to dismiss him in June 2018. An Army firefighting supervisor received reinstatement after dismissal, and the board ordered the Army to pay him back pay plus interest — to April 8, 2016. Imagine having to shell out 94 months of back pay!

At the Veterans Benefits Administration, a claims backlog grows. The nearly 400,000 cases encompass those who have applied for disability compensation and pension claims. VBA deems a case backlogged when it’s been pending for 125 days or longer.

The Office of Personnel Management remains a perennial backlogger. It saw a 46% jump in retirement claims processing backlogs at the start if the year. In January, it took in almost 13,000 retirement claims. It got through about half of them, which means the backlog jumped to nearly 21,000 cases of people waiting for their final pension check amounts. OPM does see to it that retirees get estimated annuity checks until claims processors can figure out the final monthly amount.

But if your wrongful dismissal takes years to process, that’s years you and the agency are stuck in limbo. No veteran gets disability assistance until those claims and subsequent appeals are settled.

Then there’s the immigration courts backlog. The Government Accountability Office reported last October that the backlog for this Justice Department-operated system has tripled since 2017 to 2 million cases. How can 650 immigration judges ever get through that stack? Each has literally a career’s worth of backlogged cases, presuming the noncitizens actually show up at some years-in-the-future date.

The IRS, according to Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins, had a backlog of some 2 million amended returns at the end of 2023. She pointed out that paperwork associated with amended returns gets handled by some of the same people who answer phone calls from taxpayers. She said that for the IRS to reach the widely reported phone service improvements last year, “they did not process paper.” Ergo the backlog. Note: Employees have no problem doing online or telephone work from home. But paperwork must stay in the office.

Backlogs, therefore, erode not just fairness and customer service, but also national security.

Each administration I’ve covered since that of George H. W. Bush, including that of President Joe Biden, has emphasized this. The original term, service to the citizen, has become customer experience, or CX. CX acknowledges all of the entities, including businesses and immigrants lacking permanent legal status, should get timely and fair service.

Maybe artificial intelligence can help with backlogs. But in some instances, agencies need to put more people on the job.


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