After 25 years of talk, SSA says it has right plan to modernize its IT

The Social Security Administration has a new plan to modernize five major IT systems, to the tune of $300 million. SSA Chief Information Officer Robert Klopp sa...

The Social Security Administration has a new plan to modernize its IT systems, which the agency first said 25 years ago was in desperate need of an update.

The new plan includes an agile framework to develop five SSA systems to the tune of $300 million, Robert Klopp, the agency’s deputy commissioner and chief information officer, told the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee July 14.

Klopp insisted that this new plan has more detail and focus than previous IT strategies, a problem SSA has struggled with in the past, according to agency inspector general reports.

“When we walked out of the room, people looked at me and said this is probably the best that we’ve ever done as an agency in trying to estimate in advance what the General Services Administration would call, a ‘rough order of magnitude,’ which is all that is expected at this stage,” Klopp said. “So we think that these estimates are extremely accurate.”

Klopp said the agency should be able to deploy some parts of each system ready for production “in short order” once SSA gets funding.

“We should be able to able to roll significant functionality, modern functionality into production within a year of starting,” he said.

But it’s unclear if that funding from Congress will come. The House Appropriations Committee recently passed the Labor, Health and Human Services bill for fiscal 2017, which would cut SSA’s budget by $250 million below FY2016 levels. The Senate’s version would hold SSA funding steady from last year.

The subcommittee also said it’s skeptical that SSA will be able to correct previous mistakes after past failed projects.

“We built two computer systems brand new not too long ago,” Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), chairman of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, said. “That was supposed to solve all your problems.”

One of those systems is the Disability Case Processing System (DCPS), which SSA first began planning for in 2008. The agency reset the program after initial iterations fell short of users’ expectations and development went over budget and over schedule.

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Klopp said the agency has learned from past DCPS mistakes. Now, SSA is using the lessons it learned about agile development with DCPS as a “yardstick” for the new IT modernization plan and estimates.

Klopp stood firm in his assertion that SSA would stay on budget this time, and he urged the subcommittee to evaluate the agency’s process in the agile development.

“In this new agile world what we focus on is trying to deliver value every time we go through an agile iteration,” he said. “We think that the agile process is going to allow you to look at the things that we have in the backlog, the amount of money that we’re spending as a run-rate, and at a very regular interval, be able to determine whether we’re adding the value with these increments that we claim we’re adding.”

Subcommittee Ranking Member Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said Congress is looking for more precise details and numbers for the SSA IT modernization plan.

“People want to know that if you’re going to get the money, there will be a product that works at the end,” he said. “We don’t have much more time to wait or waste, because my understanding is that it’s getting worse every day. You’re running out of broadband. Your folks are taking longer and longer to access information, and you’re getting more and more people coming through the doors of Social Security’s offices.”

Modernizing SSA’s IT systems is especially critical to the agency’s employees, who often wait minutes while their computers crawl from one system window to another.

Around noon each day, SSA systems reach peak usage as all field offices open across the country, said Rick Warsinskey, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations. Employees often spend 10 minutes rebooting their programs — valuable time that they could spend working with customers and answering questions.

The agency is losing an estimated 20 minutes of productivity per employee per day due to slow and outdated systems — or $200 million a year, Warsinskey added.

Because SSA systems are so old, the agency is also running out of broadband, he said. Download speeds at SSA are roughly 20 times slower than the average internet user’s broadband speed at home.

Klopp said the SSA workforce is starting to get a head start on pieces of his IT modernization plan now.

“What we’ve done in the last 18 months is start the cultural change to get our heads wrapped around agile,” he said. “The workforce cultural change like that is critically important, but we also started working on the technology. We’re now at a point where we’re rolling out our first production applications in the cloud. We’re building applications using very modern software applications.”

“The workforce has learned enough to be able to move forward on this thing, and really we’re just waiting for the funding,” Klopp added.

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