In the end, it seems likely that the SSA will solve whatever technology challenges are legislated into existence in the same way that so many profit-driven companies do: They'll outsource the problem. In the midst of all the political posturing, the agency's executive staff have already started meeting with vendors to discuss plans for various reform scenarios. And they do have an historical road map to follow, albeit on a much smaller scale.
In 2003, President Bush signed the Medicare Modernization Act and assigned the SSA to administer the programthat is, to determine who is eligible for the prescription drug discount card, and withhold the premiums for the program from beneficiaries' Social Security checks. Months before, however, Gray and the SSA's other deputy commissioners had gathered at their quarterly meeting to review modernization plans, and to discuss the consensus that was developing in Congress around the bill.
Before the legislation passed, Gray says his office determined the resources available and the costs of various IT options being considered. "That enabled us to look at our own business processes, at how we would carry out the new program, and determine what kinds of systems changes we needed to support those business processes."
Gray again called upon Lockheed Martin, which devoted 150 staff workers to help the SSA develop processes for calculating premiums for beneficiaries with high incomes, and for withholding fees from their Social Security checks. SSA will also determine the eligibility of low-income seniors for drug benefit subsidies.
One of the ways in which the SSA was able to respond quickly when the bill was passed was that they decided not to develop new systems or architecture to meet the goal for the Medicare prescription drug plan. "Our time frame was too short," Gray says. "We didn't want to start experimenting with something new." The agency is using applications that it has found to work, such as IBM's WebSphere infrastructure for its Internet application for the Medicare prescription plan. The one new application SSA is using is an IBM electronic folder as part of a claims file record management system. The document management architecture will allow the agency to create and access electronic images, and also to control the retention time. Gray says this is the first SSA program that is never going to be based on paper files. "It's going to be kept in electronic form from the beginning."
Should private accounts become the new standard in Social Security savings, many experts feel that the SSA will again turn to an outside agency to set up the new system. DiPentima, who served as deputy commissioner of systems until 1995, believes strongly that lawmakers should outsource the maintenance of those private accountsto a Fidelity, or a Vanguard, or a TIAA-CREFand set rules for how often these private tax funds could be traded. "You wouldn't want everybody with $20 worth of taxes to get on like it's eTrade and trade every day," he says.
"Elements of Systems Modernization for the Social Security Administration"
National Academics Press www.nap.edu
"The 2004 OASDI Trustee Report"
Faced with the federal government's history of botching IT projects thanks to escalating costs, or because of technology that becomes outdated, SSA officials say that they have established disciplined systems management processes that will help their programs achieve success. And they have come a long way since being chastised by Congress in the early 1980s. In 2005, the agency was recognized by the White House for achieving the highest marks in e-government programs. Gray adds that both the disability automation and the Medicare prescription drug plan receive oversight from the highest levels of the agency.
For now, Bjorklund says there is no need for the SSA to make any major immediate IT changes. Congress is not yet considering any bills calling for private accounts; the President has yet to outline a specific proposal; and public opinion polls are starting to show that Americans are growing weary of calls for reform.
If a Social Security reform measure gains steam in Congress, Gray says his agency will be ready to modify IT systems to help put private accounts in place. "Not only do we direct how people develop systems, and make sure we understand those and understand the scope of the project," he adds, "but we've tried to make sure we put IT budget and [full-time employee] resources behind these projects."
Elizabeth Wasserman is a Washington D.C.- based writer. Formerly, she was Washington Bureau Chief for The Industry Standard.