GAO offers advice as SSA prepares to replace its aging data center

The Social Security Administration has earmarked $500 million in stimulus funding for replacement of its 30-year-old National Computer Center in Baltimore, and the Government Accountability Office has offered advice on the management tools needed to make the ambitious program a success.

The $500 million slated for the new data center is half of the $1 billion SSA will receive under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The total cost of the center and associated infrastructure and software is estimated at $800 million. SSA plans to spend about $350 million of the recovery act money on building the infrastructure, and most of the remaining $150 million on information technology upgrades. Upgrades will include new software to help reduce the backlog of disability claims.

“This effort is expected to be a significant undertaking,” Valerie C. Melvin, GAO’s director of information management and human capital issues, told the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security yesterday. “Accordingly, its success will depend on how effectively the agency plans and manages the initiative, from inception through delivery.”

GAO identified a handful of complementary management disciplines necessary in major IT endeavors such as SSA’s data-center initiative, including:
  • Strategic planning to describe an organization’s goals, the strategies it will use to achieve desired results, and performance measures;
  • Developing and using an agencywide enterprise architecture, or modernization blueprint, to guide and constrain IT investments;
  • Establishing and following a portfolio-based approach to investment management; and
  • Implementing information-security management that ensures the integrity and availability of information.

“These IT management capabilities will be imperative for SSA to follow as it pursues the complex data-center initiative,” Melvin said.

The existing National Computer Center has served SSA well, as the agency’s caseload has grown to 55 million recipients who received $650 billion in benefits in 2008, in addition to another 15 million persons receiving disability benefits. But the workload is expected to increase even more in the coming years as the baby boomers enter retirement and the SSA workforce shrinks.

The current computer center, which contains about 36 million lines of COBOL code, will not be adequate for the job. SSA is planning a modern data center with processing power to handle its growing around-the-clock operations.

The House subcommittee solicited GAO’s advice on the program because of the danger of large, complex IT programs becoming high-risk undertakings.

“Although IT investments can improve organizational performance, they can also become risky, costly, unproductive ventures that do not yield intended results,” Melvin said. “As we have described in numerous reports and testimonies, federal IT projects too frequently incur cost overruns and schedule slippages”

Because the new data center will be the backbone of SSA’s automated operations, it is important that the agency identify goals, resources and dependencies in the context of its strategic vision, she said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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