Social Security nominee promises ‘top-to-bottom’ review of IT modernization plan

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President Donald Trump’s pick to run the Social Security Administration says he’ll take a top-to-bottom look at the agency’s five-year IT modernization plan, and will reexamine its growing disability backlog.

Andrew Saul, the administration’s nominee for Social Security commissioner, told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing Tuesday that, if confirmed, he’d rely on his prior experience as chairman of Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.

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He added that his time on the board, which manages the Thrift Savings Plan, is the part of his resume he’s most proud of.

“When I took over as chairman, the systems of the board were in bad shape,” Saul said. “I worked hard to lead the board to modernize its systems and technologies and to restructure the executive staff and personnel functions.”

The Social Security Administration hasn’t had a permanent commissioner in more than five years, and is one of the longest vacancies for the head of a major agency.

Senate Finance Committee ranking member Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said it’s one of the most important posts in the federal government.

“Without a confirmed leader, the agency cannot create and execute a long-term vision of how to improve the program,” Wyden said.

An acting director, Wyden added, cannot hire qualified people from outside the agency into Senior Executive Service (SES) positions, such as the person who would be in charge of IT security, or the head of the agency’s more than 1,200 field offices.

“Our country deserves the best talent, and this barrier needs to be removed,” he said.

Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) said the agency needs permanent leadership to keep IT modernization on time and on budget.

“In the not-distant past, SSA essentially wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on projects that went nowhere,” Hatch said. “Toward the end of the Obama administration, some new approaches were tried, and those trials continue to this day. It remains to be seen if they will prove to be successful.”

A few years ago, SSA tried to roll out a new Disability Case Processing System (DCPS), but ultimately scrapped its first attempt after spending more than $350 million.

Last week, SSA’s Chief Information Officer Rajive Mathur, along with the agency’s inspector general, told members of the House Ways and Means Committee that the agency has had more success with the second launch of the DCPS system.

Saul told Hatch that he’ll tackle SSA’s legacy IT just like he helped overhaul the technology at the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.

“I inherited a completely failed system that basically was not functional at the time I took over as chairman,” he said. “We had major lawsuits and we had to clean up a  failed system with over $100 million loss to the taxpayers with nothing to show. So I am aware of what can go wrong  in a big government agency if these systems are not well thought out.”

One goal, Saul said, is to review SSA’s five year IT modernization plan. The agency is already a year into that plan.

“One of my primary tasks in the first, let’s call it six months or a year, will be to sit down and review the modernization plan that’s in place at the Social Security Administration from top-to-bottom. I want to be sure that what we’re doing is going to work for the present and for the future, in the interests of the beneficiaries.”

The Social Security Administration must also confront a growing disability claims backlog.

Right now, more than a million people remain stuck in the backlog, and on average, they have to wait for longer than a year to get a disability hearing.

Wyden said long waits are common-place at field offices in Oregon.

“On the backlog, the previous two commissioners promised to fix the problem, and it hasn’t been fixed,” he said. “So what are you going to do differently to actually fix it so we won’t we see what I saw just a couple of weeks ago when I visited a field office?”

Saul told Wyden he’ll investigate the problem on the ground — in Oregon and beyond.

“I understand that the field office is where the rubber meets the road,” he said. “When you talk about service to the beneficiaries, there’s nothing more important than the personal contact in these 1,200-plus field offices spread throughout our nation. So I will, number one, not only get out to Oregon, but into many locations around the country, because before you know what you can do, I believe I’m going to have to really get out and see what the problems are.”

However, Saul told Wyden that he couldn’t promise to not close any field offices until he better understood the situation.

“I can promise you, senator, that I will go out there and before any decisions are made in any of the field offices, I will understand what the conditions are there in that locale,” he said. “Nothing will be done without my OK.”

Lawmakers also dug into other parts of Saul’s resume — specifically, his time as a trustee of the Manhattan Institute, a right-wing think tank that supported President George W. Bush’s proposed plan to privatize Social Security.

Saul said that’s a policy decision he wouldn’t get to make as SSA commissioner.

“My job, if I’m confirmed as commissioner, is to deliver services to the beneficiary. I believe something like privatization should be left for the Treasury Department and for the legislative branch,” Saul said. “I’m the manager of the agency, and that’s what I will dedicate my time to.”

Alex Lawson, the executive director of the advocacy nonprofit group Social Security Works, said in a statement that Saul is “utterly unqualified for the position” of SSA commissioner.

“He has no background in Social Security whatsoever,” Lawson said.

In addition to his promise to keep politics out of the agency, Saul touted his positive relationship with federal unions back when he ran the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.

“When President Bush’s term was over, I was very proud that all 14 federal unions had written a letter to President Obama and Sen. [Chuck] Schumer (D-N.Y.) requesting that I remain as chairman.”

The Trump administration nominated Saul to complete the term of his predecessor, which ends in  January 2019. But the president has also nominated him to serve a full six-year term that would end in 2025.

Hatch, who’s retiring at the end of this year, assured Saul the committee would go through confirmation hearings again early next year.

“Once again, to be clear, the issue is Senate procedure and precedent,” Hatch said. “The issue is not whether you would be qualified to serve as Social Security commissioner for both the duration of this term and next term as well.”

Wyden, who has a shot at becoming the next chairman of the committee after the midterm elections, said he would ensure Saul’s nomination takes priority in the next Congress.

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