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. InformationWeek: As you mentioned, there are lots of legacy systems here. I've heard that Social Security has more lines of Cobol than any other organization. How do you view things like mainframes and Cobol?

Baitman: That's probably true about Cobol. For the foreseeable future, though, it's not going away. It's remarkably efficient for certain things. We have business processes designed around it.

That said, we have business processes that are constrained because we're using Cobol and we have these legacy systems still in place. We have very limited dollars to invest, so you've got to invest where you're going to get the biggest bang. In some cases, that may mean replacing something, and in other cases, it may be running something new that's an add-on to an existing legacy system, which gets to one of my pet concerns, which is recruitment. We have lots of interesting, challenging jobs at Social Security for kids that are getting out of college or grad school right now in computer science. Social Security could be an incredible career step for them.

InformationWeek: Doesn't everyone, though, want to learn and code in things like Javascript and Ruby? They're not even teaching Cobol and Fortran in a lot of places anymore.

Baitman: They're not, so come here and learn something new. Cobol's not going away here or at Citibank. You can come here and do that and then do Java and Ruby as well. It will probably be an experience you couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.

InformationWeek: Clearing the benefits backlog has been a top priority for Social Security. What are you doing from an IT perspective to help with that?

Baitman: We're pleased that we've made some significant progress in reducing the backlog the last couple of years. That's been a combination of IT and human resources.

I'm keen on enabling people to do more business with us online, and to do that, we have to get authentication right. We have a project internally called ROME -- Recognition of Most Everyone. We're going to be using a combination of SSA data and we have a vendor on board who's going to share their data with us. Together, we've designed a process that allows NIST Level 3 credentials to be issued online.

The important thing is: it's optional. You can still go into an office, and you may not need a Level 3 credential to do what you're doing. That said, if we can get many Americans a Level 3 credential, they could do just about anything that they would need to do online. We could auto-populate applications. If you've already been authenticated, we could take your records and put them into the application. You could zip through the application and make sure the fields are populated with the right information. We hope to have the first version of ROME done mid-2011.

The other one at the top of the list is [health IT]. We're going to get a definition where doctors are finally going to be compensated for deploying HIT in their offices. We're going to begin to get information from practitioners and hospitals around the country as they begin to roll out HIT. We had a small amount of funding, at least 12 contracts, to give to caregivers so they could transfer health records to us. We're learning from those experiences. If we start getting structured data, instead of getting 100-page faxes, from hospitals, we're going to be able to steer someone's eyes to the information that they need to see and focus on those bits of information to quickly make a decision about someone's application for disability benefits.

InformationWeek: Are there potential business intelligence benefits in analyzing all that data at a larger scale in order to make Social Security more efficient and effective?

Baitman: There are international standards being developed right now, and as those standards are promulgated, hopefully clinicians and hospitals will begin to use those codes for actually marking up records. Using a functional spec, our understanding of that person's condition is greatly enhanced. It will have a huge impact on our ability to actually get to the information among all the extraneous stuff.

The timeframe is the issue. To get to the level of looking at the efficiencies of the system as a whole, we're talking at least 10 years. We don't know what adoption is going to happen once meaningful use is defined and doctors begin to adopt it. We don't want to get out in front of it, but we obviously want to influence the market because the way the information is ultimately shared helps us do our job more effectively.

InformationWeek: Social Security has a lot of data, much of which might be fascinating to people. What are your thoughts around open data and what you can release potentially?

Baitman: Under the open government initiative, we've released maybe 20 data sets. Some are getting more use than others. I'm a huge believer in open government and transparency. I think the American public should know what their government is doing on their behalf and how they're using their tax dollars. We made a real effort in putting our open government plan together to say, what is it that we have that you want to know. It's an investment that helps us to do our jobs more effectively.

One of the things that I think is really very interesting: We put an interactive map on our open government page of state furloughs. Social Security has agreements with every state and four territories to hire furloughed state employees -- we pay them -- to do the initial intake for disability determination. We call it Disability Determination Services, DDS. Some states have included their DDSs in those furloughs. It causes a bunch of negative things to happen, though. First, you have employees who have the opportunity to get paid by the federal government, and not state dollars, who are not getting those dollars. States are losing the tax revenue off that income by furloughing those employees as well. Perhaps most importantly, there are benefits that should be paid to disabled Americans that aren't being paid. So, we put an interactive map on our page that shows what your state is doing.

InformationWeek: Social Security has a new Office of Innovation and an Office of Vision and Strategy. What are some of the projects underway in those offices?

Baitman: The notices architecture is one of the things coming out of the Office of Vision and Strategy. We're doing our strategic planning right now. I'm co-chairing that with another deputy commissioner, Ron Raborg. That process is going to deliver a strategic plan in the spring of 2011. One of the things the SSA hasn’t done in the past is to actually have an architectural vision. The agency's strategic plan is going to give us that vision. Coming out of there, the Office of Vision and Strategy is going to build a blueprint, a technology roadmap for everything we want to do from voice over IP to servers to software.

Karen Palm leads the Office of Innovation. A project that exemplifies what they're doing over there is we're designing a mobile application. We may release our first mobile application in 2011. We're very keen about figuring out what information the public would benefit from. At this point, I don’t see people filing complex applications over mobile browsers, but there are other things that we could do in the mobile browser to enhance the agency's mission. The day the SSA puts out its database of baby names each year is the day our Web site gets the most hits every year. People love that database. We could embody that database in a mobile application so that expectant parents are sharing information, and sharing that with grandparents in such a way that we can let people know that you can actually file for benefits online, and we could even use baby names to drive people to our Web site.

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