GAO rips SSA's $1B modernization project

The Social Security Administration's $1 billion modernization effort faces significant technical and management challenges, thereby threatening the program's continued progress and success, according to a report released this month by the General Accounting Office.

Under the Intelligent Workstations/Local-Area Network (IWS/LAN) program, prime contractor Unisys Corp. is deploying more than 56,000 PCs and more than 1,700 networks in its 2,000 field offices nationwide. The PCs, which will replace 1970s-vintage dumb terminals, will allow SSA employees to immediately update or retrieve information from databases at SSA headquarters in Baltimore. According to GAO, the agency is considering options for purchasing additional systems, which could increase the number of workstations to 70,000.

However, according to GAO, the program is being undermined by a shortage of required workstations and by SSA's poor management, which potentially could delay the second phase of the program, in which SSA will install database systems, scanners, imaging servers and other office equipment.

The first cause for concern is the contract's requirement for 100 MHz computers, which were considered state-of-the- art when the contract was awarded in June 1996. According to GAO, Unisys "has expressed concerns about the future availability of the intelligent workstations that SSA is acquiring— noting that the 100 MHz workstations are increasingly difficult to obtain." Most PCs being sold today run at 166 MHz or faster.

SSA may find that the purchase of 100 MHz systems may end up costing the agency more money in the long run, according to Kevin Hause, senior analyst for PCs and desktops with International Data Corp.

"Obviously, they picked technology that is already obsolete," Hause said. "I would recommend they spend [the] very few extra dollars" necessary to buy a system that provides more investment protection. "There's a big difference between a Pentium 100 MHz [system] and what's available for under $1,000 today."

SSA officials could not be reached for comment.

In addition, GAO concluded that SSA has not developed a way to measure the extent to which IWS/LAN actually improves SSA's ability to carry out its mission. The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, in conjunction with Office of Management and Budget directives, requires every agency to evaluate and measure performance on all information technology proj-ects that cost more than $100 million.

IWS/LAN is a central part of SSA's ambitious reinvention effort that is designed to help sustain a skyrocketing workload caused by an increasing beneficiary population and longer life expectancies. According to the report, by 2010 SSA expects the number of beneficiaries requiring services to increase from 44 million to more than 54 million.

But because the agency has not established a means for measuring its progress, "SSA cannot be assured of the extent to which this project is improving the service to the public or that it is actually yielding the savings anticipated from this investment," GAO concluded. GAO first raised concerns about an inability to measure the progress of IWS/LAN in 1993 and again in 1994, according to the report.

The report also outlined serious problems at various state Disability Determination Services (DDS) agencies, which determine for SSA who is eligible for disability payments. According to GAO, "Eight of the 10 DDS [sites] reported that the IWS/LAN contractor had been untimely in responding to certain requests for service, resulting in disruptions to their operations."

In one case, a DDS official told GAO that her office waited about two weeks before the IWS/LAN contractor was able to repair a hard disk in one of the office workstations, according to the report.

DDS sites also are concerned about SSA's inability to provide adequate network management services, according to GAO. To address this problem, the National Council of Disability Determination Directors proposed that SSA delay the rollout of IWS/LAN to some states until a solution was found.

However, GAO concluded that such a move could have dire consequences for some states' Year 2000 preparations because IWS/LAN is expected to correct Year 2000 deficiencies. The DDS office in Florida has since refused to continue with IWS/LAN installations until the issue of who will control the network is resolved, the report said.

Mark Root, spokesman for Unisys' Federal Systems Division, said, "We're pleased that [GAO] recognized the success of IWS/LAN so far. However, as to the other aspects [of the report], we have nothing more to add."

As of March 15, SSA and Unisys completed the installation of about 31,261 workstations and 850 LANs, according to GAO. Officials at SSA said the work has amounted to 75 LAN installations per weekend since installations began.

In the scheme of a $1 billion program, "they seem to be pretty well on track," said Bob Dornan, senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc. However, Dornan said it would be "unconscionable" if the contract did not allow the agency to "refresh" outdated and outmoded workstations with newer technology.

In SSA's official response to the GAO report, Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel said the IWS/LAN contract "incorporates a technology-substitution clause in lieu of a technology-refreshment clause" that requires the contractor to provide newer machines at or below the cost of the 100 MHz systems.



Results of GAO Study on IWS/LAN

* Contractor concerned about availability of 100 MHz PCs.

* State offices concerned about loss of network control; delayed rollout would leave Year 2000 bugs unfixed.

* SSA has not defined performance goals as required by Clinger-Cohen and does not plan to conduct review once installed.


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