May 3, 2012

Social Security Subcommittee Schedules Hearing On Information Technology

     The House Social Security Subcommittee has scheduled a hearing for May 9 on the state of information technology at Social Security. The press release strongly suggests that the point of the hearing is to pressure the agency "to establish a strategic vision for its information technology investments and develop a long-term plan to improve customer service." I suppose that the underlying premise here is that the future will be bright for Social Security once there is a "long-term plan" for information technology taking over customer service at Social Security. That may sound good if you are a member of Congress or a Congressional staffer, especially if you have spent time listening to government contractor lobbyists, but at ground level it's absurd. There's no amount of money or planning that's going to accomplish the feat of improving customer service at Social Security in the absence of adequate staffing. Some things must be done be people and there's a lot of that at Social Security.
     By the way, why is it that no one ever looks back at the project to transition to electronic files for disability cases? A hell of a lot of money was spent on that information technology project and a hell of a lot of money is still being spent on it. What has been the payoff? Has customer service been improved? Can anyone demonstrate productivity gains? I'm pretty sure that if all that money had been spent on keeping an adequate staff at Social Security that customer service would have been much better over the 11 years and would remain much better as far as one can see into the future. Technology is great but it can only take you so far.
     The press release for the hearing does indicate that Social Security's national computer center project is coming in significantly under budget. I guess this means that Social Security's operating budget must be cut.


Anonymous said...

Much of the ODAR staff, especially the ALJs and decision-writers, would say that electronic files are preferable to paper files. One advantage is no more lost files -- you cannot misplace an electronic file in the same way as a paper file.

Anonymous said...

I worked for SSA for many years. I worked in a FO, RO, and also in CO. The appearance of Customer Service is in the FO. However, it is rooted in every level of the organization. If technology can be improved upon, the customer service at the FO level will improve because the staff who remain in the FO after all the cuts will be able to do a more efficient job. As an example, yesterday, I was able to enroll on SSA's site and obtain my benefit statement online. It was easy, clear, and in a familiar format, because it looked just like the statements mailed in past years. It gave me all the information I needed to make sure all my earnings were posted (I was a FERS employee) and have worked since my retirement. No one in the FO had to be burdened by a phone call or visit. Thus, they were able to take care of the visitors who were not able to do their current business online. If more business can be done online, then it stands to reason that fewer employees will be needed for the front line customer service positions. While it will take a while to transition to a place where most customers feel comfortable with doing their SSA business online, the young folks of today would rather do business online. I support more and BETTER technology at SSA. There is absolutely no reason SSA can't program the online applications to cover most, if not all scenarios, so that everything can be done online. While there are some security (verification) issues for some circumstances, as we progress in the word of technology, and work with our State and Federal partners, technology can make SSA a more efficient and accurate organization.

Anonymous said...

I like what anon at 9:52 is saying but unfortunately, the people who will be most comfortable doing as much as business online as possible are in their 20s, 30s, and very early 40s right now, so it will be at least 20 years before we see most of the benefits of electronic business at SSA. By that point, we may have to just scan our implanted RFID chips at the door and have our pertinent information downloaded directly to the solid-state hard drives in our brains.
(I'm kidding, of course. Even if such technology were available, SSA would never buy into it because by the time they figured out how to make it work, the next bit of tech would have come along, rendering SSA's triumphant breakthrough an obsolete footnote.)

Anonymous said...

While I support the need for additional staff to provide good customer service, poor technology limits the ability of the staff to provide the kind of service we would like. Systems available to field office employees are antiquated, take years to learn, provide us with insufficient information, and all too often fail to give us the ability to take prompt action to resolve problems. Even the best employees have difficulty meeting the needs of callers and visitors without adequate systems support. The current systems are at least 10 or 15 years behind the times and no business would operate with the kind of systems we have to utilize. Every private financial institution has better systems support than SSA, including web based applications and customer service interfaces, and SSA does not even have a plan to transition to more modern systems. It would be great if Congress can get SSA there.

Anonymous said...

The implementation of the electronic folder for disability claims has been an immense time saver for the agency and reps and dramatically improved processing time. 10 years ago the first 15 minutes of every hearing was spent sorting out what submitted medical evidence had not made it into the paper file. The dramatic reduction in the backlog has been in large part fueled by being able to send files to other less busy offices at the push of a button from everything to pulling, decision writing or hearing of cases.

Mr hall you can't seriously state that the ability to sit in your office and remotely access a file electronically instead of having a one time static copy of the file you had to pay someone to go make hasn't made your life easier and dramatically reduced your calls to local hearing offices. I'm am constantly mystified as to your opinion that everything the agency does is bad yet the time it takes your clients to have hearings and gets decisions is less than half it was 3 years ago.

Anonymous said...

"no lost files" with electronic files, remember that when to whole system goes down and the backup 'tapes' do no load.

Oh no, this time the technology will work, not like the "unsinkable" Titanic, etc., etc., ....

Anonymous said...

While SSA has made some strides, its technology still lags to say the least. MCS and MSSICS are so outdated it's almost hilarious. If SSA wants to get serious about information technology improvements, it needs to bring in someone from the outside to totally overhaul the system. Incremental changes help somewhat, but much more could be done. MCS and MSSICS are reminiscent of MS DOS. Need I say more?

Anonymous said...

You're seriously questioning whether electronic files are better than paper???!?!?!


Paper files are abominable. A complete an utter waste. I can easily see how it took much longer to get a case processed when cases were solely paper. What a nightmare.

I still can't understand why paper cases still exist?? They should all be scanned into electronic.

At least on my end, it will take me twice as long to get through an equalled sized paper file than one that is electronic.

Anonymous said...

I find it amusing when folks chime in about how easy it should be to automate agency processes. Like you can go to Best Buy and buy something off the shelf to not just handle RIB claims, but let citizens file using the web.

I started when we used paper punch tape to get queries, and the progress is amazing given the funding the agency has had to work with over time. Despite pundits getting all 21st century about mainframes being declasse, that just points out how little they really understand SSA's IT architecture and programmatic systems.

Not to say we can't do better, for example, our adoption of networks and PCs was slow, but SSA is by nature a conservative organization and isn't one for cutting edge. We tried that with first efforts with thin client and RDS and OS/2 only to have the market kill OS/2 and go to Windows and thin client be 15 years too soon. (Now it's called "the cloud.") But these programs are frigging complicated and if you fail to recognize that, you're going to fail, and fixing those failures will cost way more just to get back to the baseline.

To Hall's point, yes, folks on the Hill have viewed automation as a way to reduce staff or budget, but that's been a constant since the mid-80s. Were Congress and the WH leave the agency alone, no new laws, no FISMA, no OMB directives etc, we might be able to go in that direction, but with all those things changing the demands on the agency yearly, it's a treadmill. We make no real progress, because they change the expectations.