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W&M Members: Social Security Must Modernize its IT Infrastructure to Protect the American People

July 14, 2016

Today, the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX), held a hearing to discuss the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) aging information technology (IT) infrastructure and examine the agency’s plan to update its infrastructure moving forward. After the SSA spent hundreds of millions of dollars with little to show for it on a single IT project, known as Disability Case Processing System (DCPS), Members asked witnesses what the agency will do to ensure its comprehensive IT modernization plan will be completed on time and for the $300 million requested.

As Chairman Johnson said at the start of the hearing: 

“From seniors receiving Social Security benefits to young parents whose infant needs a Social Security Number, Social Security’s IT infrastructure touches the lives of nearly every American. Hundreds of computer programs, thousands of servers, and millions of lines of computer code make up Social Security’s IT.  

“But even though its so important, Social Security’s IT is hasn’t kept up with advances in technology.”

He added:

There is a true cost to this old technology because it takes Social Security employees longer than it should to do a simple task. That’s time that can’t be spent helping another claimant, processing earnings information of a Disability Insurance beneficiary, or answering the phone.”

Explaining SSA’s troubling track record of trying to modernize its IT infrastructure, Kimberly Byrd — SSA’s Deputy Assistant Inspector General for Audit, Financial Systems, and Operations Audits — said:

The need for long-term IT planning has been a major concern for SSA for many years. As far back as 1982, SSA announced a Systems Modernization Plan to restructure and extensively upgrade its systems. At that time, the Agency told Congress that, without this major upgrade, there might be a serious disruption of its services, which are essential to the welfare of millions of Americans. Despite progress in modernizing many of its systems since then, the Agency has yet to tackle some of its most complex and critical IT projects.”

As Rep. Jim Renacci (R-OH) said:

“It’s clear that the IT infrastructure must be dramatically improved in order for [SSA] to meet the needs of the American people.”

When Rep. Renacci asked about the results of a survey showing just how frustrated the SSA employees are with the current infrastructure, National Council of Social Security Management Associations President Richard Warsinskey — who has worked for the SSA for over 40 years — explained:

“We found that on average we’re losing about 20 minutes per employee per day of productivity … all that time costs money … it’s just not an efficient use of our tax dollars, and you know, we could do a lot more with less if we could improve this.”

Members and witnesses expressed concern about how the SSA will effectively utilize taxpayer dollars to implement its agency-wide modernization plan, especially given SSA’s botched implementation of DCPS – a failed IT project that cost taxpayers more than $300 million.

As Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC) said:

“What I’m frustrated with is sitting here reading these reports … about how we’ve spent $300 million here and $280 million here and we are still using COBOL.” 

When Rep. Bob Dold (R-IL) asked SSA’s Chief Information Officer Robert Klopp how a Board of Directors would react if this happened in the private sector, Mr. Klopp responded:

“The previous project where $300 million was spent and we didn’t get much out of it, I believe the board would be very unhappy and heads would roll.”

After discussing the adequacy of the agency’s plan for the future, Rep. Dold told Mr. Klopp:  

We want you to be wildly successful. 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.”

As Chairman Johnson concluded:

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