Information Technology:

Demand for the Social Security Administration's Electronic Data Exchanges Is Growing and Presents Future Challenges

GAO-09-126: Published: Dec 4, 2008. Publicly Released: Jan 7, 2009.

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Federal and state agencies, including the Social Security Administration (SSA), routinely share data through electronic exchanges to help increase the efficiency of program operations, reduce program costs, and improve public service. In light of SSA's broad responsibility for carrying out data exchanges, GAO was asked to describe SSA's critical programs that exchange data with other federal and state agencies, as well as the information systems that they rely on; and determine challenges and limitations that SSA may face in effectively using its systems to carry out data exchanges in the future. To accomplish this, GAO reviewed and analyzed relevant agency documentation, held discussions with key agency officials, and reviewed selected exchange programs.

Through more than 3,000 data exchanges with federal and state agencies, SSA both receives incoming data to support its own programs and provides outgoing data to support programs of other federal and state agencies. Most of these exchanges involve collecting incoming electronic data from other agencies, primarily to support the administration of Social Security benefits programs. The outgoing data from SSA to other federal and state agencies typically provide Social Security number verifications or are used to implement payment offsets in support of other agencies' business operations. In this regard, the agency performs more than a billion transactions to verify Social Security numbers for federal and state agencies each year. To carry out these data exchanges, SSA relies on a network of electronic information systems and an infrastructure that communicates with a variety of external systems used by the agency's partners. SSA faces three primary challenges to supporting its existing and future data exchanges: (1) meeting increasing demand for its data exchange services; (2) ensuring privacy and security of data provided to its data exchange partners; and (3) establishing effective practices for implementing and managing data exchanges. Recognizing these challenges, the agency has undertaken an initiative to better manage its data exchange environment and address current and future challenges and limitations. If effectively implemented, the initiative could address the challenges GAO has described. Members of the initiative have drafted a report that includes recommendations for improving the management of its data exchanges. However, SSA has not established milestones for completing the report and acting on its recommendations. Thus, it cannot be assured that the recommendations will be addressed and implemented in a timely manner. In addition, the agency developed a summary inventory of its data exchanges to further support this initiative. However, while the inventory lists data exchanges and partners, among other things, it does not include comprehensive information on the agency's data exchange systems, because, according to SSA officials, its purpose was only to provide summary data. Nonetheless, an inventory that provides comprehensive information on the data exchanges, such as the supporting information systems and the status of privacy and security compliance requirements, is an important tool that could help the agency make credible and timely decisions to ensure effective management of its growing data exchange environment.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In November 2008, the Commissioner of Social Security concurred with this recommendation and stated that the agency had completed its report on the Electronic Information Exchange Initiative (EIEI) on September 4, 2008. The commissioner also stated that the agency had established milestones for acting on the report's recommendations. However, during our subsequent study of SSA's data exchange environment (310932), SSA officials told us that the agency was recasting the functions and responsibilities of its electronic information exchange and matching programs. Among its chief tasks is to be an assessment of the recommendations contained in the EIEI report to determine their viability in the agency's current and anticipated operating environments. In June 2011, an SSA official stated that the agency had assessed the recommendations of the 2008 EIEI report and concluded that they were obsolete due to factors such as technology and diminishing agency resources. SSA staff has begun the process of mapping out their current electronic information exchange process to determine how efficiencies may be gained in the area.

    Recommendation: As part of the agency's initiative to improve its data exchange management practices, the Commissioner of Social Security should establish milestones for completing the initiative's report and acting on its recommendations.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2013, SSA provided us with information from an expanded data exchange inventory system that contained comprehensive information on the agency's data exchanges, including supporting information systems and workload statistics. For example, the inventory provides data needed to identify the specific systems that support data exchanges, along with particular entities that can be used to ensure effective management of the exchanges. Additionally, the system can be used to generate reports that provide detailed information about the workload for a particular exchange, including the numbers and types of data requests received. By developing a comprehensive inventory of the agency's data exchanges, SSA has an important tool that should help the agency make credible and timely decisions to ensure effective management of its data exchange environment.

    Recommendation: As part of the agency's initiative to improve its data exchange management practices, the Commissioner of Social Security should develop and maintain a comprehensive inventory of its data exchanges and the system resources they use.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

 

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