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By Elizabeth Wasserman  |  Posted 04-05-2005 Print
: Change Is Good?"> Change Is Good?

Believe it or not, the SSA was once considered a technological pioneer in the federal government. In the 1960s, it teamed with IBM to manage the massive database of names, numbers and payouts, even though most of the systems were still paper-based. But over the ensuing two decades, the SSA's technology grew stale, and its processes became convoluted.

In 1982, Congress blamed the SSA for poor technology decision-making, and in response, the agency introduced its Systems Modernization Plan, a rolling program that has spanned more than 20 years and cost taxpayers several billion dollars. The SSA eventually undertook IT systems initiatives that moved a number of citizen interfaces onto the Internet; now people can apply for benefits, change addresses, and use retirement planning tools online. Among the major initiatives that have been underway during the past decade is a $201 million program to redesign the agency's Title II programs—its main benefits programs for Survivors and for Disability Insurance. That program sought to integrate some of SSA's two-dozen legacy systems, thereby increasing automation, and the speed with which benefits are determined and granted. Other projects included a $74 million program to develop a national 800-number call-center system, $157 million in electronic service delivery systems for Internet customer service, and a $62 million program to move employer wage reporting (or W-2 forms) to an electronic system, according to a 2001 report on SSA's IT programs by the Government Accountability Office.

But the systems that would be most affected, should President Bush persuade Congress to add voluntary private accounts to Social Security, are those of retiree benefits. The program currently consists of four main IT systems—one for issuing Social Security numbers, one for maintaining all Americans' earnings records from 1937 to the present, one for applications and adjudication, and the last for records kept post- entitlement, such as address changes and direct-deposit information. Except for the system that keeps Social Security numbers, the other three IT systems would need to be extensively modified to allow for an as yet undetermined percentage of tax funds to be transferred to private accounts.

"You can assume there would be lots of work that would have to be done," says Renato DiPentima, a systems executive at SSA for thirty years, who now serves as president and chief executive officer of SRA International Inc., a Fairfax, Va.-based IT provider to government and the healthcare industry.

In anticipation of that upheaval, the SSA hired Lockheed Martin to give them the flexibility to adapt to changes whenever they occur. Under the contract, Lockheed can be called on for support in application design, database administration, software engineering and a number of other capacities for any of the SSA's 100 different ongoing IT projects—or for new projects that may arise as a result of new legislative mandates. Since 1989, Lockheed has been selected for two previous agencywide contracts at the SSA, and the two groups work closely as they watch the debate unfold. Lockheed's Kapoor says, "They do talk to us. We have joint meetings. We brainstorm. We come up with a project management plan, a risk management plan, the infrastructure that will be needed, and what other resources will be needed." The various scenarios can be scaled up or back, depending on what, if any, legislative changes are made to Social Security.

In addition, the SSA has established an in-house group called the Information Technology Advisory Board, which is chaired by CIO Thomas Hughes and composed of the SSA's eight deputy commissioners. The group meets quarterly and decides on the portfolio of projects that the agency is going to pursue in order to support modernization efforts and meet the agency's strategic goals. SSA executives use digital dashboard technology to monitor the progress of the various IT projects to determine whether they are on target and meeting objectives. Unlike most federal agencies, the SSA develops most of its software projects internally—much like financial insurance agencies in the private sector—due to very specific laws governing Social Security, in addition to stringent security rules. SSA also has an architectural review board that considers the plans for all new systems to make sure that the design fits into the agency's current or planned enterprise architecture.

Social Security by the Numbers
These figures illustrate the astounding number of transactions the SSA will process in 2005.
6 million claims for benefits

18 million new and replacement social security cards

267 million earnings items processed for workers' earnings records

52 million phone calls to SSA's 800 number

136 million social security statements

Source: Social Security Commissioner

While Gray is keeping an eye on Social Security reform, he says he is also managing the SSA IT department through this period of relative uncertainty by moving ahead aggressively with the agency's modernization plans. And his staff is taking into account the services that the agency will have to provide, with or without reform. "If you look ahead, it's very evident that no matter how reform takes place, we will still have a Social Security defined benefit," Gray says. That said, Gray added that his staff has been making sure for years that the systems undergoing modernization can be more easily modified than the legacy systems they have often replaced. "We look to make sure that when we build a system we do so with the flexibility to adapt to changes," Gray says. The first step is to select a vendor to partner with that is well established and that will be around in the future. "We look for companies that can help us with technical advice, standards and are leaders of that particular segment." Many of the services the SSA offers over the Web have been based on IBM technology for that very reason, Gray adds.

But some observers believe that the effects of the uncertainty are already taking a toll on the agency's IT planning. The SSA typically spends nearly $1 billion a year on IT infrastructure and services. But the proposed 2006 IT budget request was down 7 percent, to $958 million, fueling speculation that the agency was hesitant to take on any new projects until the questions over Social Security reform are settled. "It could be a winding down of programs or it may be a slight stay of execution," says Ray Bjorklund, senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc., a McLean, Va., government IT market intelligence firm. "It may be a slowing down on purpose because some of these projects may have to be revised."


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