SSA on track to modernize IT systems over next 5 years

The Social Security Administration is approximately six months into what will likely be a five-year effort to modernize the agency’s aging IT infrastructure. Sean Brune, chief program officer for IT modernization at SSA, said many of the planned upgrades revolve around services used by the general public. This fiscal year, Brune said, the agency will focus on improving communications and existing services.

“We’re currently working to put all of our online services behind that secure online portal … my Social Security,” he said on Federal Insights: IT Modernization. “We encourage all members of the public to establish their personal my Social Security account. That will then allow, prospectively, a member of the public to see all the relevant services for their circumstance.”

These could include filing claims, checking claims status, services for representative payees.

Enhancing its public offerings will involve more mobile digital services. Brune said the agency has been building responsive design into all new services to detect when portal users are on mobile devices.

IT modernization also includes updating the disability claims processing application — to help SSA cut down on the backlog — and enhancing cybersecurity. With two secure data processing centers, Brune said the agency is covered in that regard.

“Cybersecurity is acknowledged in our IT modernization plan as a foundation,” he said on Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “It is required across all our core business functions. All of our information systems and the cyber team here at [SSA] and the chief information security officer are key partners at the table as we move forward every step of the way.”

Those core business functions include the disability determination process for disability benefits, and Title 2 processes which include retirement, survivors and auxiliaries insurance. SSA will also enhance Title 16 supplemental security income — the enumeration workload for issuing social security numbers — and the workload for collecting workers’ annual earnings on a recurring basis.

Programming languages need an update

Besides Title 2, SSA has about 128 supporting applications that process work related to social insurance — most of which are written in the COBOL programming language, which was standardized nearly 30 years ago. Transitioning from COBOL to a more modern language, such as Java, is a large part of the modernization plan as well.

Brune said COBOL is stable and has been updated over the years. But managing those periodic changes for an agency as large as SSA is difficult.

“As you add new functionality here and there in an incremental approach it accumulates a bit of what we refer to as ‘technical debt,’” Brune said. “It’s more and more older code to maintain.”

In addition, Brune said it can be challenging to hire programming staff versed in COBOL if the languages they learned in school or the workforce are newer. It then puts the burden on SSA to train engineers, which cuts down on time spent on its core mission of administering social insurance programs, he said.

But using more modern programming language means less efficient CPU cycles and a greater need for cloud technology rather than in-house mainframes. In response, Brune said SSA has cloud infrastructure in operation and is looking into more chances to reduce its dependence on mainframe processing and increased reliance on cloud computing and data storage.

“We’re doing this on a prospective basis,” he said. “We’re making a case-by case business determination as to the most efficient, cost-effective platform on which to run a piece of software,” he said. “That is a process that’s coordinated by our infrastructure team with close coordination with our software development team and our business units.”

Using “agile” software methodology

Brune said SSA will not replace an entire mainframe application at once, but rather will “decompose it” into smaller pieces. This more agile method allows the agency to test new software, convert the code and compare the results with what it gets from legacy systems now.

SSA can apply for revolving funds from the Modernizing Government Technology Act, signed into law in December, to enhance its modernization budget, but Brune said no decision has been made on that front. He said the agency is preferring to see how the legislation will affect it.

Meanwhile, the modernization plan is forcing SSA to examine how it conducts business. Doing so will require building up “the workforce of the future” and closing skill gaps, Brune said.

“On the IT front, we always look to hire the best and brightest, and human capital planning is indeed part of our modernization strategy,” he said.