The Business of Government Hour

 

About the show

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

The interviews

Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

William Gray interview

Friday, September 17th, 2004 - 20:00
Phrase: 
"Modernizing the disability benefits process enables us to move from a paper to an electronic environment. We eliminate mailing, filing, and storing paper and focus on having information available to decision makers at the right time."
Radio show date: 
Sat, 09/18/2004
Guest: 
Intro text: 
William Gray

 

Magazine profile: 
Complete transcript: 
Friday, August 13, 2004

Arlington, Virginia

Mr. Lawrence: Good morning and welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, partner in charge of The IBM Center for The Business of Government. We created the Center in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. You can find out more about the Center by visiting us on the web at businessofgovernment.org.

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our special guest this morning is Bill Gray, Deputy Commissioner of Systems at the Social Security Administration.

Good morning, Bill.

Mr. Gray: Good morning, Paul. How are you doing?

Mr. Lawrence: Great, thank you. And also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Greg Greben.

Good morning, Greg.

Mr. Greben: Good morning.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, Bill, let's start by sort of learning more about the Social Security Administration. Could you give us a sort of historical background and talk to us about its mission?

Mr. Gray: Okay. Well, Social Security, as a lot of people know, started back in 1937 under the Roosevelt Administration, when people were going through the Depression, and they wanted to have a guarantee that people who reached their retirement years had a floor of income that they could count on. And so Social Security was formed really to make sure as people reached the retirement age, they'd be able to support themselves throughout their retirement years.

Mr. Lawrence: Most people don't realize the size of Social Security and the number of people who work there. I'm curious, could you give us a sense of the size of SSA, and perhaps more importantly, the types of skills of the people who work there?

Mr. Gray: Well, Social Security has about 65,000 employees and it's a very diverse organization. First of all, we have about 45,000 employees that work in one of our 1,400 field offices that are in almost every community across the country. And the employees in these offices serve any American citizen that comes in, has a question, needs to file for benefits, needs to change something on their records. We also have a number of other positions that support them. We have about 19,000 employees that work that are not federal employees, but state employees, that work in the states that make the medical decisions, so that if somebody comes and files for disability benefits, these employees determine whether they meet SSA's medical requirements.

In addition to that, we have a number of employees throughout the country and throughout the Agency that provide support. I have -- working in Systems, I have people that develop new systems who are requirements writers. I have network engineers. I have a number of IT professionals. We have lawyers. We have judges that if somebody files an appeal because they disagree with one of the decisions that was made, a judge can hear them. We have people who are accountants who work on Space and Budget. So it's just a very diverse organization.

Mr. Greben: Can you explain SSA's interaction and relationships with other federal departments and agencies?

Mr. Gray: Well, Greg, SSA used to be a part of Health and Human Services. And about nine years ago, we became an independent agency, and Social Security now reports directly to the President. It's part of the Executive Branch. We work very closely with a number of other federal agencies: IRS, because obviously there's a connection between collecting income taxes and collecting Social Security taxes; with the Center for Medicaid and Medicare Services, because Social Security signs people up for Medicare, they collect the premiums, and they oftentimes answer questions for people. We work closely with the Veterans Administration; many disabled veterans are eligible for Social Security benefits as well. So with a number of federal agencies throughout the government, we work very closely.

Mr. Greben: Bill, can you talk to us about your specific responsibilities and duties as the Deputy Commissioner of Systems?

Mr. Gray: Well, as the Deputy Commissioner for Systems, we really have a very large centralized systems organization that manages all of the information technology at Social Security. We have one of the largest data centers in the world; that we process about 45 million transactions a day. We build a lot of our own software, so we have a good number of software developers. And we're responsible for getting and overseeing the installation of new workstations, new servers, telephones, managing the telecommunications network, the 800 number network. So just a wide array of responsibilities.

Mr. Greben: And can you talk to us a bit about prior experiences before becoming Deputy Commissioner of Systems?

