SSA needs better data exchange management

GAO study finds that formal milestones for implementing improvements are needed

The Social Security Administration is working to get a handle on a sprawling system of electronic data exchanges that support both its own programs and those of other state and federal agencies, but it needs a more formal program for implementing recommended improvements, according to recently released study.

SSA data is a lynchpin in many state and federal programs ranging from financial benefits to homeland security, and demand for this data is growing. At the same time, requirements for managing and protecting the data involved are becoming more stringent.

At the request of the Senate Finance Committee, the Government Accountability Office studied the scope of the data exchanges maintained by SSA and assessed they are being managed. The study, titled “Demand for the Social Security Administration’s Electronic Data Exchanges is Growing and Presents Future Challenges,” did not find crises, but did identify challenges to be addressed.

SSA said it already has moved to implement GAO recommendations for improving management of systems and data.

In addition to gathering information on worker employment and income for its own benefits programs, SSA also provides information to support a diverse range of programs, including those of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the Selective Service and state benefit programs. It supports the Homeland Defense Department’s E-Verify system, a Web-based system for verifying worker status that was expected to conduct about 7 million transactions in fiscal 2008. That figure could jump if use of the system becomes mandatory for employers, as has been proposed.

SSA maintains104 ongoing data exchanges with 19 federal agencies, and 3,150 exchanges with the 50 states, the District of Columbia and four territories, and performs more than 1 billion Social Security number verifications a year.

GAO found that SSA faces three primary challenges in supporting data exchanges:

  • Meeting increasing demand for its data exchange services. More agencies are using SSA data and the level of service required is increasing. More outside organizations are requesting electronic verification of Social Security numbers and Supplemental Security Income eligibility. In some cases data must be accessible full time, with updates available in near real time. SSA may be challenged to retain the expertise and maintain the technology required to support the technical infrastructure and other resources needed to meet the increased demand.
  • Ensuring privacy and security of data provided to its data exchange partners. SSA is responsible for overseeing and reviewing other agencies’ privacy and security safeguards to verify compliance with federal privacy and security requirements, which requires dedicated staff with appropriate expertise. More agencies are requesting online access to SSA’s records rather than receiving data through batch processing, and providing online access generally requires more extensive compliance reviews than does batch processing. The need for additional evaluations and reviews could create a need for SSA to hire and retain additional staff with the expertise required to complete these activities.
  • Establishing effective practices for implementing and managing data exchanges. SSA has experienced challenges in managing its data exchange environment that have resulted in ineffective practices. Some data exchanges do not have documented agreements or are not properly reimbursed, and key responsibilities for the agency’s data exchanges are dispersed throughout multiple agency components. According to SSA officials, establishing a single component to manage all the agency’s data exchange activities could provide better control over the current and future data exchange workload.

Management of the systems is complicated by the fact that SSA exchanges data with partners that use older technology as well as some with modern telecommunications technology to transmit data, and its systems must support both processing data in batch files and individual, real-time transactions.

SSA established the Electronic Information Exchange Initiative in 2007 to address these challenges, and in September it issued a number of recommendations for improving management of data exchanges, with timetables for implementing them. It also is working on a comprehensive inventory of data exchange systems.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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