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