Social Security Administration's Progress in Modernizing Its Computer Operations

IMTEC-85-15: Published: Aug 30, 1985. Publicly Released: Oct 1, 1985.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reported on the Social Security Administration's (SSA) computer system's flexibility to handle legislative changes promptly and efficiently and its security. There were also concerns about: (1) a shift in emphasis and direction in the SSA Systems Modernization Plan (SMP); (2) whether the existing system was adequately documented to permit development of an improved new system; and (3) SSA failure to assign personal identification numbers to trace particular transactions. In addition, GAO investigated SSA implementation of the 1099 reporting requirement, which requires issuance of reports to beneficiaries and to the Internal Revenue Service on SSA payments to beneficiaries, as a test of the system's legislative flexibility.

GAO found that: (1) SSA has made significant progress in improving its hardware deficiencies through its acquisition of new computers and the conversion of its data files from tape to disk; (2) the goals of modernizing data communications and database management have been delayed; (3) SSA has not made sufficient progress in improving its software; (4) the 1099 implementation, although completed on time, required SSA to create a new system and only partially demonstrated improvement in its capability to respond to legislative changes requiring modifications to existing systems; and (5) SSA automated systems remained vulnerable to fraud, even though improvements were made. GAO also found that there was a significant redirection in the SSA approach to software improvement because: (1) it initiated system redesign efforts before completing software standards and improvements; and (2) it decided not to fully document all existing software programs because of resource limitations and other higher priority work. GAO believes that this approach could be risky and could result in continued inadequate responses to legislative changes. GAO also believes that SSA will not achieve the desired legislative flexibility until effective implementation of the software program is completed.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: GAO analyzed the SSA response and software development approach and reported the findings in a December 1986 report on the SSA Claims Modernization Project.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct SSA to conduct a comprehensive risk analysis of the 1985 changes made in the SMP software engineering program. Such an analysis should: (1) include a discussion about how this redirection will improve the SSA ability to more timely and efficiently complete the SMP software program; and (2) address the possible risks associated with diverting resources away from documenting and improving existing systems and with taking a less structured approach to software development.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: SSA has responded that it will not implement this recommendation due to resource limitations since future system features, currently under review by GAO, will be responsive to this need.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct SSA to implement an audit trail capability in the current operation system that identifies authorizers for all transactions. Further, the system developed to meet this requirement should provide feedback through which transaction authorizers are informed, after transactions have been entered into the system, of all transactions attributed to their personal identification numbers. Finally, those authorizers should be required to certify the accuracy of any transactions attributed to their personal identification number.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: The Committee requested that SSA do a risk analysis unless it returns to the approach outlined in the 1982 plan. SSA stated that this was not needed because it was following the 1982 plan. GAO does not concur with the SSA position, based on IMTEC-85-16 and work scheduled for completion in the immediate future. SSA deviated in many significant areas from the intent of the original plan.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct SSA to promptly report to the Committee: (1) the results of the SSA risk analysis; and (2) progress on implementing an audit trail.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services


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