Mr. Gray: I started out in Social Security about 28 years ago as a claims representative in Sandusky, Ohio, one of the 1,400 offices that I had mentioned before. And in that role, I would people would come, I'd talk to people that needed to file for benefits or had questions, and I'd try to answer those questions. I moved up through the management ranks. I was a supervisor, a staff assistant in Chicago.

And in 1985, in January of '85, Social Security was just starting to move into bringing systems online, giving end users in the field offices the ability to take applications through CICS online. And I came in on a detail at that time to supervise an office that was composed of people from the field that were testing these new systems before they were released to make sure that they met the end users' requirements. Since that time, I've worked in a number of different jobs representing the end users in all systems development, making sure that their voice was heard at the table.

And about four years ago, I actually moved out of operations into the systems organization itself. I came in first of all as Assistant Deputy Commissioner and then, about two years ago, I took over in charge of systems as the Deputy Commissioner.

Mr. Lawrence: As you think about your career, is there any one experience where you shifted from being sort of a worker, a doer, to realizing you were interested in being part of management?

Mr. Gray: I think when I first became a supervisor, that was the point at which I kind of made that shift there where you moved into management. And I think that that's always for anybody, that's kind of a difficult shift. I think that all of a sudden you're responsible for things, you're trying to -- you move from doing work yourself to try to motivate other people to do the work for you. And so those are a set of skills that I think we all need to learn as we make that transition.

Mr. Lawrence: You've talked a lot about your experiences, and what I've noticed is that you've remained with the Social Security Administration the entire time. What's kept you in public service, or perhaps you've been attracted into the private sector, but said no? What's kept you?

Mr. Gray: Well, first of all, I love being in public service. It's the -- I think it's the mission of the Agency. I think that coming to work and doing things that you think improve the lives of everyday American citizens, I think that's what really motivates me. And I think Social Security is a wonderful place to work. And what I try to tell my folks is keep your eye focused on service. That's why we're here, and keep your eye focused on that despite all the other, you know, distractions you have in your day-to-day work lives.

Mr. Lawrence: You're a leader of a very large team because of the size of the systems you do. What are the kind of skills you use to sort of stay in touch with the team? I think people often talk about the need for leaders to communicate, so I'm curious how you do that with such a large team.

Mr. Gray: Well, there's a lot of ways that you do it, and I think communication is absolutely vital. I think the first step is that you have to know where you're going. You have to have a vision of where you're going. And so I try to get a lot of input from people to try to form the vision, make sure people know the direction that we should go. And then I spend a lot of time just going out and talking to people over and over again about the directions we're going and why we're going into those directions.

I have weekly meetings with a division. And so it's a different division and systems every week, and it's the employees all the way up from the clerical staff to the managers, and we talk about any issues that people have on their mind. I spend a lot of time not only communicating within Systems and telling people where we're going, but going out to the various offices across the country and making sure the people that we serve and support understand where we're going and why we're going in those directions; and if they have issues and concerns, making sure I understand these so that we can try to address them in our systems development.

Mr. Lawrence: What's your perspective on the speed by which decisions are made in the public sector? For example, we often talk to a lot of people who joined government coming from the private sector late in their career and they are surprised at how slow it is compared to some of the decision-making based on the private sector; others are not because they think it's comparable; large organizations being large organizations. I'm curious of your perspective on that.

Mr. Gray: Well, I think that obviously, there's lots of regulations that you have in government that you have to follow in going forward, and that can slow down the decision-making process. But I also think that if you're adept at understanding how to manage through those regulations, you can make decisions quickly. I think at Social Security for the most part, we're able to do that and put ourselves in a good position.

Mr. Lawrence: You've been there a long time and you've seen lots of different leaders of the organization. I'm curious if you could describe for us what you think the characteristics of a good leader are.

