In Context of the Bigger Picture

We are torn apart by two seemingly incompatible political/economic philosophies. One asserts that government is incompetent, so it is best to minimize its role. The other asserts that we need government to take care of our social responsibilities as a nation, so it is sometimes necessary to grow it. Being a democracy, the two sides must compromise for the country to run, but compromise is difficult because neither side sees any element of truth in the position of the other.

The way I see it, both camps have elements of truth. My experience at Social Security taught me that government is, if not incompetent, at least very backwards and unwilling to take the necessary steps to catch up. The actual administration of Social Security services is too expensive and not responsive to the desires of the citizens or its own workers. Senior management will tell you otherwise; but field workers know that this is true, and to new hires, this is obvious. Furthermore, SSA’s plans for the future will only make its service delivery more expensive and still not satisfy the demands of its constituents. On the other hand, more and more Americans will need Social Security services in the coming decades.

What is most disturbing is that SSA’s leadership never addresses this dichotomy. There is no serious effort to reshape Social Security so that fundamentally its service delivery will become simultaneously better and more efficient. Quite the contrary, the attitude at SSA is that either it gets more money to continue business as usual or that its services will degrade. You will not find a single Agency approved SSA document that challenges this basic alternative scenario.

I find the same to be true in all of our Federal agencies. I have never seen a single document that discusses fundamentally changing how things are done in any of the agencies so that ultimately it can deliver better services at reduced costs. We see initiatives that try to save money here and there, but they do not take into account their overall effects on agency efficiency. The discussion is always, “what can we cut?” It is never, “how can we do even more with less money?”

I think the reason that this is happening is that we have become intellectually both lazy and cowardly. We are scared of big challenges. It is easy to slash a budget and then see what results. It is easy to increase funding to do more of the same. But to actually think of what an agency should look like, say, ten years from now, how different should it be from what it is today, that is beyond our scope. But this is exactly what I think we have to start doing.

When I was at Social Security, I asked myself, if we had to redo Social Security today from scratch, without changing any of the laws, what would it look like? It turned out that it would look quite different from what it does today and from what it will look like in several years if SSA continues with its current projects. It would run much more efficiently, more accurately, provide much better services, have happier employees, and cost a lot less to administer. Getting to this new SSA would be quite a challenge; you have to build it and transition from the old to the new, and do this all within a very tight budget environment. But it is doable; one only needs the right leadership and encouragement. Of course, if we also allow changing the laws, we could do a lot more. But even with the constraint of keeping the law as is, the exercise provided sufficient insight into how much better we could do.

To me, spending some time and money on considering this option, especially in light of the fact that the alternative is clearly heading the wrong way, is a no-brainer. But SSA’s leaders refused to even think along these lines. Psychologically, they locked themselves into the belief that this is undoable; of course it is doable, and we Americans are excellent at meeting such tough challenges when we are motivated to do so. Instead of creating a clear vision of the future, SSA leaders inundate each other and their constituents with enormous details, which only continue to add to the complexity that has grown over decades of legacy accretion. They are all so immersed with details that they never get a chance to consider the fundamentals. SSA leaders are experts at diverting real discussions with such tactics.

SSA’s leaders are not malicious people. I believe that in their hearts they want the best for both the agency and the American people. But they have been indoctrinated by the current ethos of “either-or” without any consideration for creative destruction, the type that drives the private sector to modernize. Where I do fault them, however, is for their refusal to act, even on a minimal level, when a serious alternative was presented. Instead of engaging external experts, they made it impossible to do so and relied on insiders with no real knowledge of modern information systems. Instead of talking to supporters of the type of change I was proposing, they unilaterally quashed it.

What is Social Security’s services delivery plan? What is their Agency Strategic Plan? How are they addressing the looming crisis as simultaneously budgets are shrinking while service demands are increasing? We must insist that SSA’s leaders answer these questions. And if they cannot, we have to find new leaders who can.

Read my paper, 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.