Subduing the paper chase

Personnel center struggles to reverse growing backlog of records requests by veterans

Requests for veterans' records pour in to the National Personnel Records Center at a rate of 6,000 a day. But the records center, a massive warehouse in St. Louis, is ill-equipped to handle the demand.

In an age when agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service and the Social Security Administration can share electronic records almost instantly, the National Personnel Records Center still operates much as it did when it opened in 1955.

Records are stored in cardboard boxes stacked 10 rows high on miles of steel shelves. Record retrieval means finding the right file in the right box among tens of thousands of others.

On average, it takes workers at the records center 54 days to respond to written requests for records. But sometimes it takes years.

Veterans need service records to obtain health benefits, disability compensation, GI Bill education benefits, home loan guarantees, sometimes to get jobs and, ultimately, to get permission to be buried in a national cemetery.

Under pressure from Congress, the records center has been trying to speed its records processing time, but an investigation by the General Accounting Office found that efforts to improve are actually slowing down the center.

The National Archives and Records Administration, which operates the center, is planning improvements that include the capability to receive requests for records via computer and using computers to track records requests and draft correspondence.

For decades, though, the computerless records center has relied on handwritten forms. Until February 2000, the center did not permit workers to have telephones on their desks, fearing that phones would reduce productivity.

But GAO found that the lack of telephones kept workers who needed more information from contacting the people who made the records requests. Instead, records workers would simply mail incomplete request forms back to senders, lengthening fulfillment time.

High cost makes it impractical to convert the records center's millions of paper personnel records into easy-to-search electronic documents, according to a NARA official. But the records of many veterans have already been captured as digital documents by other agencies.

For example, veterans who have been hospitalized in Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals in recent years probably have digital hospital records that may contain much of the same information stored on paper at the records center. NARA wants to supply the records center with a computer system able to search electronic databases of other federal agencies, thus eliminating some of the need for searching paper personnel records.

NARA officials say that when records requests come in to the records center, the computer system could query the VA and other federal databases and probably retrieve digital documents, when they exist, faster than the center can locate the paper ones stored in its warehouses.

Since 1999, the records center has been phasing in a new work process intended to shorten response times. But according to GAO, the new process is slower than the old one. Workers using the new system can complete about 15 records requests a day. Under the old system, they completed 31 requests a day.

The records center's primary response to tackling slow response times has been to have its employees work overtime, GAO investigators reported. Even so, during the first six months of this year, the center's backlog of unanswered requests for records grew from 145,000 to 214,000. And the backlog is expected to pass 240,000 before the end of the year.

NARA has taken steps to respond more quickly to certain requests. Requests for records needed for emergency medical care and burials can be answered in 24 hours, said Lewis Bellardo, deputy archivist of the United States. Requests involving homeless veterans and mortgages may be answered within a matter of days, he said. And records needed for loans, jobs and health benefits are answered in 32 days or less.

MORE INFO

Steps to better service

Speeding up the processing of records requests is only part of the goal

the National Archives and Records Administration has set for its National

Personnel Records Center.

Deputy U.S. Archivist Lewis Bellardo said he also hopes to:

* Decrease the processing time for each request.

* Decrease the cost per request.

* Increase the quality per request.

* Improve individual and organizational development.

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