Mr. Gray: I think somebody who, first of all, has a vision; somebody who can communicate that vision; somebody that listens to the people around them and is able to make sure that they really reflect people's concerns and try to address those concerns. And I think the most important characteristic is integrity. I think all of us in our jobs, really the only thing we have that people can rely on is our word, and if you don't have integrity and your word doesn't mean what it should mean, you're not able to do business effectively.

Mr. Lawrence: Interesting point.

One of the major programs of the Social Security Administration involves disability benefits. What are the plans to modernize how these are provided? We'll ask Bill Gray of the Social Security Administration to tell us more about these when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and today's conversation is with Bill Gray, Deputy Commissioner of Systems at the Social Security Administration.

And joining us in our conversation also is Greg Greben.

Well, Bill, in the first segment, you talked about the broad responsibilities of the Social Security Administration. Could you talk to us more about the programs that SSA is responsible for administering?

Mr. Gray: Sure, Paul. I think, as most people know, Social Security is very large. We actually pay 47 million people benefit checks every month, and we pay about $40 billion in benefits every year, and we're a mainstay of the American economy. We administer many programs, but Social Security is really a lifetime relationship with the American citizen. It starts when you're born. You get a Social Security card. When your hospital sends in to get your birth certificate, we're also sent an application for you to get a Social Security card at the same time. We issue about 18 million Social Security cards every year.

When you go to work, we start with you trying to make sure that the wages that you're paying Social Security taxes are correctly accredited to your record so that when it gets time for you to file for benefits, we're paying you the correct amount. When you retire or you become disabled, you can file for benefits with us, and we'll assure that you're entitled and then begin sending you a monthly check. And then if something should happen and you die, your survivors may be entitled to benefits on your record.

We also administer a poverty program supplemental security income for people who are aged, over age 65, or disabled that meet certain income levels and resource levels that would entitle them to benefits from us. So we administer a wide array of programs at Social Security.

Mr. Greben: You spoke of programs that pay disability benefits. I understand there is a modernization program underway in this area. Can you tell us more about this initiative?

Mr. Gray: Sure. Before the modernization program, essentially what Social Security did was to pay disability benefits or determine if you met the eligibility requirements for disability. We had a paper folder. So you would come in to file, we would collect your information about why you were disabled, your allegations as to your medical condition. We'd collect all of that on paper and begin creating that paper folder. And then we would ship that paper folder off to the state that I mentioned before, the state agency, and they would get more information from the doctors and from the hospitals to determine whether you were disabled or not, and create more paper in that paper folder. And then make decisions and document their decisions in the paper folder. And if you appealed the decision, you would take that paper folder and send it off to another office, a hearings office, where you would get -- you would be able to have a hearing in front of an administrative law judge. But everything revolved around that paper folder.

The idea behind modernizing the disability process was to move from paper into an electronic environment. And what that meant was that from the point that somebody files until the point at which a decision is made at the hearings level, we ought to do that electronically and process it paperlessly. And that means that people can now file over the Internet. As a matter of fact, 75,000 people so far have filed over the Internet, and 97 percent of them rate their experiences good, very good, or excellent. Almost all of them in excellent.

We've had 5.5 million claims filed in field offices. When someone comes in or someone calls us on the phone, we collect that information electronically. We have an electronic folder so that if we go out and request for information from a doctor or hospital, they can send it to us electronically. If their records are on paper, we'll scan it and make it electronic, and then store that in an electronic folder.

And then at the hearings level, we've built an electronic case processing system that our hearings offices use to manage the hearings and make sure they can schedule them appropriately and control the decisions that are made.

Mr. Greben: Can you speak to some of the specific business drivers that launched this effort?

