Social Security Administration rules

SSA's 2010 Service Vision

Like millions of elderly Americans, Renny DiPentima's 90-year-old mother,

Mary, expects her Social Security check to arrive on time. When it doesn't,

she can pick up the phone and dial a toll-free number for help. But the

most sophisticated online agency in the world doesn't stop there.

If Mary wants to know how much a cost of living increase will be, she

can get that with the click of a mouse on the Social Security Administration's

Web site. If she loses her Medicare card, she can order a new one online,

too. And later this year, SSA plans to embark on an even more ambitious

program to help consumers — launching a new Web site for recipients to apply

for benefits online without using a single piece of paper or a 33-cent stamp.

While most agencies struggle with information technology, SSA seems

to defy the stereotype of bureaucracies bungling the development and management

of IT systems and online projects. SSA is an agency that is not just a step

ahead of other federal agencies in delivering high-tech services to its

customers, it is a generation ahead of the federal pack in cyberspace. SSA

routinely beats other agencies in managing IT within the agency, too, receiving

A grades from Rep. Stephen Horn (R-Calif.) for its management of the Year

2000 problem last year and, just recently, for securing its systems. The

agency also has received high marks on independent surveys for its toll-free

phone service, at times beating service companies in the private sector.

For SSA, every number has a name, every name has a face and every person

deserves the best service that government can provide online and on time.

"Social Security is customer-focused, and e-government is now the way

that many people want their services delivered," said DiPentima, who was

the deputy commissioner for systems at SSA until he became president of

SRA International Inc.'s government sector in 1995.

And that's the way it should be. People over the age of 55 spend more

time on the Internet than any other age group, according to recent studies.

They average about 700 minutes a month online — 80 minutes more than any

other age group. And their numbers are only going to grow as baby boomers

retire and demand even more services via cyberspace, according to Media

Metrix Inc., a company that studies Internet use.

No Choice

But being ahead of the IT curve is nothing new for SSA. Ever since President

Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, there has been

a covenant between the government and the people to provide a pension to

protect the elderly, and that has meant investing in ways to fulfill that

contract, including using IT.

"We want to make sure we pay the right person the right check in the

right amount and at the right time," said Paul Barnes, who heads SSA's Human

Resources Department.

That means building information systems that are reliable, efficient

and aimed at improving the delivery of benefits. Social Security is the

sacred cow in American politics. This year's presidential candidates are

promising not to tamper with the pension system, and most Americans expect

it to be there when they retire as a safety net to keep them out of poverty.

And that expectation, along with the popularity of the program, is the

reason SSA has always been on the cutting edge, trying out new ideas to

keep consumers happy.

"Unlike many agencies, Social Security is face-to-face with the public,"

said former Social Security Commissioner Dorcas Hardy, who served from 1986

to 1989. "The agency has no choice [but to invest in IT]. We started in

the late 1980s really focusing on technology, committing to it. We really

tried to make sure where it is the best."

Unlike the Internal Revenue Service or the U.S. Postal Service, which

has struggled to keep up with customer demands, SSA has a long history of

providing services that are right on target for an aging population. And

because of its special status, SSA has defied budget cuts, controversies

and efforts to privatize it.

"This group [of seniors] has been our bread and butter for 65 years,"

said William Halter, the deputy SSA commissioner for electronic services.

Since he took office last December, Halter has been pushing the technology

envelope as far as it can go. He has consulted a wide variety of sources — from Charles Schwab and Co. Inc., the financial planners, to the American

Savings Education Council — looking for ideas.

Among the Internet initiatives introduced by SSA this year:

* SSA's eNews (www.ssa. gov/enews), an electronic newsletter developed

in 30 days, which began delivery on March 1 and now has 100,000 subscribers.

* An online benefits planner (www.ssa.gov/ retire), which debuted on

the SSA Web site April 7. More than 500,000 people have used it to help

calculate benefits before they retire. Individuals can download and install

a software program to customize their estimates.

* Online Medicare card replacement, which has been available since July.

More than 12,000 people have taken advantage of the service (www.ssa.gov/medicare

card).

* The Work Site, a section SSA added to its Web site in May that is

geared toward helping disabled beneficiaries (www.ssa.gov/work). It offers

information on everything from training programs for people with disabilities

to tax incentives for employers who hire them.

"We want to provide customer service in the way our customers want it,

and when our customers said they wanted more electronic services, we [set]

out to provide it," Halter said.

That includes using some of the most sophisticated computer systems

on the market — and managing IT resources wisely. For example, SSA is considering

a pilot project for seat management at its national computer center in Woodlawn,

Md., which manages 80,000 seats nationwide. If SSA decides to go ahead with

the project, it would join just a handful of agencies testing the relatively

new idea of outsourcing the ownership and management of desktop computers.

