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1 INTRODUCTION l By any measure, the Social Security Administration (SSA) is a vital national institution. The well-being of millions of retired and disabled persons and their dependents relates directly to regular receipt of a monthly Social Security check. Entitlement disbursements and the influx of individual and corporate payments to the trust fund have a major impact on the national economy. Policy issues connected with the Social Security program figure prominently in discussions of the nation's social, economic, and political issues. The SSA operates 1,300 field offices throughout the nation and 37 teleservice centers. The field operations are directed by 10 regional commissioners and their staffs. The field offices are the main point of face-to-face contact with the public. The teleservice centers support the agency's national 800-number service and handle virtually all incoming telephone calls. Field office workers issue social security numbers (SSNs), help workers and employers correct records of earnings, help claimants file applications for benefits and assemble the evidence necessary to prove their eligibility, adjudicate retirement and survivors insurance claims, help determine the amounts of benefits payable, forward . . .. . . ~ disability insurance claims to cooperating state agencies (generally state vocational rehabilitation agencies) for determination of disability, and give workers and their families the information necessary for them to understand their rights and obligations under the program. In addition, the SSA headquarters, located in Baltimore, Maryland, consists of staff offices, the National Computer Center (NCC), disability operations, central records maintenance, and foreign claims operations. The SSA also operates data operations centers at Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Salinas, California. The data operations centers perform electronic data entry and editing functions for earnings records by converting annual wage reports from source documents to electronic form for transmittal to the NCC. Essentially all data processing for the SSA is done at the NCC. Six program service centers (PSCs) (located in New York City; Philadelphia; Birmingham, 13
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14 Alabama; Chicago; Kansas City, Missouri; and Richmond, California) certify benefit payments to the Department of Treasury's regional disbursing centers, maintain beneficiary records, review selected categories of claims. collect debts. and provide a wide range of other services to beneficiaries. ~ ~ ~ ~ ~~ , ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ -~-ecnno~og~ca~y, the 55A Is an information-intensive enterprise that must have an effective information infrastructure to support its diverse activities. Thus the SSA must necessarily be in the business of processing information. Inputs to its systems are millions of transactions, inquiries, and records--sometimes on paper, sometimes on magnetic media, and increasingly delivered by electrical connection directly from a computer terminal. Outputs include payment directives, sometime via magnetic media to the Department of Treasury, for disbursement as conventional checks but also as direct-deposit electronic transactions, responses to inquiries of many kinds, and of course the wide variety of reports for internal management and congressional oversight. Thus nothing is more critical to the success of the SSA than having a first-class ability to process information. The quality of the SSA's information system has a profound effect on both the efficiency and effectiveness of the entire organization. Efficiency--measured by the totality of resources required to provide a given level of service--depends, among other things, on how well the system automates individual labor-intensive tasks, how thorough the overall scope of automation is, and how adroitly SSA manages and operates its computer and telecommunications assets. Effectiveness--the extent to which the type and quality of its services match the goals of the SSA as set by management and by policy direction from Congress--can be judged in part by performance measures such as the accuracy of payments, the time required to initiate or terminate payments, and the time to respond to inquiries, as well as by less tangible measures such as the accessibility of SSA services to its clients and the extent to which prospective beneficiaries with legitimate claims are identified and assisted in getting what is due them. No significant improvement in the efficiency and effectiveness of the SSA can be achieved without corresponding support and aid from its information system. It is fortunate for the SSA that both computing and telecommunications and the corresponding industrial base have made profound technological advances over the past four decades. For example, the cost of performing a given computational task has come down over that period of time by a factor of many thousands. CorresnondinP dramatic ~ 1 ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ J — - _ _ . ~ ~ ~ O ~ Improvements nave also neen achieved In the cost ot data storage, communications, information display, and all other forms of automated information processing. The SSA operates at a scale that few private organizations can match, but its size is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing in that the agency can reap substantial economy of scale in its information-processing activities, but it is a curse in that any change in the system is technically difficult or operationally awkward and risky. Thus, on the one hand, it is economically feasible to achieve a high degree of automation of information
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15 processing; but on the other, SSA requirements may sometimes clash with the limits of current technology. SSA'S PAST PERFORMANCE The SSA admittedly deserves credit for doing its job with credibility while confronting a variety of technical and political difficulties. Very substantial improvements in both efficiency arid effectiveness have been achieved over the past decade, and they have happened in the face of a significant reduction in staff and a substantial increase in the volume of activity. Recent administrators have been proactive in seeking ways to improve the quality and variety of services provided to SSA constituents. Nevertheless, it cannot be claimed that the SSA's current information infrastructure and its components satisfy the criteria of a well-designed contemporary system. The overall architecture of the computer systems is like that of systems of the mid-1970s. Databases that do not provide linkage to related information impose serious constraints on both efficiency and effectiveness. The currently installed software systems are unnecessarily inflexible, making it expensive and time consuming to respond to almost any change--even predictable and routine ones, such as a change in a client's status. The systems in place are based on a highly centralized design, with little utilization of the dramatic improvements ire cost-effectiveness offered by powerful personal computers and workstations. Largely untouched are opportunities for worthwhile automation of manual operations that are labor-intensive.. ~ ^^ -lne operating- Stan appears to be substantially larger than those of comparable commercial firms such as large insurance companies. AISO, in the event of a failure of the NCC, the SSA risks losing all on-line systems and is currently Drenared to restore only limited batch operations off-site. ~ _1__ _41~ _ ~ A_ 1 _ ~ _ 1 _ _ _ · .~ ~~ ~ Clue other federal agencies, the 55A operates under constraints not encountered in the private sector. As large as its operating budget is in an absolute sense, it is not expansive; the information systems budget might even be considered tight. External oversight and a host of regulations and laws constrain the ways limited resources can be allocated. The federal government's labyrinthine procurement regulations add years to the procurement cycle for major additions of hardware, purchased software, and services, without apparent benefit. Employment regulations make it very difficult to attract and retain highly competent and motivated staff, while making it equally difficult to motivate or reassign marginal staff. Budgetary accounting mechanisms--especially the separation of labor costs from capital costs--do not allow assessment of the full costs of changes to the information system and impose dysfunctional incentives for making cost-effective improvements. The visibility and political sensitivity of the SSA's programs place it in a fishbowl in which almost any change is subject to criticism and second-guessing.
