Information Technology:

Social Security Administration's Data Exchanges Support Current Programs, but Better Planning Is Needed to Meet Future Demands

GAO-09-966: Published: Sep 17, 2009. Publicly Released: Oct 16, 2009.

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The Social Security Administration (SSA) receives electronic data from other agencies to support its own programs, and provides electronic data to support more than 800 state and federal agency partners. This information aids in, among other things, the processing and distribution of beneficiary payments and the delivery of services such as driver's license issuance and voter registration. SSA relies on its information technology (IT) infrastructure--its databases, applications, networks, and IT management practices--to support its current and future needs for exchanging data with its state and federal partners. GAO was asked to (1) determine the extent to which SSA's IT infrastructure effectively and efficiently supports current data exchanges, and any system-related problems affecting its exchange partners; and (2) describe SSA's efforts to ensure that its IT infrastructure can support the agency's and its partners' future data exchange environment. To do this, GAO analyzed agency documentation and interviewed SSA officials, as well as federal and state data exchange partners.

Systems-related problems that affect SSA's ability to support outgoing data exchange programs have been few, and the agency has established effective procedures and mechanisms for addressing the problems that do occur. In this regard, SSA provides help-desk and on-site support to data exchange partners to help prevent or resolve problems, and uses procedures supported by a problem-identification and tracking system to facilitate problem resolution. State and federal partners with whom GAO held discussions stated that these efforts resulted in quick responses from SSA and effective resolution of problems that occurred. For example, a system that provides information for two data exchange programs that support driver's license issuance and voter registration in all 50 states was reported to have had almost 100 percent availability during the hours specified in the agreements governing these data exchanges. Further, all of the data exchange partners with whom GAO held discussions reported that the data that SSA provided were reliable. As a result, these partners stated that their ability to conduct business operations that depend on SSA data was not adversely affected by systems-related problems associated with SSA's IT infrastructure. SSA and its partners anticipate that the number of requests for outgoing data exchanges will continue to increase and that the exchanges will become more complex as agencies request that these exchanges take place through online, real-time transactions. However, SSA officials stated that the agency's existing IT infrastructure may not be able to support the increased demand that they and their partners anticipate. To address overall agency needs for a more cost-effective and efficient computing environment, the agency is taking steps to modernize its computing capabilities and supporting infrastructure. For example, the agency is in the process of implementing an updated database environment and upgrading its software applications--steps that are intended to enable expanded and more efficient IT service delivery, including the electronic exchange of data. However, the agency has not fully implemented IT management practices specifically related to its outgoing data exchange environment, such as conducting thorough analyses to project the expected increase in requests for data and online access. Conducting these analyses and using this information as input to the agency's target architecture (i.e., a formal description of the agency's future environment) are important practices to clearly define future requirements to guide the direction of the agency's data exchange programs. Implementing these management practices is essential to ensuring that the agency is well positioned to meet the growing needs of its data exchange partners.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help ensure that SSA's IT infrastructure effectively supports the anticipated increase in demand for electronic data exchange services, the Commissioner of Social Security should direct the Associate Commissioner, Office of Earnings, Enumeration and Administrative Systems to conduct detailed analyses to determine workload projections and define requirements for effectively and efficiently delivering data exchange services to the agency's partners in the future.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2013, SSA provided us an assessment of its existing electronic exchange architecture that identified challenges expected to be encountered as requests for data increase. For example, the agency identified an increase in the number of external partners and unpredictable demands for new types of data as factors contributing to an increase in transaction volumes associated with data exchanges. Specifically, SSA noted that spikes in traffic that could result from an increase in the number of external partners, along with an increased demand for real-time data, required a scalable throughput capacity and 24x7 system availability. By assessing its existing IT environment and determining future challenges to its ability to support external partners' data exchange needs, the agency has identified the information and data needed to help define future technical requirements and a target architecture for its data exchange IT environment. Further, by taking these actions, the agency should be better prepared to ensure that its IT infrastructure continues to support increasing demands for data exchange services and that the agency is able to support existing and future business needs of its partners.

    Recommendation: To help ensure that SSA's IT infrastructure effectively supports the anticipated increase in demand for electronic data exchange services, the Commissioner of Social Security should direct the Associate Commissioner, Office of Earnings, Enumeration and Administrative Systems to use the results of these analyses to update the agency's target architecture to address business and technical requirements of a future data exchange environment.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In September 2013, SSA provided us an assessment of its existing electronic exchange architecture that identified challenges expected to be encountered as requests for data increase and resources diminish, along with descriptions of target architectural components intended to meet requirements for addressing those challenges. For example, the business reference model of SSA's target architecture described requirements and how they are supported by the data exchange environment. Specifically, it described requirements for facilitating communication with the public, including physical infrastructures, management of large amounts of information, and definitions of data standards for specific types of information; delivery of services to external business partners, including security features, contingency planning, continuity of operations, and service recovery; and management of government resources, such as help-desk services, financial management, and IT management. The SSA target architecture was also updated to include the technical specifications of the exchange architecture. These specifications address SSA's architectural business requirements, including an infrastructure for maintaining exchange agreements, partners' access to services and data, and compliance agreements; data requirements, such as definitions, structures, and services; infrastructure components, such as servers, portals, buses, and engines; security mechanisms, such as the use of firewalls, tokens, and cryptography; and future alternatives related to the implementation of data exchange systems, such as the use of open source software and cloud computing. By using information obtained from an analysis of its data exchange environment, the agency identified future requirements for meeting increasing demands of its data exchange environment. As a result of taking additional actions to integrate requirements and specifications for its data exchange environment into the agencywide target architecture, the agency should be better prepared to ensure that its IT infrastructure continues to support increasing demands for data exchange services and that the agency is able to support existing and future business needs of its partners.

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