An L.L. Bean for senior citizens

The Social Security Administration is planning to become the L.L. Bean of the Internet for senior citizens seeking information and online services — all of it for free.

No longer limited to just sending a monthly check to retirees and disabled citizens, SSA views the 45 million Americans who receive Social Security benefits as a potential audience for government- to-consumer services in cyberspace. The number of Social Security recipients is expected to top 53 million by 2010.

In the past three months, SSA has made it possible for retirees to replace lost Medicare cards online and compute retirement benefits electronically without paying an accountant or waiting in line.

"Our mission touches every single American," said Tony Trenkle, SSA's director of electronic services. "We have to be able to serve the people."

Far ahead of other federal agencies when it comes to delivering customer services, Trenkle said the agency is modeling its ideas on the L.L. Bean catalog, which pioneered the idea of ordering every kind of outdoor apparel and tool imaginable by simply dialing a toll-free number. With a long list of "firsts" already under its belt, SSA is conducting dozens of pilot projects that will bring the new services to seniors, one of the most active groups on the Internet today. SSA first began offering Internet services in 1994, and its site logged 22,000 visits that first year. Last year, 16 million people logged on to the site (

"It's important for SSA to go online, but they also must recognize that there will always be categories of potential beneficiaries or people with individual problems that a computer cannot handle," said Evelyn Morton, legislative representative for the American Association of Retired Persons, which represents more than 30 million people.

She cautioned that while seniors are one of the fastest-growing segmets of Web users, "there is still a sizable portion of the population for whom the Internet is not an option for a variety of reasons."

Last month, SSA announced a partnership with CommerceNet, a non- profit consortium that works to advance e-commerce, by exploring how to use Internet technologies to deliver better services.

Among the most familiar services being tested in a special laboratory at SSA are instant messaging — which would provide seniors with immediate answers to their questions — secure e-mail and voice over the Internet — which would enable seniors to talk to SSA representatives as they conduct transactions on the site.

In the next three months, SSA plans to test many Internet technologies. Among the companies participating in the tests are Cosmocom Inc., Siebel Systems Inc. Nortel Networks, BroadVision Inc., Unisys Corp., Sideware Systems Inc., IBM Corp., Sybase Inc., Microsoft Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Oracle Corp.

Among the products being tested are Nortel's e-support center; Siebel Systems' customer relationship management products and Cisco's database and e-mail manager products.

"The Internet has a tremendous potential to expand and improve customer service," said William Halter, SSA deputy commissioner. "But before we move forward, we must first test these technologies to determine if they are practical and to ensure they can protect customer privacy." SSA's most popular online requests include personal earnings statements, Social Security cards, lists of the most popular names in America and frequently asked questions.

Large numbers of baby boomers are about to retire, and they are demanding the same kinds of services they have at the private companies they work for, so SSA will be hard pressed to be responsive to more inquiries.

"I'm always impressed by how people from all different age groups can assimilate the Net," Halter said. "We know that the fastest-growing age group [seniors] are using e-mail."

There are no plans yet for Webcasts or fancy designs, Halter said, but SSA isn't ruling anything out. "The more that people know about these services, the more the momentum builds," Halter said.


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