SSA shelves panel's IT recommendations, drawing IG criticism

After convening a panel to help plan for its IT future, the agency said it lacked the resources to act on the advice.

The Social Security Administration spent more than half a million dollars to convene a panel of experts to help plan ahead for IT systems, then dismantled it and shelved most of the recommendations, claiming inadequate resources, according to a new audit by SSA  Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll.

The panel, called the Future Systems Technology Advisory Panel, cost SSA more than $550,000, and issued four reports and 78 recommendations before Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue pulled the plug in January, the IG said.

“The agency does not have the resources at this time to support the panel or to implement its recommendations,” officials wrote in a notice posted on the agency’s website in February.

FSTAP members provided independent advice and recommendations on future Internet applications, customer service, privacy, and other areas vital to the agency’s mission. Its members included federal officials and experts from industry and universities.

Social Security Administration officials said they agreed with 52 of the 78 recommendations. The recommendations dealt with, among other things, data center migration, modernizing legacy systems, and managing digital copies of medical files. Officials said they implemented 11 of the recommendations, which the IG termed “low-hanging fruit,” such as securing network access and moving customer services to the Internet. Officials also said they planned to implement 40 other recommendations.

When the IG’s auditors asked for an update on the recommendations the SSA planned to implement, officials directed them to the minutes and transcripts of past panel meetings. They provided no more information than that, according to the audit. The statement from February noted too that they would not implement the recommendations because they didn’t have the money to do so.

“To that end, we were unable to substantiate that the 11 recommendations considered implemented were, in fact, implemented,” O’Carroll wrote.

O’Carroll said no one can be sure how the panel helped. “We could not determine whether the agency received any cost savings from implementing its recommendations,” because officials didn’t note how they put any of the recommendations into action, O’Carroll wrote.

He recommended officials review the costs and benefits of the panel’s recommendations and adopt the ones with the greatest benefit to customers via modern technology.

SSA officials, instead, objected to the audit overall. “As the Commissioner of Social Security discussed with the Inspector General on multiple occasions, it is clearly inappropriate to audit recommendations provided by an advisory committee created by the Commissioner to solicit independent, external consideration of IT issues,” Dean Landis, deputy chief of staff at the agency, wrote to O'Carroll July 9.

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