Mr. Gray: I think the biggest business driver we had was that the service that we were offering just was inadequate. If you actually filed for disability benefits with the Social Security Administration and you were denied and you went through all the levels of appeal, it could take you well over two years to get through the entire process. If you're sick, that's just way too long for someone to have to go through. And so our idea was if we can keep this electronic, we can cut out all of those steps that paper requires: mailing steps, filing and storing paper, retrieving folders. Oftentimes we'd lose a folder; you have to recreate it. With an electronic environment, all of those things are lost, and you can really focus on the business of the agency, which is having the information available to the person that needs to be making the decision at the right time.

Mr. Greben: Do you have goals in mind, Bill, for the performance level you're trying to achieve?

Mr. Gray: Yeah, we think that we can cut out well over 100 days out of this process. And the 100 days that we want to cut out, primarily we're looking to try to cut out most of those at the front end, because if you think about the way that Social Security works, 100 percent of the people file for disability, right, about half of them are approved at the initial level. Well, then, 50 percent go on and file an appeal and, you know, as the process goes, more and more people are winnowed out. So if we can save time more at the front end, you really benefit more people and they get much faster service.

Mr. Lawrence: Can you take us through the timeline for this program? I mean, you described something that seemed pretty straightforward and easy to understand the benefits when you consider the paper going back and forth and the time. I'm just curious sort of, you know, how did this come to be from the time people began to envision the need for change to the actual implementation? Could you take us through the steps?

Mr. Gray: Well, Social Security, first of all, for -- has been trying to look at the modernization of the disability program for a long time, and we had had previous efforts that, frankly, had failed, they hadn't worked. And so we had on the books an effort that would have taken us, starting back in January of 2002, would have taken us over seven years to begin the pilots. We looked at that. That just wasn't -- that didn't meet the needs of anybody, you know. We needed to improve the service.

And so we set a goal that we would build the infrastructure, starting in March of 2002, in 22 months, that would allow us to do the things that I just described. And in January of 2004, 22 months later, we did what we said we would do. A partnership with IBM, with their tremendous support, we were able to build that infrastructure that allows us to take a claim electronically and process it paperlessly. We started rolling this out in January of 2004 to states across the country. And by June of 2005, all the states will be up and using this system.

Mr. Lawrence: There must have been a reason why people thought seven years, so when they were told less than two, what was their response? I mean, how did that reconcile?

Mr. Gray: I think at first there was a lot of skepticism, and I mean a lot of skepticism. People said we didn't think that you could do it. We just didn't think it was possible. They looked at prior efforts that had failed and thought we were blowing some smoke there. But the truth of the matter is that we had really taken a look at the state of the technology, we took a look at what it would take to do this, and we told the commissioner who was driving us to improve this disability process as quickly as we could that we could accomplish this in this timeframe if we got all the resources that we need. And she was just instrumental in going out and making sure that we had the resources so that we could achieve the commitments that we were making.

Mr. Greben: Can you speak to other modernization efforts underway at SSA?

Mr. Gray: There's a lot of things that are going on at SSA. First of all, electronic government is a big deal. Trying to put our services up on the Internet is vitally important for Social Security. We face a Baby Boomer population that's aging, that our workloads are increasing. And if people can come to our websites and do business over the Internet themselves without having to talk to a Social Security employee, we can manage these increasing workloads. So if you come to SSA's website today, you can file for retirement, you can file for disability, you can change your address, you can arrange for direct deposit, replace your Medicare card, and numerous other services. If you have a question, we have "frequently asked questions," where people can come and get answers to the common things that they want to know about Social Security and the benefit programs we offer. So we're going to continue to invest our resources in building web services and making the web a robust service delivery channel for Social Security. Right now, most Americans, when they come to talk to Social Security, they do it over the Internet. So we're achieving what we set out to achieve.

Another massive thing that we're undertaking right now is with the new prescription drug legislation that recently passed Congress and was signed by the President. Social Security has an enormous responsibility in implementing that. We're responsible for determining whether someone would be eligible for a subsidy, for example, to help pay for their prescription drug premium. And so we're doing a lot of automation to try to help with that, all the way from getting applications, paper applications that we can scan and use optical character recognition to read, providing Internet applications and new systems for our employees and our field offices and teleservice centers to use. And we have to have all of these ready by May of '05, when we're going to start taking the subsidy applications.