SSA hopes to launch the pilot project within the next year, but the

agency is not certain that seat management is the way to go.

"We're not sure it's cost-effective," said Dean Mesterharm, SSA's deputy

commissioner for systems.

Problems in Paradise

The secret behind SSA's success in IT cannot be credited to any individual

visionary. Rather, many SSA executives have taken up the mantle over the

years to convince Congress to give the agency enough money to experiment

with new systems. Robert Ball, known as "Mr. Social Security," is one of

them. He headed the agency under three presidents from 1962 to 1973.

"We just had a huge amount of data to manipulate, volumes of it. And

we started to experiment as soon as possible," said Ball, who is now 85.

In 1958, he wrote a directive calling for using the newest technology to

make Social Security a vibrant organization.

SSA was the first civilian agency to embrace computers in the 1950s,

using an IBM Corp. system to post individuals' wages in their permanent

records. It was the first agency to use a toll-free number in the 1980s

to answer consumer complaints. And it began working on its Year 2000 compliance

problem in 1989 — almost a decade before most people had even heard of the

Year 2000 bug.

But IT hasn't always been a success at SSA. In the early 1980s, Congress

resisted giving SSA the money it needed to run a modern agency, and its

technical advantages fell behind, recalled former commissioner Hardy. When

Hardy arrived at the agency in 1986, SSA employees resisted setting up a

toll-free phone line, and employees were still using computer tapes to store

records of every Social Security recipient.

"[The tapes] were hanging all over the place, and to find a name starting

with H, you had to go through millions of tapes," said Hardy, now a consultant

on retirement issues. "But we always remembered, there's a customer there.

There's a beneficiary at the end of the line."

In 1999, SSA became embroiled in a major controversy over privacy when

it developed a program called the Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate

Statement (PEBES), which allowed the public to view their benefits information

via the Internet. SSA pulled the plug on PEBES when it became clear that

anyone who knew some basic information could gain access to other individuals'

statements, which included annual income and other personal information.

SSA spent the next few months defending its decision to quickly embrace

Internet technology.

David John, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said SSA is doing

a great job in the Electronic Age, but privacy questions continue to dog

the agency because of the sensitive data it has in its systems.

"I think the agency is very reluctant to step back into it," he said,

referring to PEBES. "It's one thing to be able to request a statement through

the mail. It is another thing to actually get it online."

Meanwhile, the Social Security Advisory Committee, an independent agency

set up to monitor SSA, continues to express concern that the agency will

not have the resources to invest in the technology necessary to provide

the kinds of electronic services the public demands.

"The agency's commitment to provide service that is comparable to the

best in the private sector will require it to adopt new technologies rapidly

because the public will want to use them in its dealings with SSA," according

to a September 1999 report by the committee.

Cutting Edge

In its strategic plan, released two weeks ago, SSA argued that it would

take considerable effort to keep its systems first-rate and its services

up-to-speed in the Digital Age. Although it now spends about $600 million

a year on IT, the strategic plan did not seek substantial increases to deal

with the increasing number of retirees and the growing demand for electronic

services. Instead, it asked for enough money to maintain the information

system at its current level.

The plan, called 2010 Service Vision, maps out how SSA can provide the

best service for a population of senior citizens expected to increase by

nearly 50 percent in 10 years by tapping into the latest technological advances

in e-government.

"Already under stress, we now deliver service in a present in which

customers' expectations are racing higher, as we look ahead to a future

that promises an explosion in technology and huge growth in workload," wrote

SSA Commissioner Kenneth Apfel in the plan's introduction.

The plan calls for better service, improved technology and workforce

training because of the large number of SSA employees who are expected to

retire in the next five years. Among the plan's top priorities:

* Enable customers to complete transactions at the first point of contact.

* Maximize technology to automate workload and enhance service.

* Give customers access to electronic records, but protect their privacy.

* Integrate other government services with SSA's to provide a one-stop

shopping service.

* Create a paperless environment so that all work is handled electronically.

* Survey customers to make sure they are happy, and be responsive to

their complaints.

Keeping the customer happy is an idea that is already in place. For

years, SSA has regularly used focus groups to find out what recipients like

and what they don't like.

The strategy is working. The agency always gets top grades whether it

is scored on service or security. But it wants to do even better, said Toni

Lenane, senior adviser to the SSA commissioner for customer service integration.

"We're inviting comments via e-mail to our Web page. We are trying to

come up with a complete toolbox to measure what we are doing and how well

we did," Lenane said.

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