IT Modernization

Social Security looks to scrap 30 years of code

Social Security Administration Logo

"We have a full-blown plan to basically re-write everything," Social Security Administration CIO Rob Klopp told FCW on June 14.

If the proposed $3.1 billion federal IT modernization fund becomes a system-shocking reality, Klopp said he plans to be among the first requesting a cut.

"We have very detailed plans, we know how we’re going to ask for the money," he said.

His plans are subject to final review by SSA Commissioner Carolyn Colvin, he noted, so he couldn’t say exactly how much SSA might end up soliciting.

But he said it will likely be a modest sum, thanks to SSA’s planned reliance on truly agile methodology.

Klopp pointed to the Disability Case Processing System as a reference point. In 2014, SSA killed and restarted the DCPS project after sinking $300 million and six years into it. The new DCPS push has cost less than $40 million, Klopp told FCW, and should be rolling out this December, thanks to an agile development approach.

With the DCPS experience informing them, SSA teams should be well positioned to work iteratively, quickly and cheaply to tackle the rest of the agency’s IT, Klopp said.

And he said starting over will make more sense than trying to incrementally improve the code base.

"If the code base I had was 10 years old instead of 30 years old, then I might be at a place where I could incrementally advance it," Klopp said. "If I start all over again, I can basically jump right on to the technology curve and have very modern, very cool stuff."

That "very modern, very cool stuff," he noted, is all too lacking in government.

"The reality is that the federal government lives somewhere between the mainstream and the late adoption," Klopp said. "Part of what the IT modernization fund is to give us a vehicle to move a little bit closer to be an early adopter."

Even if the IT modernization fund is approved by Congress, Klopp acknowledged he’ll face more hurdles as he tries to get overseers on board with agile.

"The oversight mindset is 20 years old, and it's built around waterfall and predefined projects with specified deliverables and budgets and timeframes," Klopp said. "And agile isn't that."

The inherent challenge with agile, in Klopp's nutshell: "You've got to give me a bunch of money, and I'm not going to tell you what I’m going to deliver."

He said feds will need a new oversight model, in which inspectors general and other watchdogs come in and see work products on a regular basis as they’re iteratively tested and deployed.

And even with that oversight, launching agile runs at modernization will require trust, he said.

"Business has to trust IT" for agile development to take place, Klopp said -- and that trust may be the hardest thing to cement into federal practice.

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.

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