SSA survey response shows limits of IT management reforms

This story has been updated to include comments from the Office of Management and Budget

The Social Security Administration can't fully modernize its business and accounting information technology systems and processes because of governmentwide limitations beyond its control, the agency wrote in its response to a congressional survey released Tuesday.

SSA points out in numerous footnotes, for instance, that it has no choice but to manually transfer data to some governmentwide accounting systems maintained by the Treasury Department because those systems don't accept automated data transfers. SSA automatically transfers data to many government systems that allow such transfers, the response said.

A summary of the agency survey results, released Tuesday by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, blasted agencies for overreliance on manual operations to transfer financial and accounting data, both within agencies and governmentwide.

Those manual data transfers not only waste employee time and taxpayer money but also increase the likelihood errors will be introduced during the transfer, the oversight committee said.

The committee also knocked agencies for not publishing enough spending data on their websites.

A former agency chief information officer told Nextgov Wednesday he sympathized with SSA's inability to electronically transfer data to systems that would not accept it, but that the agency had missed numerous opportunities to make its own systems more modern and efficient.

The SSA survey response and several other agency responses, he said, showed a general unwillingness to make important reforms and to update legacy systems that run on decades-old software.

"I thought they were responsive in that they tried to really explain their systems and their actions in some detail," the former CIO said of the SSA response. "If you ask me whether they were being imaginative or aggressive in trying to find a way to change and evolve, then I wouldn't give them very high marks."

The former official asked not to be named because he works as a consultant on federal IT projects.

The committee statement pushed the Digital Accountability and Transparency Act, sponsored by Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., as a remedy for inconsistent agency management of financial data. That bill would standardize financial reporting from federal agencies and collect it in a single public website modeled on the federal stimulus tracking website

The largely nonpartisan legislation has passed the committee and is awaiting action on the House floor. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., has sponsored companion legislation in the Senate and the White House is supporting similar reform through an executive order.

The former agency CIO said he expects some form of legislation will be necessary to force modernization.

The Office of Management and Budget's "view will always be that legislation like that isn't necessary, but, in fact, something like this may be called for to actually move some of these agencies along," he said. "Some of those, like SSA and Treasury, I don't think are going to move very far or fast without some real pressure from the Hill."

Federal Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel's office agrees that federal financial systems need to be updated, a spokeswoman said, arguing that the office has already made "great strides to do so while cutting a billion dollars from troubled projects." VanRoeke's office is the main office dealing with IT reform efforts inside OMB.

The spokeswoman cited the office's TechStat review process, which can result in under-performing, or over-budget IT projects being reformed or canceled, and the process of "chunking" projects into 6- to 24-month increments to ensure they stay on track, both developed and instituted under VanRoekel's predecessor Vivek Kundra.

Many of the systems described in the agency surveys are not currently being updated or replaced, so are largely outside the domain of the federal CIO's office and its reform plan.

Issa and other Republican committee members sent a letter to agencies in March requesting the survey data.

The agency responses, dated between March and June, are a hodgepodge of extensively footnoted 15-page documents, such as SSA's, and brief documents of just two or three pages that answer most questions in a sentence or two. In some cases, agencies responded with pre-existing reports, such as a State Department Financial Management Report from November 2010.

An early oversight committee statement that the "26 [agency] responses comprise 329 pages of detailed description" is somewhat overblown because several agencies appended lengthy annexes such as the National Science Foundation's 48-page open government plan.

The oversight committee's ranking Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., had not responded by 4 p.m. Wednesday to a request for comment on the survey results.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., whose Homeland Security panel is generally responsible for watchdogging government financial management IT systems also had not commented on the survey results. A Carper spokeswoman said he had not seen any of the results before Issa's office released them late Tuesday.

It's not clear whether Issa's office made the full trove of documents available to Cummings' office, but Cummings is personally cc'd on many of the responses.