Oct 22, 2013

SSA Has No Idea Whether The Billions It's Spent On IT Have Done Any Good

     From a report by Social Security's Office of Inspector General (OIG) (footnotes omitted):
Our objective was to determine whether the Social Security Administration (SSA) had achieved the planned cost savingsfor its information technology (IT) initiatives....
In Fiscal Year (FY) 2012, SSA spent approximately$1.5 billion on IT investments. SSA has stated its IT investments have been critical to increasing its average annual employee productivity. For example, the Agency indicated that IT investments in online services and the disability process have allowed it to keep pace with recent workload increases. ...
In an April 2009 report, we noted that SSA’s 7-year projected savings for new and continued IT projects in FYs 2007 through 2009 were $10 to $20 billion. ...
In a 2007 review, we determined that although SSA had established a PIR [Post-Implementation Review] policy, it had not established a process to determine whether its IT projects actually achieved their planned cost savings....
We could not determine whether SSA had realized the planned cost savings for its IT initiatives because SSA had not calculated actual savings after project implementation. Additionally, SSA did not have a process to assess the overall effectiveness of its IT capital planning and investment control process. As a result, SSA did not know whether the IT investments achieved the planned FTE savings or any productivity improvements.
     For years, I have been asking the question: If the enormous IT investment required to implement electronic files at Social Security was cost effective, why didn't Social Security release a report crowing about its success? Now we have the answer. Social Security couldn't release a report crowing about its success because it had no idea whether its electronic files project was a success. It wasn't even trying to find out. I wonder if they weren't trying to find out because they were afraid to find out what the answer would be.
     I'm going to get some responses saying that electronic files are wonderful and asking why I would want to go back to paper files. I don't want to go back to paper files. Doing so would cost even more money. We may as well use the poorly designed system we have. However, I'm pretty sure that if former Commissioner Barnhart had put all that money that went into the switch to electronic files into more personnel to review paper files that the agency's backlogs would be far lower now. I don't care in the least whether some Social Security employee finds electronic files more to their liking. It doesn't matter a bit what Social Security employees like or don't like. It doesn't matter what I like or don't like. The important thing is delivering service to the public. I'm confident that throwing more people at the backlog problem would have worked. It's obvious that throwing IT money at contractors didn't work. We still have enormous backlogs. Everyone is now accustomed to these backlogs, except for the claimants. Huge contractors get rich while claimants die waiting for an answer.


Anonymous said...

Obviously you've never tried to find a paper file at SSA - they are almost never where they system indicates. I also find it amazing that a paper file can be sent to an office and logged in, but when you request it just a few days later, you get an "unable to locate" response! Huh?

Almost nothing the government spends money on is worth the cost. The agency should also try hiring people that actually read and write efficiently as we seem to have shortage of those in my office.

Anonymous said...

Charles, I think your comment about employees liking electronic files is incorrect.

It does matter whether employees like something. Sure, we are supposed to do our jobs either way, but actually liking the system helps productivity.

I don't know how you can argue paper files are better. From SCTs to writers to ALJs, at least at ODAR, electronic files are much, much better. With dual screens, I can review a case file in half the time--easily--so there's a huge productivity spike right there for your judges and writers. Building/working up is also easier electronically.

Sometimes I wonder what world you live in when you advocate for things that 99% of people who actually deal with the things you pontificate about feel the opposite way.

Anonymous said...

The real problem with the IT initiatives at SSA arise from the administrators not talking/listening/caring about what those in the field have to say. Good example was the automatic disability hearing scheduling initiative that Bourland promoted/pushed last several years with Astrue's approval. He was told by almost everyone in the field that the plan would not work and yet at least thousands of dollars were spent before it was determined that it would not work except maybe on the east coast. Exactly what he and other administrators were told before the project was begun. Many of these upper level administrators want to make a splash that they can carry over in their credentials when they leave SSA and SSA seems to be the lab where these experimental projects can be carried out at much expense in dollars and wasted time.

Anonymous said...

The pros of paper files:

1. They can't be lost.
2. When a rep submits something, it is not dependent on a person actually putting it in the file
3. It has virtually eliminated "trailer mail", that is evidence that is not associated with the file until way after it has left the HO
4. You can review a file much quicker unless it has not been marked properly, has a million, zillion pages or has a an exhibit or two that has a million,zillion pages. For those of us who are anal retentive, a million,zillion pages would be over 800 for the F section and over 100 for an exhibit IMHO, YMMV

The negatives are:

1. The platform on which they were created does not allow for easy changes to the platform

2. The platform was devised by IT people, not the end users

3. We do not have enough bandwidth and the system slows to a crawl quite frequently

4. The million,zillion issue which requires a lot of printing

5. Two screens are great, but lap tops bite when reviewing these files

That being said, I love efiles over all and realize that the work around is printing when needed.

Anonymous said...


could you or any of the other over 40 crowd (because, at least in my office, it's only the older folks who do this...) please explain why in the world you print anything (everything)?

It's a PII issue for one, it's wasteful for another, and finally, you can manipulate documents on the computer in every way you can (and more, especially with regard to size) on paper.

This has blown my mind since I started here. Aside from just being old and wanting to feel the paper, can you point to one meaningful reason why you print out exhibits/instructions/etc?

Anonymous said...

Ah 314 you belie your youth. Its all in the eyes. Its good to be young, enjoy it my friend.

Anonymous said...

@ 3:14

The instructions are located in the private section of case docs. It's annoying to switch between the exhibit list tab and case docs every time you need to look at them. It's also annoying to keep too many docs open at once. It's much more efficient to print the instructions out.

As for exhibits, I have no idea why you'd ever want to print them.

Anonymous said...

the automated hearing scheduler did work. It was in pilot mode which is the time when you gather data - including the issues. Usually after that effort is complete, other enhancements are made to make improvements and provide more in depth functionality. Instead, it was canned because of a few negative comments and inconsistent business practices. But lets rush back out there and push something else out so that some other exec can exhibit their hardnosed approach by canning that too.

Anonymous said...

Automatic scheduling did work in an area where reps, judges, VEs and hearing monitors did not travel to remote sites. In most of the country however, it would not work because not all VEs and hearing monitors travel. In fact, a very low percentage do travel to remote sites. With the requirement for strict rotation of VEs and medical experts, it couldn't work...impossible. With automatic scheduling, we would spend more time correcting the auto scheduling than doing it right in the first place. I'm glad that someone with common sense saw the light and canned that worthless project.

Anonymous said...

that issue could have been fixed.

Anonymous said...

but you're right - SSA wasted a lot of money developing a project without the input of the actual users. That is always a waste of time and money.

A larger issue is the lack of defined business processes, inconsistent business practices, infighting within the organization, empire building, and unprofessional behavior similar to what we saw with our politicians during the furlough.

Anonymous said...

There is enough blame to go around, from the typical Systems arrogance getting in the way to Operations never ever making a decision that they didn't later second guess or waffle on, requiring changes in the scope of projects. As for throwing a metric at teh value of a project, it usually works like this: Project A will save 1000 WYs and gets approved because of the CBA. Then what I described above happens and reality sets in. Interestingly enought, I've seen projects go from "saves 1000 WYs" to "will cost us 100 WYs" due to screen design, gaps, work arounds or similar glitches that could have been avoided had we really used real project managers, with real authority (including budget) over their projects.