Read Full Report

Date:  Aug. 6, 2007

Contacts:  Paul Jackson

Michelle Strikowsky

Office of News and Public Information

202-334-2138; e-mail <>




Social Security Administration Should Make Revamping Electronic Services

A High Priority


WASHINGTON -- The Social Security Administration should make a clear, strategic commitment to upgrading its online services for an increasingly Internet-savvy clientele, says a new report from the National Research Council.  Although SSA's present computer and database systems continue to operate and do not jeopardize the current delivery of benefits, enhancing online service offerings and maintaining the systems will become increasingly difficult without significant changes. 


The SSA developed an "e-government" strategy in accordance with the President's E-Gov Initiative and asked the Research Council to form a committee to review the strategy.  The committee found that although SSA offers some online services, it does not strongly promote use of the Internet as an alternative to its traditional methods of customer service.  The online services SSA does offer lag behind those offered by private financial institutions, and the agency has not kept pace with technological improvements supporting electronic services, the report adds.  SSA has a long-standing tradition of individualized customer service delivered in person or over the phone, which is very labor intensive.  However, the new wave of baby boomer clients for SSA benefits and services, unlike previous generations, is more comfortable with computers and electronic commerce. 


The report recommends that SSA follow the example of large firms that have successfully rolled out electronic services by giving a high-level office responsibility for developing and managing electronic information and service delivery.  To be successful in developing and upgrading its electronic services, the SSA also needs to undergo a shift in organizational culture toward embracing change -- by regularly evaluating emerging trends in technology, business practices, demographics, and public expectations -- as a constant factor in how it does business.


Because the underlying databases are essential to delivery of electronic services, the report also examines SSA's plans to update its more than 20-year-old "MADAM" database system, which is well-behind current commercial technology, and which has not been replaced despite warnings from as far back as 1986 about the risks of maintaining it.  This obsolete, custom technology requires highly specialized expertise that is in increasingly short supply.  SSA personnel with this expertise will begin retiring in greater numbers and replacing them will be difficult because the required skills are no longer in the mainstream.  Moreover, it is much easier to implement electronic services with a modern database system.  The report recommends that SSA give considerable weight to the efficacy of electronic delivery of services and remain open to the incorporation of new technologies when planning for conversion and upgrade.  Because modernization of MADAM is critical to the SSA's mission, and because the committee has concerns about SSA's current plans for updating MADAM, the committee also recommended seeking technical advice from a broader range of experts in undertaking a conversion. 


SSA's approach to balancing risks and rewards for modernization is overly cautious, the committee concluded.  It recommended a more appropriate balance that better recognizes the risks associated with failing to modernize and the benefits of modernization such as cost reduction, fraud prevention, and customer satisfaction. 


The study was sponsored by the Social Security Administration.  The National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medicine, and National Research Council make up the National Academies.  They are private, nonprofit institutions that provide science, technology, and health policy advice under a congressional charter.  The Research Council is the principal operating agency of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.  A committee roster follows.


Copies of Social Security Administration Electronic Service Provision: A Strategic Assessment will be available from the National Academies Press; tel. 202-334-3313 or 1-800-624-6242 or on the Internet at  Reporters may obtain a pre-publication copy from the Office of News and Public Information (contacts listed above).



#       #       #


[ This news release and report are available at ]




Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences

Computer Science and Telecommunications Board


Committee on the Social Security Administration's E-Government

Strategy and Planning for the Future


Leon J. Osterweil (chair)


Department of Computer Science

University of Massachusetts



Matt Bishop


Department of Computer Science

University of California



Michael J. Carey*

Senior Engineering Director

AquaLogic Data Services Platform Team

BEA Systems Inc.

San Jose, Calif.


David J. DeWitt*

John P. Morgridge Professor of Computer Sciences

University of Wisconsin



Valerie Gregg

Assistant Director for Development

Digital Government Research Center

Information Sciences Institute

University of Southern California

Los Angeles


Blaise Heltai

General Partner

NewVantage Partners LLC

Brookline, Mass.


Stephen H. Holden


SRA Touchstone Consulting Group

Washington, D.C.


Larry G. Massanari

Former Acting Commissioner

Social Security Administration (retired)

Exton, Pa.


Judith S. Olson

Richard W. Pew Collegiate Professor of Human Computer Interaction

School of Information; and


Ross School of Business and Department of Psychology

University of Michigan

Ann Arbor





Lynette I. Millett

Study Director


Joan D. Winston

Program Officer



* Member, National Academy of Engineering