Questions to Ask

Various government entities are looking into service delivery at SSA, and in particular, the role IT plays in delivering services to the public. There are signs of looming problems- too great a reliance on archaic legacy systems; field workers who are dissatisfied with the system they have to use but are too scared to complain; mistakes that occur because the system is so complex; long delays in getting answers to what seem to be rather straightforward answers.

When SSA’s IT executives are asked about their systems and plans, they respond with a long, detailed list of tasks to do. They never give a high level view of their approach to architecture other than saying that they are “opportunistic,” which means that they look at the budget allotted to them for the coming year and they decide how best to use that budget and estimate how to continue the following year. This means that their “ideal” future system is the current one with additions and modifications. We have seen that for more than a decade now, this approach has deleterious consequences.

Those who are looking into SSA’s systems and plans should ask SSA questions such as the following:

• If you are totally successful in executing your current year IT plan and even the one for the following year (that is, in your most optimistic scenario), what will this imply about IT costs, and more generally, total costs of service delivery, in the coming decade?

• In your most optimistic scenario, in 5 or 10 years, what percentage of people who want to file Retirement and Survivors Insurance claims online be able to complete their application online, without further manual intervention, get the same quality of service as do people who visit field offices (for example, see various options or be told of better options than the ones they are considering), and get exact payment information (as long as the data they input is accurate)?

• In this past year’s SITAR process, SSA estimated a need for more than 170 people-years over two years to update several iClaim forms. In your most optimistic scenario, how many people-years will it take for a similar update in 5 or 10 years?

• Last year, when a group of visiting field workers were asked about their number one concern, they all agreed that it was the systems they use in their daily work. In your most optimistic scenario, how will the day-to-day routine of field workers be different in 5 or 10 years?

• In your most optimistic scenario, will it be easier for field workers to learn their trade in 5 or 10 years than it is today?

• In your most optimistic scenario, in 5 or 10 years, how long will it take to recover from a massive IT failure?

Quite likely, when you ask these questions, SSA’s reply will be that they cannot make such projections. This should not be an acceptable answer. The job of senior IT executives is to plan for their most optimistic outcome, and then plan for contingencies in case (as will almost certainly be the case) things will not be as perfect as one had anticipated. But, at the very least, they should have an ideal target for which to strive.

In the private sector, we generate business plans and analyze them in the most optimistic scenario. If under this best-of-all-cases scenario the plan still does not make business sense, then we abandon it. We look for another plan. In government, we cannot pick and choose the services or products we deliver or the markets and customers we service. But we are still responsible to make sure that our plans make business sense. If they do not yield what the citizens need and desire, then we are first obliged to inform the citizens of our finding, and second, we should look for other plans to actually yield what we all want.

When talking to SSA executives about their IT and service delivery plans, don’t let them avoid answering questions of long-term consequences. The longer we let our dependencies on archaic, expensive systems continue to be a drag, the more difficult it will get for us to extricate ourselves from the situation we are perpetuating.

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