May 13, 2012

GAO Criticizes Social Security

     From a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) has undertaken numerous modernization efforts, but it lacks effective measurement tools to determine progress. Since 2001, SSA has reported spending about $5 billion on the modernization of its systems. Specifically, the agency has undertaken hundreds of modernization projects each year from 2001 to 2011, and officials identified 120 such initiatives that they considered to be key investments in modernization. ... While the Office of Management and Budget requires agencies to establish performance measures to gauge modernization progress, SSA has not fully established quantifiable performance measures for all its modernization projects or performed post-implementation reviews, which GAO has previously recommended and which would enable the agency to effectively measure its progress....
SSA lacks updated and comprehensive plans to guide its modernization efforts. Strategic planning is essential for an organization to define what it seeks to accomplish, identify strategies to achieve the desired results, and measure progress. ...
      Let someone who is fairly removed from this issue give a few guesses as to why Social Security's systems modernization efforts may not meet GAO's criteria:
  • Much of it was funded by the economic stimulus adopted in the early days of the Obama Administration. A lot of money came to Social Security unexpectedly. There was a heavy emphasis on getting things going quickly. Social Security didn't have the luxury of spending a few years attending to the niceties that GAO likes. Besides, the niceties that GAO likes can lead to "paralysis by analysis."
  • Social Security has no idea from one year to the next how much money it will get for information technology or anything else. This makes effective long term planning impossible.
  • The whole world of information technology keeps changing at such a rapid pace that no one knows what to expect in the future. How do you plan for the future or even properly evaluate what you are current doing in this environment? There appears to be  a legitimate argument that much of the money being spent on Social Security's national computer center is a waste, that this sort of center is yesterday's technology, but  Social Security can't wait for a few years for its proper course to become crystal clear. It must go forward with what its best judgment is now. It has to do something even if that something turns out later not to have been the wisest thing it could have done.
  • The GAO always whines about something. That's their job. Sometimes their whining makes a worthwhile contribution to public administration. Sometimes it's just pointless whining.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would add that SSA's current measures of performance are a major problem in SSA's operations.

For example, one of the main strategic goals right now is to cut down the backlog of disability hearings and prevent its recurrence. That can be done simply by allowing or denying many claims without the proper analysis. Nothing is said about accuracy, due process, or long term review of these cases.

It is not SSA's fault. Congress demands all these stupid performance metrics and then complains when a West Virginia ALJ pays out all his cases. When timeliness is emphasized over quality, this is what you get.