Today the Social Security Administration’s tech advisory board begins a two day meeting to develop a roadmap for systems technology and electronic services to better carry out the agency’s mission over the next five to ten years. More babyboomers are heading into a system, which is relying on technology that was cutting edge — back when this generation was putting their children through college.
After much criticism from Congress and its Inspector General about the accessibility and security of vital data, the SSA now has more funding to try to fix its aging IT infrastructure. The economic stimulus provided $500 million for SSA to build a new data center, and Social Security reform and IT modernization have become a bi-partisan political priority lately. The challenge is the scope of the problem means there are no quick fixes. However, every year that this task is delayed the future cost of necessary modernization and the risk of disaster greatly increases.
Today, the Computer & Communications Industry Association is releasing a white paper it commissioned that explains the depth of the IT problems that are preventing the agency from making data more interoperable and easier to manage and also from making certain data available so that SSA could offer more services to customers online.
In addition to holding back SSA’s mission, the IT infrastructure costs taxpayers more than it should because all the data is locked onto a mainframe system that shuns competition from other companies that could be providing software and services. The SSA should use its clout to pressure the current provider of its mainframe and software, IBM, to modernize the Administration’s system to enable competitive providers to compete on the merits. This would have the added benefit of enabling the SSA to open up its bidding process and comply with government rules against single bidder contracts.
In his paper, “Making Social Security’s Citizen Database Safe for the Future,” industry analyst Jeffrey Gould says that, “A store of citizen data as central to our national life as that of SSA should not be dependent on the good intentions of a single supplier. Such data should only to entrusted to IT architectures that respect open standards and guarantee long-term accessibility by relying on computer systems available from multiple, competing sources.”
Gould recommends that SSA switch to open standards for citizens’ data, and that critical citizens’ data be stored in standardized data tables that can easily be read and used by any widely used relational database. He also says new versions of all critical applications should be translated to modern computer languages that are not tied to a particular hardware platform or operating system. Gould also advises that SSA should use its buying power to insist that IBM again implement its discarded but long-standing practice of cooperating technically and commercially with suppliers of alternative mainframe hardware and software under reasonable, non-discriminatory terms.
The following statement can be attributed to CCIA President & CEO Ed Black:
“There has been much discussion in recent weeks about the lack of competition in the mainframe marketplace and IBM’s recent anticompetitive practices. But few people who understood the impact of this problem on innovation understood how this impacts citizens and taxpayers. This paper is an attempt to provide an example of the high price we all pay in terms of both the cost of IT and ability for people to use it when one dominant player puts its interests of locking in customers ahead of what’s best for overall innovation and those customers.”
“CCIA strongly urges the SSA to modernize its IT infrastructure and conform to open, normalized standards. This would save American taxpayers millions of dollars, help solve the agency’s current backlog, enable transparency and allow the SSA to more easily harness advances in computing technology and the Internet to better serve citizens.”
This paper is the second to be released as part of CCIA’s series of papers examining high-tech competition policy and the cost of bad antitrust policy for consumers.
About the series:
CCIA’s competition, innovation and consumer choice series takes a sustained look at major antitrust policy issues and their effect on consumers through a series of dialogues and consumer impact white papers. The papers, to be released through mid-November, provide an interdisciplinary look at these issues from the perspectives of an economist, an industry analyst, and an antitrust attorney. The reports were commissioned by CCIA as part of its longstanding mission to advocate fair, balanced competition policy and to better understand how unbalanced competition policy can harm consumers and innovation.