So there's a lot that's going on. In addition, there's several other provisions in the Medicare legislation that I won't go into that we're also responsible for implementing.

Mr. Lawrence: How do you think about access to the Internet? So for example, more than half of the folks who interact already do, but some people won't, either because they don't want to use the Internet or they don't have access. How do you think about that?

Mr. Gray: That's why Social Security has multiple service delivery channels. That's why if you want to do business with Social Security, you can call us on the phone, you can send us a letter, you can walk into a local field office, or you can do business over the Internet. It's your choice, but a lot of people want to do business over the Internet, and I do, you know? When you go out to do business with a company, it's convenient to do it from your home. You don't even have to get dressed; you can do it in your pajamas. And so that's how I want to do business and a lot of people want to, and that works well for use. It helps us and it also provides better service to them. And it allows us to really focus more of our human resources on people that need that kind of support.

Mr. Lawrence: As we've heard, SSA interacts with lots of other government agencies. What are the challenges exchanging information with these other agencies?

We'll ask Bill Gray of the Social Security Administration to tell us about this when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Bill Gray, the Deputy Commissioner of Systems at the Social Security Administration.

And joining us in our conversation is Greg Greben.

Mr. Greben: The paperless disability folder stores a wealth of data in various formats. How do you ensure interoperability between these systems?

Mr. Gray: Well, Greg, that's a real task for us. We have a vast network of various systems, and trying to make sure that they all work together well with the changes that are coming on board is a real challenge. We have at Social Security a very defined process. We have an architectural review board, which is composed of experts, systems experts, in the Agency. And any new system that's going to be implemented has to go through the architectural review board, and people look at the design of it and make sure that it will fit in, before it's even built, that it'll fit in with our architecture. We also do a lot of testing of systems as they're going through the development cycles to make sure they really do work well and that they interoperate.

With the paperless disability system, though, the challenge was even greater. And we were really fortunate. IBM has been a terrific partner in this process. They opened up their labs in California, at Santa Teresa, to really helping us look at how we could architect this, because it was a real challenge for us with the volumes of data that we expected to come in to make sure that they work in our environment. They opened up their labs. They worked with us. They helped us with the design. It was a real benefit to us. And they helped us with the testing at every step of the way as we've gone through.

In addition to that, in Social Security itself, we knew from the beginning, and I told you I had asked the commissioner for additional resources, we knew from the beginning that many of those resources, as a matter of fact about $20 million, needed to be spent on building improved testing labs at Social Security, so that as we had this new process come through, we could make sure that we could iron out the bugs and test these things thoroughly before any user actually used it in production. Those things have worked real well for us.

The systems that we've fielded have been stable, they've been available, and performance has been very good. So I think that this is a real formula for success at Social Security.

Mr. Lawrence: As you've taken us through the process, I've heard you describe interactions with other agencies, medical professionals, disability claim examiners, and probably some others I don't quite know. What challenges are presented when you exchange information between these different users, and how do you overcome them?

Mr. Gray: Well, first of all, you know, every user, a medical professional, another federal agency, they all have their own IT environment, and you have to be able to exchange information using the technologies that they have that they're going to be sending it to you with. And so the first thing that you have to do is make sure that if you're asking for information, you're giving them an easy way to interact with you. And so we focus a lot of attention on providing different options to people to get information to us so that they really can do it in a way that's most conducive to the business that they have.

We also have to ensure that privacy and security is protected throughout this. Social Security focuses an enormous amount of attention, and we are one of the highest, if not the highest, rated government agency in security and in privacy. And that's because we focus so much attention on it and make sure that as people send us information, no one else could possibly get to that information as it comes through that's not authorized to do that.

