SSA faces IT management problems, IG says

IT among 8 top priorities named for management at SSA

The Social Security Administration faces major problems with managing its IT programs to keep up with expanding workloads, according to a new audit from SSA Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll Jr.

The IT areas covered in an audit report issued Dec. 1 include managing the transition to a new data center, modernizing Common Object Business Oriented Language (Cobol)-based legacy systems, shifting more retirement applications online and fixing service problems with voice-over-IP (VOIP) phone service at call centers.

Meanwhile, the SSA continues to struggle with managing its IT investments effectively, with problems related to system continuity and availability, system modernization, IT service delivery, IT strategic planning and management of IT investments, O'Carroll wrote.

Managing the timing of the transition from the existing data center to a new center has become a problem, the audit indicated.

“SSA estimates that by 2012, [its National Computer Center] as a stand-alone data center will no longer be able to support this expanding environment,” the report states. “Additionally, significant structural problems and electrical capacity issues have developed that now make construction of a new primary computer center imperative; however, the agency has projected that this new facility cannot be operational before 2015. “

SSA also has problems with how to modernize its legacy systems that use roughly 60 million lines of Cobol computer code.

The Cobol software is “complex, powerful and successful” and used by other federal agencies and Fortune 500 companies, O’Carroll wrote. However, “some consider Cobol a dead or dying language,” and the National Research Council said newer programming languages had more productive capabilities, he added. To further complicate the issue, a 2002 internal report said replacing the SSA’s Cobol applications was too costly and risky, and suggested restructuring them for ongoing support.

To handle an increasing volume of applications, SSA has been encouraging online retirement applications, which currently make up about 35 percent of the total, the audit states. But the agency needs to boost online applications to 50 percent by 2013 “to keep SSA’s field offices from being overwhelmed by increasing workloads,” O’Carroll wrote.

SSA's volume of telephone calls is also rising, with 68 million calls expected in 2010, up from 58 million two years before. The agency has adopted VOIP telephone systems to integrate its networks and provide faster call routing.

However, the administration's field offices have problems with the VOIP services, the audit stated. “For example, we encountered long wait times, disconnected or dropped calls, poor sound quality, and difficulty when navigating the telephone menu tree. If our experiences are representative of VOIP functionality, this raises concerns about the level of customer service provided to individuals calling SSA’s field offices,” O’Carroll wrote.

The IG identified eight major management and performance priorities for fiscal 2011, including managing IT investments, implementing the economic stimulus law of 2009, reducing improper payments and hearings backlogs, improving transparency, customer service and the disability benefits process while protecting the integrity of Social Security numbers. 

The report did not include a response from SSA officials.


About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Mon, Dec 13, 2010 Nancy P Woodlawn

External customers are everyone in the USA. Dave should actually read the article. COBOL is used by SSA (roughly 60 million lines of customized code, unique to SSA). It (meaning COBOL) is used by other federal agencies, universities and Fortune 500 companies that manage huge data stores. I guess if the "big fish" are still using it, then it can't be a dead language - you just need a bigger boat to ride these apps.

Mon, Dec 13, 2010

The article implies that other Federal Agencies and Fortune 500 companies are using SSA COBOL code, however the actual report (page 7 - see the link above in article) simply says that other Fed agencies and Companies continue to use COBOL to process millions of transactions per day. The real implication here is that COBOL may not be as dead as many would suggest. But - while COBOL is a big problem for SSA - the real challenge for SSA is to just make some decisions and get moving on the projects that need to be undertaken, like fast-tracking the new data-center and the disability claims processing system.

Mon, Dec 13, 2010 Dave K

"roughly 60 million lines of Cobol computer code... and used by other federal agencies and Fortune 500 companies..."

It sounds like SSA has external customers and is doing work beyond it's charter. Why not charge more and ask the Fortune 500 customers to assist with an overhaul?

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