Social Security acts now to avoid future data overload

SSA upgrades its data exchange systems to support growing demand for information

The Social Security Administration reliably processes more than 1 billion requests for data a year for hundreds of state and federal agencies, and is maintaining an IT infrastructure that provides better than 99 percent uptime for most data exchange systems.

But expected growth in demand could challenge the agency’s ability to continue to provide this level of service, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office.

“Although SSA’s existing IT infrastructure is sufficient to support current outgoing data exchanges, SSA officials and the agency’s partners anticipate that the number of these exchanges will continue to increase and become more complex, placing greater demands on the infrastructure and systems,” GAO said.

This pressure could be compounded by manpower shortages as the agency’s experienced IT staff members reach retirement age in the coming years.

The agency is responding with programs to upgrade and update its systems in anticipation of these challenges.

“To address overall agency needs for a more cost-effective and efficient computing environment, SSA is currently taking steps to modernize its IT infrastructure, including components that support its data exchange programs,” GAO said. “For example, the agency is updating its 30-year-old database infrastructure, converting outdated software applications, and expanding its physical dataprocessing capacity.”

But the agency still needs to get a better handle on future demands in order to prepare for them, GAO concluded. “Specifically, the agency has not projected increases in the number of requests for data or the need for more online, real-time access to its data exchange systems.”

Officials overseeing SSA data exchange services say that the agency’s tactical plans for delivering electronic services will be sufficient to address future needs. But GAO worries that these plans have not yet been fully developed. A more detailed analysis is needed to identify the specific business and technical requirements for its data exchange programs, it warns.

SSA data is a linchpin 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.

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 maintains 104 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.

To support these exchanges, SSA established a national help desk has and the Change Asset and Problem Reporting System for recording, prioritizing, tracking, and solving IT problems. About 35 systems-related problems affecting data exchanges were reported from January 2008 to February 2009. These problems were primarily temporary outages lasting less than one minute, including several problems lasting only a matter of seconds.

SSA is in the process of converting its legacy database infrastructure to a modern and commercially available system that is intended to support online processing 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The agency also is upgrading its systems environment, which contains aging software that includes 36 million lines of COBOL code, which makes it difficult to implement new business processes and new service delivery models. SSA has recently built a new data center with expanded data-processing capacity and plans to replace the 30-year-old National Computer Center to support growing requirements of a full-time electronic service delivery operation.

“Nevertheless, according to agency officials, SSA has not conducted detailed analyses to project future workload requirements resulting from the increasing demand and expanded need for outgoing electronic data exchanges,” GAO said. “Specifically, the agency has not projected increases in the number of requests for data or the need for more online, real-time access to its data exchange systems.”

SSA replied that it would conduct detailed analyses to determine workload projections and define requirements for future data exchange services as funding is available, and update its target architecture based on those analyses.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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