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.


Vivek’s “Cloud First”- Right On!

A few days ago, I read Vivek Kundra’s “Reflections on Public Service.” It is a wonderful document that tells about his aspirations for and accomplishments with government IT. You can access it by clicking here . Presently, I want to comment on how important Vivek’s Cloud First concept is to the Social Security Administration.

Vivek nails it when he calls for “reducing the Federal Government’s reliance on what we call “Big Iron” and shifting to the cloud.” But what does this mean at SSA? When we considered the obvious moves to the cloud- like moving email and collaboration to the cloud- we could not see significant gains. And the idea of moving core applications to the cloud, whether private or public, seemed impractical, if not impossible. It is too enormous a task to take SSA’s core IT functions and rewrite them for the cloud.

So where does the cloud come in? It forces SSA to rethink how it does its core functions. Simply rewriting its core functions for the cloud is not the way to go. The “Cloud First” principle forces us to redesign our core business processes for handling our core functions in a modern IT environment. It shifts our thinking from “rewrite” to “transform.” And Vivek is absolutely correct in saying that this is the way to go. Rethinking our business processes and moving them to the cloud will, indeed, allow Social Security to deliver better services at significantly reduced costs.

Vivek should be proud of his accomplishments. His initiatives have already shown some successes. But, I believe more importantly, his forcing us to rethink how we do IT in government will have much greater impact five and ten years down the road. As more and more people in government realize how much more they can do with modern IT environments and paradigms, and become less scared of making the change, we will see big savings and, simultaneously, significant improvement in government service delivery.

Thank you, Vivek, for pushing your vision and good luck at Harvard.

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

Back from Vacation

My wife and I just spent two weeks driving across the country- from my former apartment near Washington DC to our home in San Diego, CA. We covered over 3,800 miles, 15 states, 4 national parks, plenty of unbelievably beautiful scenery throughout, quite a few quaint restaurants, a small dog breeding farm and a very hot music spot. We saw old friends, met wonderful people, ate well, camped out, and spent a lot of time just the two of us together, talking, listening, watching in silence, hiking, feeling very peaceful. Throughout, it reinforced my internal conviction about the goodness of our country and how we must all endeavor to contribute to its future success. Beauty and abundance are all around us here. We must preserve what has been handed down to us and allow our children to inherit that which we are so lucky to enjoy.

I have been away from this blog while I was on the road. During that time, the country was undergoing another irrational political dance, this time around a default non-issue. My tenure at SSA has taught me that irrational political dancing is the norm. What was irrational (to me) at SSA? I looked at its modernization plan and I asked myself- suppose SSA totally succeeded in executing its plan- on time and on budget- what would the agency look like in five years? The answer I came up with is- not good. It would not be able to do the many things we all wished we could do, and administrative costs would still be increasing. I also asked those who made those plans the same question. Their response was that it is impossible to predict what SSA would look like in five years. Now that’s irrational. I was asking for the most optimistic scenario. Certainly, one would not proceed spending our hard earned tax money if one did not have at least some notion of progress in the most optimistic scenario. That’s what planning is supposed to be all about. But that’s not acceptable thinking at SSA.

We spent hundreds of people-hours arguing what IT projects should be funded, and never addressing the train wreck that we all knew is coming. I bet this is still going on. Why are we arguing whether tonight’s dinner should be fish or beef, whether tonight’s entertainment should be a movie or a dance, or if we should even have entertainment tonight, when the ship is heading towards an iceberg? The answer is that we are all doing another irrational political dance. This one involves the internal politics of a large government bureaucracy. The incentives and fear motives are so structured that the only way people feel secure moving forward is by avoiding the real issues, leaving them to whoever takes over next, and simply playing the game they are all comfortable with. The game is quite simple- just keep asking for more and more money and keep blaming shortcomings on lack of money.

Yes, I am back from my trip and as charged up as ever to continue the fight. We can actually achieve our dreams, deliver better services at reduced costs, make our employees and our customers happier, and create a Social Security for the twenty first century.

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”