The Social Security Administration (SSA) is in the midst of an IT modernization plan that has made progress within the agency, but a new report from the Social Security Advisory Board’s (SSAB’s) Information Technology Systems Expert Panel pulls from prior efforts and outside expertise to offer suggestions on how SSA can improve its efforts.

The report from SSAB’s Information Technology Systems Expert Panel aims to “significantly increase SSA’s modernization efficiency and effectiveness” by pulling from the experiences of government and industry experts with years of experience in Federal IT.

The panel made recommendations based on SSA’s IT Modernization Plan, initially created in 2017 and updated in July, conversations with agency officials, and discussions with stakeholders from Congress, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Government Accountability Office among others. The resulting report includes recommendations in six main categories;

  • Operating Model Modernization Concept
  • Modernization Governance Infrastructure
  • IT Modernization Strategy
  • Customer Services and Experience
  • Recommended Guidance for Navigating Beyond COVID-19
  • Lessons for Leadership in Managing Change – How to Get Difficult Things Done in Government

“SSA’s progress in modernizing and upgrading its IT systems is commendable. We were impressed by the SSA staff’s expertise and dedication to their agency’s mission. However, there is room to improve SSA’s modernization efforts,” the report states.

Operating Model Needed for Modernization Success

The first finding of the report highlighted the need for an operating model approach as a key component to tie initiatives together and set a common focus on citizen service. However, the report describes SSA’s operating model as “ad-hoc,” making it unclear if SSA’s initiatives are working towards an end goal, or if the end goal is cobbled together from separate modernization efforts.

“The Panel believes an operating model is vital for any business, public or private, with customer/citizen focus as the organizing principle for modernization. It should serve as the organizing paradigm against which the agency can evaluate and understand IT, policy, human resources, operations, and process decisions,” the report states.

The panel recommends that SSA align an operating model with the agency’s strategic plan, identify critical business lines, address interactions with customers and partners, and develop journey maps from SSA’s business lines, among others.

Modernizing Governance

The report notes the need for SSA to make organizational changes to support modernization efforts. The panel praised the recently created position of a Chief Business Officer, but expressed concerns that SSA is not making changes in program management to support new concepts like agile development. Among other recommendations, the report called for SSA to define program management processes and create an office dedicated to citizen experience, as well as a request for more visibility from SSA.

“Although we are hopeful SSA has a governance structure and uses governance structure-related methodologies, we detected no evidence in our evaluation.  More information from SSA would have helped us assess the agency’s governance structure and provide informed suggestions to enhance their modernization efforts’ success,” the panel notes.

IT Modernization Strategy Needs Metrics, Engagement

The panel reviewed the SSA IT Modernization Plan, finding several areas where it could improve its vision for the future. Among the critiques, the report notes the lack of clear engagement with agency stakeholders in the plan, the short discussion of systems architecture, and the lack of discussion about funding and acquisition in the plan.

“The current SSA IT Modernization Plan puts a major focus on problem-solving the ‘as is’ and providing broad goals for the future, but is less specific about where SSA needs to go and metrics to assess performance against the plan,” the report states.

Recommendations included the need to align the IT Modernization Plan and the agency’s strategic plan, the inclusion of metrics to measure success, and the inclusion of a stakeholder engagement process.

Customer Experience Needs Greater Focus

The report highlights the need for SSA to collect more information on customer experience (CX), and distinguish between customer service and CX, which “includes the governance or decision-making process for customer-focused initiatives.” The panel also notes the lack of verification for improving CX, despite it being a big part of modernization activities.

The panel recommended that SSA establish a CX strategy that goes beyond technology to set an aspirational vision statement to work towards. The panel also reiterated its recommendation for an office dedicated to CX, which would work to implement specific CX initiatives using data.

The report concludes with suggestions on how SSA could shift its strategy post-COVID to become more digitally accessible and require fewer in-person reactions. Another area of suggestion focused on change management and leadership, with the report citing existing reports and previous examples within government for SSA to examine and emulate.

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MeriTalk Staff