SSA Computers:

Long-Range Vision Needed to Guide Future Systems Modernization Efforts

IMTEC-91-44: Published: Sep 24, 1991. Publicly Released: Oct 25, 1991.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Social Security Administration's (SSA) systems modernization initiatives, focusing on the extent to which SSA information systems are prepared to meet current and future challenges.

GAO found that: (1) after nearly 10 years of modernization activity, SSA has achieved successes, but has yet to establish a clear long-range vision to guide its use of information technology; (2) while SSA has achieved some immediate benefits by automating existing practices in a piecemeal fashion, it needs to explore more fundamental improvements in its work processes if it is to meet the enormous challenges that the next century holds; (3) without a clear long-range plan, SSA risks being overwhelmed by huge increases in beneficiaries; (4) a lack of management continuity has impeded SSA progress in modernizing its information systems; (5) because SSA failed to upgrade its backup and recovery system during its recent modernization, it backs up only 20 percent of its current work load, down from nearly total backup coverage in 1985, leaving itself open to unacceptable risks of data loss that could dramatically disrupt the daily performance of agencywide data processing and telecommunications; and (6) such a data loss could lead to impaired service and hundreds of millions of dollars in unnecessary or excessive payments to ineligible beneficiaries and delayed payments to newly eligible beneficiaries.

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: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct SSA to articulate a clear, consistent vision of how it intends to use information technology to do business in the future. This vision should go beyond automating current processes; instead, it should be based on a fundamental reconsideration of the agency's organization and business processes in light of the opportunities offered by current technology. This vision should be focused on providing the best possible service to the public, streamlining operations, and reducing costs through the use of labor-saving technology, such as scanning devices, that would simplify and enhance data input, retrieval, and output for field personnel.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The SSA unified planning process and agency strategic plan start to address this recommendation. But, SSA has just recently started to refocus its efforts to streamline operations and reengineer inefficient and ineffective processes. In this regard, SSA plans to have these efforts completed by the end of FY 1994. Public Law 103-296 designated SSA as an independent agency rather than a component agency of HHS, effective March 31, 1995. Therefore, this recommendation to HHS is no longer applicable and should be dropped this cycle. As part of GAO's ongoing and future work, it plans to continue monitoring and reporting on how SSA uses information technology to do its future business processes to serve the public in the best possible way.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct SSA to provide the continuity needed to achieve the modernization by: (1) creating a shared vision with its congressional oversight and appropriations committees, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Office of Management and Budget, and the General Services Administration; and (2) continue, with a permanent panel of acknowledged experts, to provide the Department of Health and Human Services and SSA with continuing advice, guidance, and direction over the course of the modernization.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: SSA is currently awaiting the nomination and appointment of a new Commissioner. Currently, no efforts are being made to use outside expertise to help guide modernization efforts. Because the vision and focus of the modernization efforts will be reevaluated during future audit work, GAO plans to revisit this issue.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct SSA to take immediate steps to provide for enhanced backup and recovery of National Computer Center computers to ensure continued operation of on-line terminals and the effectiveness of the SSA customer service telephone system. Those steps should include: (1) contracting for short-term backup and recovery as soon as possible; and (2) developing a long-term solution to SSA backup and recovery needs within a year. At the end of this period, SSA should report on its progress in resolving this critical issue to its congressional oversight committee. Until this issue is resolved, SSA should also report backup and recovery as a material weakness in its Federal Managers' Financial Integrity Act reports.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 1994, SSA tested its new backup and recovery system, which GAO attended and monitored. Although several problems were still noted with the system, GAO believes that it can now be reported as a significant management concern, rather than a material control weakness. As part of its ongoing and future work, GAO plans to continue monitoring and reporting on SSA's backup and recovery system. Public Law 103-296 designated SSA as an independent agency rather than a component agency of HHS, effective March 31, 1995. Therefore, this recommendation to HHS no longer applies and should be dropped this cycle. Although SSA has not reported backup and recovery as a material control weakness since GAO recommended it in its 1991 report, SSA has taken steps to mitigate the seriousness of the weakness.

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