IG: SSA system reboot success depends on backlog

The Social Security Administration's reboot of a failed $300 million IT system for its disability program is being rolled out gradually, and it's getting good marks so far.

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The Social Security Administration's reboot of its failed $300 million IT system is live on a limited basis in select states, but its ultimate success depends on SSA's ability to handle its increasing backlog, according to a recent inspector general’s report.

Because SSA's Disability Case Processing System has a rocky history, Congress demands frequent updates from SSA's inspector general.

After sinking about $300 million and six years into its development, SSA restarted the project in 2014 under an agile approach, which has so far elicited better results.

SSA plans to deliver system functionality by January 2018 at an estimated price tag of $75 million.

In December, SSA aired its first working software -- its "early adopter release" -- in Delaware, Maine and Ohio. As of mid-March, the release had processed 231 disability cases, limited to "adult initial disability claims involving only physical allegations that met the criteria for fully favorable decisions," the April 4 report states.

User satisfaction with the early adopter release has generally been favorable, based on the IG's survey of 11 case examiners who have used it. All respondents said they are satisfied with the system and that it is easy to use. The most common complaints relate to the system's limited functionality at this point.

The next system release will take place this month in Rhode Island, Virginia and Iowa, and it will expand the claims to include "fully favorable adult disability cases with psychological allegations."

SSA expects to begin retiring its legacy disability case processing systems in fiscal year 2019 and to completely transition from them by the end of fiscal year 2020.

SSA's existing -- and increasing -- claims backlog poses a major challenge to meeting these milestones.

In June 2016, SSA pegged the number of backlog claims at 11,890. As of March 14, SSA reported that number swelled to 22,082, of which 12,810 have been completed. While SSA enjoyed a net progression of 701 cases in its most recent sprint, the agency's clearance rates have varied considerably, which, the IG reported, makes it "difficult to predict future velocity."

The SSA IG concluded that ultimately "SSA's ability to meet its delivery goals will depend on the backlog's future growth and with the velocity with which the agency completes the user stories."

But there are three areas of risk that "either will occur or are very likely to occur and would have a high impact" on the project's delivery dates: insufficiently fast claims clearance to meet planned delivery dates, insufficient resources for the project and adequate system testing and user training.

The SSA watchdog is asking that the agency to deploy teams to handle the backlog, prepare for new launches and create a mechanism that can automatically generate test cases for employees.

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