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7/19/2011
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Social Security CIO Resigns Following Shakeup

Frank Baitman leaves after staff gutted; observers say agency's 9-year experiment with CIO office never resolved line-of-authority problems.

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After a shakeup in the Social Security Administration's IT organization, the agency's CIO, Frank Baitman, has abruptly resigned. His departure follows a decision by commissioner Michael Astrue to shift most of the agency CIO's responsibilities to deputy commissioner for systems, Kelly Croft.

According to a leaked memo to senior staff detailing the move, personnel remaining at the stripped-down CIO office will move to Social Security's office of systems. Baitman wasn't immediately available for comment, but InformationWeek has confirmed the changes.

SSA's CIO duties are now in the hands of Croft, who was deputy commissioner for quality performance before moving to the office of systems. Croft is a career civil servant, having also worked in the office of personnel management on his way up the government ladder since starting as a service representative with Social Security 30 years ago. His wife, Mary Glenn-Croft, is deputy commissioner for operations, which also manages some IT functions.

Baitman joined Social Security in 2009. Before moving into federal government, he worked as a consultant, as director of the Institute for the Future, and a director of corporate strategy with IBM. Baitman was named to InformationWeek's Government CIO 50 earlier this year.

In June, Astrue informed the agency that the CIO's organization would be broken up and its responsibilities redistributed. Some of those responsibilities went to the office of systems, which already had operational control over most of the agency's core software and hardware. Astrue described the move as an effort to "maximize efficiency." The agency's IT budget was reduced by $300 million in fiscal 2011.

In the aftermath of that decision, Baitman was left with a skeleton team. Deputy CIO Greg Pace and other top lieutenants were transferred elsewhere inside the agency. Associate CIO for vision and strategy Ephraim Feig was separately shown the exit just days before the move. Baitman lost his innovation, investment management, strategy, and open government responsibilities and staff. He continued to hold onto cybersecurity policy.

Baitman's departure brings to a close a nine-year experiment with the agency's CIO's office that, according to some observers and former officials, never resolved the fractured line of authority between IT spending and operations that separated the CIO and the office of systems.

According to Feig, who left the agency in June, one of the primary reasons for the break-up of Social Security's IT department was Astrue's perception that Baitman failed to advance the agency's strategic plan. In an interview with InformationWeek, Feig said there was a split on IT vision at the agency, with Baitman's office pushing an aggressive agenda to transform its IT systems while saving money over the long-term, and Croft sticking with the agency's old but proven mainframe systems, most of which still run the decades-old Cobol programming language.

Feig's downfall came after the Office of Management and Budget sought input on the strategic direction of Social Security's IT systems, and Feig, who joined the agency last year from the private sector, responded with a version of the strategy he was brought in to develop. Feig's strategy is described in a document titled, "SSA-2020: Vision and Strategy." However, the commissioner didn't endorse the vision's sweeping nature, and Feig said he was asked to leave for engaging the White House without authority to do so.

Changes will likely be needed if the agency's IT systems are to continue meeting its requirements within budget. A study by the agency's associate CIO for investment management estimates that, on its current path, system maintenance costs will outstrip the agency's entire IT budget by fiscal 2015. The agency has also struggled to keep on budget and on schedule the completion of a new data center that is part of its modernization efforts.

As the agency continues to develop new capabilities for its legacy systems, such as supporting self-service on the Web, the added complexity is driving administrative costs up, according to Feig's vision document.

"If you're an IT person and you come in from the outside, the first thing you notice is that it's archaic and is just not a modern environment," Feig said. "You can fix certain things, but they're just going to add to the overall costs."

Feig's plan called for development of customer-relationship management and workflow applications to facilitate agency processes and a rules engine to guide users through its complex rules. Where feasible, he planned to gradually replace the agency's mainframes with commodity hardware and open source software. Even now, however, the agency is building a replacement Disability Case Processing System on a mainframe rather than commodity x86 servers.

Federal regulators continue to keep a close eye on Social Security's IT operations. Prompted by the House Ways and Means Committee, the Government Accountability Office is investigating the state of the agency's systems and modernization strategy.

And Social Security's inspector general is working on an audit of the agency's software environment. The audit will address the agency's plans to evolve away from Cobol, its continued use of Cobol in an era of Web-based apps, its ability to hire and retain staff trained in Cobol, and the work involved in re-engineering the agency's Cobol code in modern programming languages.

What industry can teach government about IT innovation and efficiency. Also in the new, all-digital issue of InformationWeek Government: Federal agencies have to shift from annual IT security assessments to continuous monitoring of their risks. Download it now. (Free registration required.)

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