We also have -- with the disability modernization, we had a particular challenge because, as you know, there were new regulations that were being sent out to the medical community, the Health Insurance Portability Act. And a lot of the medical community didn't quite know how that applied to them, and they didn't know what that would mean to them as they started to exchange information with Social Security electronically. And so one of the things that the Commissioner of Social Security did was to start to have regular meetings with the professional associations that represent the medical community: American Medical Association, Psychiatric Association, dozens of these kinds of professional organizations. And we invited the people who were in charge of the Health Insurance Portability Act regulations to come and talk about where Social Security was going and what that meant to the medical community. And I think by doing that, we've been able to ease a lot of the concerns and fears that people had in doing business with us. So it's been a real effort, but we've undertaken it and I think we're being real successful.

Mr. Greben: Disability program modernization marks a major transformation in the way SSA has operated over the last 70 years. You've talked a great deal about the technology challenges. What additional steps are being taken to ensure employees have the proper infrastructure, training, motivation, et cetera, to make this program a success?

Mr. Gray: You know, that's really the biggest challenge we face of all of this. The technology, all of this, the real challenge is the business changes that were taking place. People have worked and used a paper folder for 70 years in this agency and for seven months, we've asked people to start using an electronic folder and to try to get used to working in that environment. And techniques that people used -- to paper clip documents, to put sticky notes on them, or annotate certain things in a paper folder -- they need to know how to translate those skills into an electronic folder.

So we've spent a lot of time, first of all, developing documentation and training to focus on that. Then we test the training, and as people give us feedback, we improve it. All of the systems that we use are piloted before they ever are released into a wider audience in a limited environment. We just last week, in Chicago, had a nationwide conference where we brought people from all the states together. And the people who had been using the electronic folder talked about their experiences, their best practices, lessons learned to share with people who'd be seeing this coming down the road over the next few months. There's a number of things that we do to try to get the user community comfortable in working in this electronic environment.

Mr. Greben: So what have you seen to date? Are there measurable successes? Have you seen improved service delivery, cost savings? What have you noticed?

Mr. Gray: We have. It's early, still early in the process. But just for example, in 2003, as a result of some of the early initiatives that took place, average processing time went down seven days. So we were seven days faster in processing the average claim. We are getting a lot of information now electronically in the states directly from the medical vendors. And in one of our states, in Mississippi, where they put a particular emphasis on this, about 40 percent of their medical evidence is coming in directly and electronically from the medical community. Their average time to receive medical evidence dropped from 22 days in January to 14 days in June; significant time if you're trying to make a medical decision. So we're seeing some of the early successes that we expected to see, and I think we're right on target with where we need to go.

Mr. Lawrence: You've talked about a large-scale transformation project. Could you take us through some of the management challenges? You talked about needing more resources, and you got those, I understand that. But take us through some of the people issues.

Mr. Gray: I think some of the people issues were really, in the transformation, was trying to, first of all, make sure -- there was a lot of fear when they heard about a new system would be coming. When we announced that in 22 months we were going to build this infrastructure, the first people issue you faced was skepticism and fear that we would build something that wouldn't meet their needs.

One of the things that we needed to focus on was that we wouldn't build this in a vacuum, that we needed to bring the user community in. And we were building the system for them, none of us would ever use it; it would be the people out there. And so we needed to have them at the table with us every step of the way as we designed and built these systems. And so we did. We had an enormous amount of people coming in from across the country. We did a lot of piloting of these new systems before we ever released them.

Then what happened is that we found that as we put this out, we'd go and do training for folks, right, and they'd be excited and start to use these new systems, but about a month or so down the road, people would still be a little bit sketchy. You know, they would have learned all the things in the pilot, but that's a lot of information to give somebody up front in the training. So what we found is that you had to go back and you had to, you know, sit down with people again. And people would tell you, well, I'm frustrated because I can't do this. They wouldn't necessarily realize that you could do this; they just hadn't necessarily picked it up in the training. So a lot of this was going back and giving people that next level of skill so that they were more adept at using the electronic folder.

