The Social Security Administration has turned its disability case processing system from a dud to a stud in less than 14 months.
Over the previous four years, SSA had spent almost $300 million for software and had little to show for it.
Rob Klopp, the Social Security Administration’s outgoing chief information officer, said SSA did a complete turnaround with DCPS by taking over the management of the project, applying an agile or dev/ops approach and listening to their customers at the state level.
SSA launched the first iteration of DCPS on Dec. 16 and expects to continue updates and deployments throughout 2017.
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“This time through, we accomplished more for a fraction, really a small fraction of the spend of the previous attempt, and deployed a production actually in December that is now processing cases, end-to-end real life cases,” Klopp said on Ask the CIO. “We’ve completed this 14-month project for a little over $30 million. It was a giant, giant success. By the way, it’s also a fraction of the original estimate, which was not counting that this thing blew up.”
SSA first hired Lockheed Martin and MicroPact to modernize the Disability Case Processing System in January 2011 under a six-year, $200 million contract. SSA and states use DCPS to determine if claimants are qualified from a medical perspective for a benefit. State and territories process the claims on behalf of SSA using DCPS as a case management and disability determination system.
By 2014, Klopp said he joined SSA and the program was in trouble and spending well above the initial $200 million estimate.
“The vendor was always one release away from victory, and it just never came,” he said.
SSA and its state customers have been using a COBOL based, green-screen system that had been in use for more than 25 years. It took, according to some state offices, three years for the average employee to learn how to fully use the system and all of the necessary input codes.
Under the DCPS modernization effort, SSA took 54 disparate systems, across five or six different flavors of DCPS, including some home grown systems, and rebuilt the system from scratch using modern tools like Node.js and Amazon Web Services. He said three state agencies are using DCPS today and eight more are in line to use it in 2017.
Klopp said the new system is a major upgrade.
“The new system is built with a modern interface, is 508 compliant and is so powerful that as a usability test we brought in some case processing staff in house and put them in a room, fired up the computer and said, ‘Here, see what you can do.’ No training, no tutorial, no help files, no nothing, just an intuitive user interface to people who were subject matter experts,” he said. “An hour later, the four of them walked out and said, ‘This was amazing. We know how to do this and we don’t need training.’”
But as much as the DCPS development effort is a success story for SSA, Klopp said it may be a bigger win for IT modernization.
“There’s lots of talk about IT modernization in the federal government. I think the problem is everybody thinks IT modernization is going to become a series of $250 million projects that overrun and become $500 million projects,” he said. “But what I think we proved here is with a team of federal employees, backed by contractors, using agile methods where we are in touch with our customers every step of the way — getting an acceptance test from our customers every two weeks — that we are able to go develop extremely modern code, that can be deployed in the cloud really effectively, really quickly and not just effectively as far as in delivering the business functionality, but cost effectively. All of a sudden these numbers that people throw around requiring tens of billions of dollars to modernize, we think maybe those numbers can be one-tenth as well?”
Klopp added that above and beyond the cost savings and better security that comes to government by running a modern IT system, the impact on the employee is rarely considered. He said state employees using the modern DCPS can determine the cases faster with a higher degree of accuracy and quality controls leading to more effective agencies.
“IT modernization is really important. It’s time for the government to figure out how to make all of these federal employees more effective and these are the kinds of proof points that allow us to go do this,” Klopp said.
Klopp said SSA is continuing to roll out DCPS over the next year with its industry partners, which also includes Lockheed Martin and other vendors.
“We are not forcing them to go to the new system. We are saying, ‘Come on board when you are ready,’” he said. “So far about 20 percent of the states have signed up and we believe in the next round we will get the next 20 percent. We have them up and running in a matter of weeks and people pick it up and start using it.”
He said in the next release, around the March time frame, DCPS will be able to process 50 percent of all cases. By December, he said the software should be completed and be able to handle all disability cases.
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Klopp said now that SSA better understands how the agile process works, has refined the automated testing needed to ensure the code meets standards and the industry partners are familiar with the process, the agency could save as much as 30 percent on the next set of releases and get it done in less than a year.