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Q&A: Social Security CIO On What's Next In Online Engagement

Social media, digital credentials, and behavior modeling are being employed to get more Americans to use the Web to get their retirement benefits, says IT chief Frank Baitman

The Social Security Administration, which provides services to tens of millions of retired and disabled Americans, was one of the first federal agencies to have computers, and mainframes and Cobol are still mainstays there. But the agency faces significant IT challenges, including an urgent need for a major new data center, as highlighted in a recent report by Social Security's inspector general.

CIO Frank Baitman, a former director of corporate strategy at IBM who joined the agency in 2009, is revamping Social Security's IT operations with a strategy that includes building online services and bringing increased efficiency to its aging IT infrastructure. His department has also created two IT new groups focused on innovation.

InformationWeek Government spoke with Baitman recently in his office at Social Security headquarters in Baltimore.

InformationWeek: You have an IT systems group as well as a CIO organization at Social Security. How do the two organizations work together?

Baitman: One of the big differences you'll see between Social Security and other agencies is that a majority of our software is developed and maintained by federal employees. We actually own our source code, and when there are changes necessary, we have federal employees who make those changes. We take advantage of contractors for staff augmentation, but for the most part, our projects are led and managed by feds.

That's led to this operating group called Systems, and then a separate group, the CIO, was created about 8 or 9 years ago for governance purposes. So, we have different roles at the agency. We have about a $1.4 billion budget. The CIO has policy responsibility -- we manage the IT investment process at the agency -- so we're concerned with things like the enterprise architecture, information security from a policy perspective. Systems is concerned with IT from an operational perspective. They actually need to make it work.

InformationWeek: You mention that you have a ton of internally developed code. Have you thought about open sourcing any? What are your views on open source?

Baitman: A lot of what we've developed is incredibly specialized and legacy, and people wouldn't make use of it, but there are pockets that would be useful to others. We need to explore that -- it hasn’t been high on our radar. Taking advantage of open source, though, for development is something I'm very keen on. It's a great opportunity for the government to contribute to the open source community. It's an opportunity to deliver services for less cost. Open source, I firmly believe, is more reliable and more secure than proprietary code I can't look at.

InformationWeek: What priorities are top of mind for you right now as you look toward 2011 and beyond, especially with continuing concerns about Social Security's budget?

Baitman: We have challenging budget times ahead in the federal government, and not just here. However, at Social Security, our mission doesn’t change much and the workloads are fairly predictable over a reasonable amount of time going forward, so we know what we’ve got to do, and we need to take advantage of technology to drive efficiency into the system. That's our core challenge over the next couple of years; it's really finding a way to do more with less, using technology to drive efficiencies in the system to deliver benefits, and it's improving customer service because we're not independent from the world. Customer expectations are changing. In the same way you do business during the Christmas season online, you expect to do business with Social Security online.

InformationWeek: You say your workloads don't change much, so what issues or challenges keep you up at night?

Baitman: It's probably a balance -- being concerned about security and protecting the data that the public has entrusted to this agency, and balancing that with making our systems more open so that the public can interact with us and making our systems easier to use so that more people can get the information they need to do business with us online. When you do that, there's a trade-off. What keeps me up at night is striking the right balance in that trade-off.

InformationWeek: What kinds of things are you doing to improve customer service online?

Baitman: I'm keen on using Facebook and Twitter. We're sticking our toe in the water to figure out how we can use social media to better establish communication with the American public. One of our challenges is to enable people to do more things online. Social media allows us an opportunity to communicate that opportunity to more people and allows people who know each other to say, it worked, and I did it, and to spread that story.

InformationWeek: What new services are you making available online? Benefits applications are increasingly going online, for example.

Baitman: You can apply for retirement benefits and disability, you can check your benefits, you can change your address. We're at 37% online applications for retirement. I'm happy with that, but not satisfied. We need to look at what we can do to drive that up substantially.

We just finished a really interesting engagement with [design consultancy] Ideo. We asked Ideo to help think through what we needed to do to make the online experience something that people would choose for retirement. Ideo asked them, What is it that causes you to go into an SSA office? What questions are you looking to have answered? We designed an approach that I hope to roll out over the next couple years that addresses issues people have. We want to make sure the people who come into our offices have to come into offices.

InformationWeek: Like banks these days.

Baitman: Right, exactly. You know, if you can do it online, you want to do it online, and if you have to go to a bank, you go to the bank. We wanted to figure out when people weren’t sure they could do something online, what we could do to change our online presence to improve their comfort.

InformationWeek: What were the key insights from that study that will determine how you drive more people to apply for retirement benefits online?

Baitman: There are kind of three components to the experience. People need to learn about it, they need to plan for retirement, and they need to apply. So how do you create this Web presence that focuses on these things. They came up with four behavior segmentations through their interviews. Our end goal was taking those three things and building a Web presence that satisfied four different types of behaviors.

People were surprised that when they were applying for benefits online that someone was really reading their application, that it wasn’t just a computer. That gave them a tremendous amount of confidence in the online application process.

People want to move through the process at different paces. We designed into our design principles something that allows people to move through at different paces. You can see how far along you are, and there are lots of drop downs, so if I'm the person who wants to know a lot, I can click on those and read everything behind there, and if I'm the person who wants to zip through, I'm going to have a little bar that tells me I'm 15% or 20% done with the application as I move through it.

One of the challenges is that it's not just making a Web site, it's making it work. We have a lot of legacy systems that don’t lend themselves to self service. We do a lot of batch processing, so there are hours when systems aren’t available, not lending themselves to self service. Our challenge is rolling features out incrementally so that we don’t have to retool everything to make this Web site work.

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