The current debate regarding Social Security assumes a necessary trade-off between budget and services. When it comes to the administration of the Social Security program, the actual delivery of its services, this is a false assumption. We can actually deliver superior Social Security services while significantly reducing administrative costs.
The inefficiencies inside the Social Security Administration (SSA) are rampant, therefore the potential for improvements are enormous- for Social Security employees to be more satisfied, performing better under less pressure; for beneficiaries and applicants to receive better services; and for all citizens to save money.
Most workers at Social Security are hard working, dedicated, conscientious and very proud of performing public service. But they are stuck in an environment of archaic technology and processes that makes their work very difficult and that costs the American people too much money while delivering unacceptable quality of service. The public only hears beneficiaries’ complaints when they are loud enough and make it to Congress and the press. Inside the agency, if you choose to listen, you hear workers in the field clamoring for change.
As part of the strategic planning process, we gathered representatives from the field and asked them, “If you were Commissioner for a day, what would you do?” Almost in unison, they screamed, “Replace the systems!” At Social Security, “systems” refers to the information technology that supports operations. They said that the systems are terrible, outdated, hinder work, and they just can’t believe that in the second decade of the twenty first century they are stuck with them. These systems are also much more expensive than modern ones, maintaining them is increasingly costly, and they will not deliver many of services employees and citizens deserve and want. Executive management’s reaction to this experience was to make sure that never again in the information gathering process will we allow employees to speak freely. Rather, we will ask very specific questions that guarantee no genuine discussion on strategic direction can ensue.
The good news is that we can actually replace the systems, which will then simplify Social Security processes, improve services, reduce overpayments and fraud, and cost a lot less to administer. To see why, you have to understand two fundamentals: (1) the business of Social Security and (2) modern Information Technology (IT).
For decades, Social Security executives have been justifying requests for increased funding by pointing out the complexity of their operations and the massive amount of data involved. Indeed, Social Security operations are very complex. But its core business is fundamentally simple- processing and communicating information. It does not produce products; it does not market and sell products or services; it does not compete; it does not have to constantly rethink its offerings. In other words, Social Security does not have to deal with the major complexities of most businesses. It does have to deal with some very complex, arcane rules that are the product of over 75 years of legal heritage. But these rules are reminiscent of tax rules for individual earners, and the vast majority of taxpayers nowadays can buy software to guide them through these rules, typically for less than $100. In other words, the complexity of Social Security operations is a result of its history, not of necessity.
As I said, Social Security basically processes information, so it is no surprise that it relies a lot on IT. Something interesting has been happening in the IT landscape recently. Whereas even a decade ago, starting an information processing business would typically require significant upfront investments in equipment and software development, this is no longer the case. Software development environments and paradigms now support fast and low-cost product creation, and advances in computing technologies like the Cloud enable the avoidance of expensive up-front hardware and maintenance investments. Also, what Social Security considered massive amount of data a decade ago is no longer so today.
These two fundamentals make possible the modernization and vast improvement of one our most precious social services. Building a new Social Security infrastructure will not be easy; the technology and cultural challenges are daunting. But it is doable in a cost-effective manner. The alternative- continuing business as usual- is not sustainable. Social Security should rethink its strategy for moving forward. It should stop thinking of how to augment to their archaic technology. Rather, it should start thinking about how to build and deploy the future Social Security Administration that meets its mandated requirements, the expectations of our citizens, and expected severe budget constraints. Listen to the workers- replace the systems!
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