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Why Digital is a ‘Must Have’ for Social Security Administration

The agency is modernizing business lines through a digitalization program that integrates data inputs into more reliable and easily accessible services.

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The Social Security Administration (SSA) is accelerating its modernization program through a focus on data sharing and interoperability designed to expedite the delivery of core services.

Speaking at the Potomac Officer’s Club 2022 CIO Summit last month, SSA CIO Sean Brune outlined how the agency has mobilized a comprehensive digitalization program.

Like other agencies that oversee benefits delivery, SSA has long relied upon manual adjudication and in-person visits to provide critical services, both of which are data-dependent processes.

However, a combination of the increasing availability of new technologies and the demands of the COVID-19 pandemic have accelerated SSA’s modernization program and shifted the agency toward capacities that reduce workload and allow benefits to be accessed remotely.

As a foundation, this has involved adapting new utilities towards services whose core purpose remains unchanged.

“We’ve modernized and changed our process. Our processes have been very similar since the program’s inception. Technologies differ greatly, but the processes remain the same — interview, develop more information, provide an answer, and send a check,” Brune said.

The temporary closing of SSA field offices during the COVID-19 pandemic necessitated means of sending needed information to either current or potential social security recipients, a process of letter distribution that was automated to ensure timely delivery.

“Those letters are all personalized based on an individual circumstances, they don’t go out just by somebody sending them. They go out through automated processing. So we had to make substantial adjustments to our IT processes and the old software code that was used to generate those letters. Being able to do that rapidly taught us to do things,” Brune said.

As has been the case with other federal agencies, the rapid adjustments needed to maintain federal services during the pandemic have only further accelerated SSA’s modernization.

“60% of our claims are initiated online today. You may be surprised that we have 67 million online social security accounts,” Brune said. “We’re now accumulating about 1 million new accounts per month. So digital is not a small ask. Digital was a must have for the public we serve.”

However, the increasing pace and scope of the agency’s digitalization has created a corresponding need to implement technologies at a speed and scale that is ultimately cost and human capital efficient.

“It took us about nine years to move homegrown database formats we developed back in the 60s when we started the Supplemental Security Income program into modern relational databases. Obviously, that’s not acceptable. Nor is it our expectation going forward that’s what it should cost timewise,” Brune said.

This has undergirded a push toward a cloud and data consolidation strategy that has accelerated the modernization of SSA’s services through the integration of key information in the agency’s adjudication and benefits distribution process.

“We can’t do that without good, clean, reliable, accurate and complete data governance. Those are foundations you must have … So now we’re exploiting the cloud. Every month we get more and more data and more and more transactional applications in the cloud,” Brune said.

These structural foundations have laid the basis for a broader digitalization of SSA’s services, including automation and artificial intelligence in critical business lines.

“We are expanding our use of artificial intelligence to identify evidentiary documents that meet our requirements for decision-making. … We now have one nationwide adjudication system and disability claims processing system. We’ve retired those legacy systems, and that has enabled us to apply artificial intelligence,” Brune said.

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