Working behind the scenes

Internet Medicare Replacement Card

In information technology, the most unassuming people often produce the most revolutionary systems.

The private sector has Marc Andreesen, the media-shy genius who developed the first Web browser, and Ray Tomlinson, the little-known engineer who created e-mail. The federal government has people like Dean Mesterharm.

Knowledgeable observers credit Mesterharm, deputy commissioner for systems at the Social Security Administration, with providing the technological underpinnings that have made the agency one of the most online-savvy government entities around.

As the transition to e-government intensifies, especially in the aftermath of Sept. 11, SSA leads the way with online services that outstrip many other government Web offerings and computer systems that regularly process checks for more than 45 million Americans without glitches, slip-ups or downtime.

The wealth of online offerings — as well as SSA's chatty, appealing Web site — helps the agency fulfill its mission because "basically, social services are what we are," Mesterharm said.

"We started [providing information online] early, and we're now into the stage of actively trying to make all the major transactions that folks have with us available over the Internet," he added. "We see that as a major way of doing business in the future."

SSA prides itself on making information and services easily accessible to its customers — a goal that grows more complex as more ways of providing data become available, Mesterharm said.

"We have five different ways that people can do business with us, and several of those are new technologies," he said. "We have to be able to integrate what happens [to a consumer's case] in all those different types of interfaces, and when someone calls they expect [the SSA employee] to know all of it," even if the consumer used all five ways to contact the agency.

As difficult as that juggling act sounds, Mesterharm makes it look easy, those who know him say.

"Social Security is pushing its operations to the Internet, and that wouldn't be possible if the agency didn't have the strong foundation that it does," said Kathleen Adams, former assistant deputy commissioner of systems at SSA and now vice president for health systems at SRA International Inc. "The day-in, day-out operations have to be running smoothly.... Dean makes that happen.... He's a quiet, serious guy. He doesn't draw a lot of attention to himself, but he's a very solid person."

A graduate of Purdue University, Mesterharm spent 14 years with Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois before joining SSA. At the time, the agency was still collecting information manually and compiling it via what Mesterharm calls "a back-office, keypunch type of operation," reliant on one-way computer terminals. He instituted and oversaw the agency's transition to its current network, which now supports 100,000 workstations in 1,500 locations.

His careful attention to detail also has made it possible for SSA to build one of the world's largest and most proficient telecommunications processing operations, according to those who know him.

Mesterharm says the key to managing such a big change is to make incremental moves instead of broad-brush switches and to keep asking for feedback from those the change will affect.

So far, SSA's new Web-based services are proving popular. For example, more than 87,000 Americans have applied for retirement benefits via the agency's Web site since the online service began two years ago, and more than 47,000 consumers have ordered replacement Medicare cards the same way.

In the next few months, SSA will launch services on its Web site that will enable employers to file W-2 forms and consumers to apply for disability insurance benefits. Later in the year, a third service that allows consumers to supplement their disability application with additional medical information will also be launched online.

In addition to its public services, SSA's internal IT management routinely wins high marks, too.

The agency's backup and disaster recovery plans, for example, ensured that its systems kept running even after several field offices in the New York City area were evacuated after the terrorist attacks.

Early in 1989, Mesterharm began to sound the alarm about the careful preparations needed to change SSA's computer systems from the old century to the new, said Renny DiPentima, his predecessor at the agency and now president of consulting and systems integration at SRA International.

"Dean was the first senior manager to actually see the emerging Year 2000 problem. He really started the agency down the trail of taking Y2K seriously," DiPentima said. "When we worked together, I came to always rely on his judgment. He's not only a good manager, but also technically a very competent person."

Though IT is Mesterharm's focus at work, it fades to the background in his off hours, when he devotes as much time as possible to the two newest members of his family: his first grandchild, a 6-month-old boy named Devin, and an old English sheepdog puppy, Heidi.

Mesterharm's younger son is completing doctorate work at Rutgers University, while his older son, Devin's father, is a contractor for NASA. Asked how grandfatherhood suits him, Mesterharm broke into a rare, broad smile. "It's great!" he said.

***

The Dean Mesterharm file

Position: Deputy commissioner for systems, Social Security Administration, since 1996. Other resume highlights: Joined SSA in 1985 as director of computer processing operations. Became assistant deputy commissioner for systems in 1987. Previously, he was director of data processing, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois. Education: Bachelor's degree in industrial management, minor in computer science, Purdue University, 1967.

Quote: "We're actively trying to make all the major transactions that folks have with us available over the Internet. We see that as a major way of doing business in the future."

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