And then we've worked a lot internally in Social Security and with IBM; that as users made recommendations for how we could make improvements, to go about getting those improvements made quickly. And I think that had a real impact on morale that people could see that they'd make a suggestion and, a few weeks later, that suggestion would be implemented and it would improve the process.

Mr. Lawrence: How about the people who actually worked on the project, perhaps mostly from your team? I noticed the following dilemma, which is the best performers have day jobs. An interesting new project comes along and you're stuck on a dilemma, you'd like to have the best performers to do this, but they also have another job. How did you staff this project?

Mr. Gray: Well, the first thing that we needed was we had gone through a reorganization in Systems when I took over in 2002. The first thing that I did was reorganize Systems so that previously, we had an organization that did software development, we had an organization that wrote requirements, we had an organization that built management information, and various other organizations. And the problem was that if you wanted to build a new system, you had to go through all these organizations, and the organization that had the fewest resources was the one that you were going to be stuck with; that was where you were going to be targeted to.

So we decided instead to organize around a project. If you were going to build disability programs, all of those resources would be put in one organization, and that's what we did. So that helped get the people together that would be building the different initiatives. If you were building web-based applications, that was in one organization; building disability applications was in a different organization. If you were building retirement applications, it was in a different organization.

The next thing we did was that we knew we had to increase the staff of the people that would be building these disability applications, so we did a posting and asked people to volunteer to come over. And we got lots of people that volunteered and we tried to accommodate them, moving them on into these organizations, and, in many cases, we back-filled behind them, so you hire new people to come in behind them. And that transition had to be managed carefully for the reasons that you mentioned before, Paul; that, you know, you just can't denude organizations that have other responsibilities.

But I think that really what you started to see is that even within Systems, within our organization, people thought this challenge of building something in 22 months, they were skeptical of it. This was a huge challenge. But as you had success after success, people could see this coming together. You had more and more morale-building, more and more motivation, and people were really pleased with the success they'd had.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a fascinating point, especially about the people.

How will SSA continue to transform and modernize as we look out to the future? We'll ask Bill Gray of the Social Security Administration to give us his perspective when The Business of Government Hour returns.

(Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and this morning's conversation is with Bill Gray. Bill's the Deputy Commissioner of Systems at the Social Security Administration.

Also joining us in our conversation is Greg Greben.

Well, Bill, earlier you talked about the fact that the SSA had attempted a large transformation project in the '90s, and I'm curious: what lessons were learned from that experience and how they were incorporated into your recent success?

Mr. Gray: I think we learned a lot of lessons. I think that the first lesson that we learned was that the technology that we had been trying in the '90s really wasn't conducive to where we wanted to go. We had been trying client server technology to build this as a platform on. The result was that any change you had to make, you had to download to workstations and servers in a variety of locations. It just became too difficult for us to manage.

When we moved ahead with this initiative, we relied on web-based technology. It really reached its maturity, so it was something that we could rely on. Working with IBM, we worked on things like content manager to the mainframe, so instead of having to build large server firms, we could actually store this massive amount of data or process this massive amount of data on our mainframe computers that are very reliable and that we're used to working with. So I think the technology itself was just an improvement and gave us the foundation for our success.

The second lesson that we learned is that you really needed to bring the user community and have a strong user voice into where we were going. We were changing people's business processes, we were changing their lives, and they felt much more comfortable if they were part of that process. And so we spent a long time and an enormous amount of effort and resources on getting that user voice into our development activities.

The third thing that we learned is that we needed to do better testing up front. In our prior efforts, we didn't necessarily have the testing labs. And oftentimes, the first line of defense was the user using it in production. And obviously, the reaction of people was going to be pretty negative to that as they had to encounter those problems and work through them right up front when they were trying to deal with the American public. So we spent our resources building labs so that we could test what we needed to test before somebody started using it out in the real-life environment. I think those three things really contributed to our success.

