Social Security Administration rules
- By Judi Hasson
- Oct 16, 2000
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.
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
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
* 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
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.
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
"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
* Create a paperless environment so that all work is handled electronically.
* Survey customers to make sure they are happy, and be responsive to
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.