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16 Notwithstanding these constraints, the SSA has not done enough to exploit the freedom that it does enjoy for making substantial improvements to its information system. It needs to do a better job of planning for system improvements and of building a solid case with clear arguments for the resources it needs for presentation to SSA's management and its higher monitoring authorities. The committee is concerned that the SSA too often uses the difficulties of procurement as an excuse for maintaining the status quo or to justify actions aimed at solving short-term problems that end up building in long-term constraints. An example of this is automation at the PSCs, which is discussed in Chapter 6. EVALUATION OF SSA's SYSTEMS MODERNI:"TION IN 1988, at the request of former Commissioner Dorcas R. Hardy, the National Research Council convened a committee to review the Systems Modernization Plan (SMP), the Agency Strategic Plan (ASP), and the technical and technical management environment in which these plans were being implemented. The resultant committee undertook a two- phase study. In the first phase the committee reviewed and assessed the SMP, ASP, and the software engineering methods used at the SSA and issued a report in February 1990 entitled Systems Moderation alla the Strategic Plans of the Social Security Administration (National Research Council, 1990). For the second phase, the committee was asked to evaluate, among other things, the technical and technical management environment at the SSA for modernizing its information systems, as well as the human resource development and planning activities associated with systems modernization (Appendix A). Recognizing the time it would take to prepare and release this report and the urgency of near-term decision making, SSA Commissioner Gwedolyn S. King requested that the committee provide accelerated advice on the SSA's plans for backup and recovery of its NCC. In response to this request, the committee sent a letter report to the commissioner on June 15, 1990 (see Appendix B). In it the committee identified the need to limit disaster recovery to only critical functions, stressed the objective of maintaining database integrity, outlined a set of strategic goals and objectives, listed principle alternatives, suggested a planning approach, and recommended that SSA build a modest second data center. I]IE COMMI'P1'~E'S WHEW APPROACH This is the committee's report at the conclusion of the second phase. The committee approached its task in four ways: it (1) heard briefings on SSA operations, processes, information systems, and resources; (2) visited specialized facilities and examined .
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17 information systems in operation; (3) studied relevant planning and technical documents; and (4) interacted informally with selected SSA officials. The approach taken in this Phase II report is not entirely congruent with that outlined in the work statement. Instead, the committee has treated the elements of its charge within a broader framework, embodied in this report and its predecessor (National Research Council, 1990), that corresponds to a model of the SSA as a whole (Figure 1). The committee has concluded that a broad vision (Chapter 2) of SSA's functions must be constructed based on legislative administration and congressional guidance. Such a vision must portray the SSA's intended service to the public (Chanter 31. as set by constrained and . . . mandates ~ ~ .^ ~ ~ mandate and by available I SSA SrRLCTUtE TRAINING ~ a~ganeabon I Architecture Workforce - SER~CE T0 1 PL~UC __ VISION Leg~shtrve Indites AJ~'n~strot~on Guidance Conl3ressionc'1 Ordnance ~— TECHNOLOGY Figure I. Model for the Report resources. The broad vision must be translated to the information structure, which will determine the organizational form, technical architecture, and work force mix required to achieve the SSA's goals. The SSA must then be structured (Chapter 4) to provide mandated services to the public at levels consistent with those achieved by comparable organizations. As one input to SSA's structure, continual training will be needed to upgrade and maintain the quality of the agency's work force (Chapter 5). As another input, information technology (Chapter 6) will be essential to handle the agency's massive information flows. Sources of information include the public, other federal agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service, and local government activities. REFERENCE - National Research Council. 1990. Systems Modemization and the Strategic Plans of the ~ ' ~ - ~ ~ Washington' D.C.: National Academy Press. social becunty Administration.
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Representative terms from entire chapter: