Social Security: Listen to your Workers

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 They said that the systems are terrible, outdated, hinder work, and they just can’t believe that in the second decade of the twenty first century they are stuck with them.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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Read “Social Security 2020: Vision and Strategy”

A comment on “Social Security 2020: Vision and Strategy”

The paper Social Security 2020: Vision and Strategy presents precisely what the title says, a vision and a strategy. The paper does not give a plan. A plan was actually in the works, and a lot of progress has been made, but that project was nixed. There are detailed documents inside the Agency that describe this work, there is even some prototype code, and I hope more people get a chance to see those.

The paper has one fundamental insight and five major themes. The fundamental insight is a shift in strategic thinking. Currently, the Agency looks at what it has today and figures out what to do with it in the next few years. This sounds logical, but when it comes to strategic thinking, it is constraining. My starting point is to consider what Social Security has to do by law. If we had to create an Agency from scratch today, what would it look like? Once we figure that out, then we go back to today’s reality and figure out how to get from where we are to the ideal. Not that this ideal would necessarily be the Agency we would ultimately achieve, but at least having an ideal would set a direction.

The first theme is an operational vision, describing what a modern Social Security should look like from various users’ points of views. It describes the types of environments and services that citizens and Social Security employees want and deserve. It is the operational ideal that will drive our modernization direction. SSA cannot attain this vision by continuing to update and augment to today’s archaic infrastructure as it is currently doing, even if it spends a lot more money,.

The second and third themes relate to technology. The second shows that SSA’s technology costs of the past decade have increased so much that these investments are no longer paying off. It also posits that continuing along current trajectory will increase costs even more. The third highlights that modern commodity IT technology (which drives many very large enterprises today) is so much cheaper than what SSA uses and plans to expand, that it makes sense to at least consider changing. The paper does not present a specific technology plan. Before the project was killed, we were well on our way to estimating costs for modern IT supporting Title II programs.

The fourth theme is an architectural vision. Two major engines will drive the operations of the ideal Agency. One is a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system that facilitates the day-to-day activities of Social Security employees. The other is a rules engine that automatically guides users as much as possible through the complex, arcane Social Security rules. CRM systems and rules engines have advanced tremendously during the past couple of decades, development and standard usage paradigms have emerged, and a lot of experience can be leveraged. The architecture vision has one dataset driving the entire Agency, so data across all services is consistent. Data is structured to meet the special requirements of Social Security. Data is readily accessible to any user who needs it and has access rights to it. The overall architecture will be service oriented, deployed on commodity hardware and leverage open source software when it makes sense.

The fifth theme dealt with what I considered the hardest problem- the strategy. I am leery of planning a massive IT project and then trying to rigidly stick to this plan. We have all seen too many large IT projects fail, and in a government environment of constraining contracts and procurement regulations, the odds of success are even worse. The strategy calls for building and deploying manageable parts. We identify a relatively small but still significant part of the ideal and build it from the ground up, following our architectural guidelines. We allow both new and old systems to operate simultaneously, and the connectivity between them is designed to be temporary. When this part is operational, we build a next part. This process continues, and at some point, we start retiring parts of the old system. This way we are always moving in phases towards the ideal and gradually getting rid of the old. At the end of every phase, the overall efficiency of the Agency and the quality of its services have improved. We were actually testing two possible starting points, building prototypes, before the project ended.

The strategy calls for budgetary considerations throughout the project. And, critically, the strategy calls for flexibility. While it is important to have some initial roadmap of manageable parts, we should anticipate that as we deploy and learn, it may be advantageous to make changes.

That, in a nutshell, is what the paper Social Security 2020: Vision and Strategy is about. It is not a plan. It provides guidance and backs it up with facts and reasonable arguments. Given what we know about the current IT environment at Social Security, what we can expect if the Agency continues with business as usual, I think that investing a little bit on an alternative that has excited quite a lot of folks in and out of the Agency is a responsible way to use taxpayers’ hard earned money.

On a personal note, I was brought in, a political appointee, to head the new Office of Vision and Strategy. It was my duty to do precisely what I did. My fifteen months at SSA were wonderful and I was honored and privileged to do public service. I witnessed the passion of so many employees who were dedicated to their mission and worked so hard to get the job done. I feel that I owe it to them, and to the American citizens, to continue to educate people about the challenges and opportunities that Social Security has moving forward.

Social Security: The bureaucracy will resist, but the people will insist

Until I actually experienced it from the inside, I had no idea how broken it is. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is a mess, and its dysfunctional leadership’s refusal to address critical issues are endangering one of the nation’s most precious social programs. Disability hearings backlog is increasing; wait times are long and phone calls remain unanswered; fraud and incorrect payments are rampant; IT infrastructure is archaic and getting harder and harder to manage; and costs to run the Social Security program are increasing.

For years now, Congress has been asking SSA for a service delivery plan, but SSA has not delivered one. Congress has been asking for an IT modernization plan, but they have gotten the run-around. A plan was finally being formulated by SSA’s Office of Vision and Strategy, to improve Social Security services while significantly lowering costs. The plan was enthusiastically supported by the Chief Federal Enterprise Architect. But SSA’s leaders nixed the plan and dissolved the team that created it.

SSA’s leaders refuse to consider new approaches to modernization. They intend for SSA to continue doing what it has been doing for decades, even though they know this course of action will increase costs and not yield the services that the American people want and deserve.

SSA-2020 shows how to fix Social Security. Now, we just have to make it happen.

Click to read the 2 page brief Social Security 2020: Call to Action

Click Social Security 2020: Vision and Strategy to read how SSA should be, why its current approach to modernization is flawed, and how we can actually fix it.

Click SSAB: Vision of the Future to read the Social Security Advisory Board’s vision of the future for the Agency. SSA’s current direction cannot get to this vision; SSA-2020 does.

Please spread the word. Use Facebook and Twitter. Galvanize your friends. Contact your representatives and tell them you will not tolerate the wasting of your hard earned tax money and the degradation of critical services just because some bureaucrats are too afraid to confront a challenge. Let’s all work together to fix Social Security.