Social Security planning $300M IT overhaul

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The Social Security Administration is planning a major modernization of its IT infrastructure, including moving its storage to the Amazon Web Services cloud and embracing more agile software development practices, its CIO said in a hearing Thursday.  

The department’s current infrastructure, which is responsible for issuing Social Security numbers and providing unemployment and retirement payments, currently runs on legacy such as COBOL programming, with upload speeds of .25 Mbps — 20-times slower than most home internet services — Rick Warsinskey, president of the National Council of Social Security Management Associations, said at a House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security

Those slow speeds often require manual processing from SSA employees as more retirees and unemployed citizens begin using their benefits. The system loses approximately $200 million a year to reboots and inefficient processing, according to Chairman Sam Johnson, R-Texas.

“Without an additional investment from Congress, dedicated to building a modern, agile and cost-efficient IT infrastructure, SSA’s systems will become even more slow, expensive to maintain and at risk of catastrophic failure,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra, the subcommittee’s senior Democrat from California.

In 2008, the administration embarked on a $300 million modernization effort to update its Disability Case Processing System, a software program to assess disability cases, that ultimately failed.

SSA has since requested another $300 million over four years, beginning with the fiscal year 2017 budget, to push forward with its new modernization plan, Johnson said in the hearing.

“In this year’s president’s budget, Social Security admitted the patchwork approach isn’t working, and it’s time to overhaul the entire system,” he said.

SSA CIO Rob Klopp detailed how the move to AWS would support its ongoing Modern Development Environment project, enabling agile software development, shared services between multiple agencies and the use of analytics to make data driven decisions.

But that all depends on whether Klopp’s team at SSA gets the money it needs to sustain the modernization. He said in fiscal year 2016, his agency operated “around $350 million less than the president’s request.”

“With services already in a fragile state, additional funding constraints in fiscal year 2017 would put our services at greater risk of long-term damage,” he said. “It is pivotal that we get a funding level that allows us to rebound from this year’s constraints and to improve service to the public.” 

The subcommittee expressed support for the SSA’s needed modernization, but explained that it can’t continue to throw money at its problems.

“We want you to be wildly successful,” said Rep. Bob Dold, R-Ill. “I just want to make sure we’re giving you the tools to be successful. Because we can’t be back here going through another hearing like this after wasting taxpayer dollars to come up with something that’s not going to be functional.”

Chairman Johnson agreed: “Social Security has to get this right, the first time. We can’t keep throwing money at it. The American people deserve no less.“

Correction: 

July 15, 2016 — An earlier version of this story misattributed a statement from Rick Warsinskey.

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