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2/11/2011
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Social Security Seeks Online Engagement

Personalized services and increased efficiency are goals, but legacy software stands in the way.

Of the 2.48 million retirement applications filed with the Social Security Administration in fiscal 2010, 37% were submitted online. That's progress for an agency that depends on old mainframe software to deliver services, but a long way from the goal--recommended by an advisory panel of government and business executives--of conducting 90% of such transactions online.

"We need to drive that up substantially," said Social Security CIO Frank Baitman, in a recent interview at the agency's headquarters in Woodlawn, Md. "As customer expectations are changing, they expect to do business with Social Security online."

Last year, 53 million Americans received $703 billion in retirement, disability, and survivor benefits from the Social Security Administration. The agency's Web site, SSA.gov, lets users estimate and apply for benefits and appeal decisions. In an effort to drive down costs while improving service, Baitman aims to add new functionality to the site and get the public to make more use of what's already there.

Social Security stands to save millions of dollars by shifting more of its interactions online, according to a recent presentation by Karen Palm, the agency's associate CIO of innovation. For example, it can save $4.5 million annually for every 1% shift in the number of address and status changes that get completed online.

Last year, the agency brought in design consultancy Ideo to advise on ways to improve its online services. Ideo created a mock-up site around a process of first learning about the retirement process, then planning for it, and finally applying for benefits.

Ideo determined that users' comfort level rose when it was clear that applications would be processed by a person, not just a computer. SSA.gov now displays "online services hours of operation," much like you would find in a walk-in center. The site is open for transactions for 20 hours a day during the workweek and for 18 hours of the day on weekends and holidays.

The agency unveiled a home page redesign in November, with easy-to-locate links to key services and a rotating carousel that highlights new initiatives and features, such as a Spanish-language benefits calculator. The American Customer Satisfaction Index last year gave high marks to three of the agency's online services: its benefit application, its retirement estimator, and an application that helps Medicare beneficiaries determine who qualifies for help with prescription drug costs.

The Business Case

Other elements of Social Security's Web site upgrade will take longer, held back by budget constraints and back-end systems. "The only way we can work on this is if we could see a clear relationship with workload savings," Baitman said in early February at a meeting of the agency's Future Systems Technology Advisory Panel.

Dave McClure--associate administrator for citizen services and innovative technology at the General Services Administration, and a member of the advisory panel--said the business case could come in the form of reduced contact center costs and increased productivity. "The education to the public of what Social Security does is also a big benefit," McClure said. "If the goal is to increase online filing, the planning piece could be a critical element."

The agency uses IBM mainframes for its core processing. In some cases, those systems run decades-old Cobol programs, which means data can't easily be shared with Web services. "We have a lot of legacy systems that don't lend themselves to self-service," Baitman said. "We do a lot of batch processing, so there are hours when our systems aren't even available to the public."

Social Security is doing its best to modernize those systems; the mainframes are only a year or two old, despite the legacy software. But the Cobol is here to stay, so there's no quick fix for tapping those back-end systems in the pursuit of more online transactions.

Online credentials eventually may give the public a more personalized and secure online experience. Under a project called Recognition of Most Everyone, the agency is developing an opt-in system that would automatically populate application fields with a person's data and provide access to a personalized site. The system is due by midyear.

Social Security is also looking to deliver its first mobile Web capabilities. The advisory panel recommended that the agency experiment with mobile payments, but Social Security plans to start with something simpler. One possibility is a smartphone version of its database of popular baby names. When it's released each year, that list generates SSA.gov's biggest single-day spike in visitors.

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