Mr. Greben: The Commissioner of SSA is pushing for innovation and continued modernization of SSA's records. Where do you think the future will take you?

Mr. Gray: I think the future is going to take us into really moving completely into an electronic environment. We've talked today so far a lot about disability, right? And with disability, we're building electronic folders and we're not going to be keeping the paper. And by June of next year, we hope to bring up a similar system to really handle the additional claims workloads that Social Security has so that we're no longer storing paper.

I tell people, you know, that for 70 years, everything that Social Security has done has really revolved around a paper folder. You have to have somebody to create that folder. You have somebody manage it, going and pulling it and giving it back to the people that can do the work, spend an enormous amount of resources mailing those paper folders around. Only the person that has the paper folder can do the work. And then when we get all finished with it, then you go and store it in a cave so that we can retrieve it for the next seven to ten years if we need to retrieve it. Well, I think what you're seeing Social Security do is start to come out of those caves and really move into an electronic environment, and that you'll see that happening very quickly, and that's what the Commissioner is driving us to do.

Mr. Greben: Are there additional challenges that SSA will face in the future?

Mr. Gray: I think the biggest challenge that Social Security faces is one that I think everybody is very familiar with, and that's the aging Baby Boom population and what that's going to mean to Social Security in a variety of ways. I think people are real familiar with the financial challenges that that poses and the solvency of the program. And people are focused on trying to resolve those issues, but it also has an enormous impact on our workloads. People -- the Baby Boomers right now are reaching their disability years. And one of the business drivers in modernizing disability was trying to deal with this workload that's increasing because the Baby Boomers are reaching those years. Very soon, they're going to start to move into their retirement years. And so our challenge is to find ways to effectively provide service to an increasing population of users without having to have enormous increases in our staff, which in these times of tight government budgets just aren't going to happen. And that's why when I described before what we're doing on the web and the Internet, that's why that's so important to us.

Mr. Greben: How do you envision the government will conduct transactions across other federal agencies, state and local governments, et cetera?

Mr. Gray: I think it's going to be different, you know? I think that, you know, traditionally and in our current environments, people think of dealing with Veterans Administration or dealing with Social Security or with IRS as independent agencies, and I think really the American citizen doesn't want to deal with individual agencies. They want to deal with the federal government and they want to know all the benefits that they might be entitled to, and they don't have to go to various agencies to find what those are. They want to have one application so they don't have to apply if they're entitled to three different kinds of benefits, they don't have to apply at three different places for them.

I think that we need to be able to exchange information so that if somebody comes to get a driver's license or we have a homeland security issue, we can make sure that people are who they say they are in those. So I think that what you're going to find is a more common, outward-facing government face. And I think that increasingly working together with other federal agencies and, you know, Office of Management and Budget, we're starting to do that; we're starting to combine benefit applications, combine questions, you know, that people can get answers to. And I think that you're also seeing that more and more information is being shared so that people have more accurate benefits and that we have a better and more secure environment for the United States.

Mr. Lawrence: Bill, in the first segment, you took us through your long career in public service, and you also talked about how much you enjoyed it, and you've been there. So I'm curious, what advice would you give somebody interested in joining government?

Mr. Gray: I guess my first piece of advice is it's a great place to work. I mean, I would really encourage people to come and work for the government. I think the mission makes it a particularly important place to work. I think people feel a lot of satisfaction with coming to work every day. I know that I think about when I come to work, and I know my colleagues do, that it's their neighbors and their families and their friends that you're actually serving, and it's a very personal relationship between what you're doing and how you're helping the American public.

And so I think the advice that I would give is that it's a good place to come, come work here. I think that people often have a perception, a misperception, that government employees don't work hard. I think that they would be disabused of that notion if they came. I think people are very dedicated and work very hard, and so you can expect a lot of challenges and a lot of opportunities. And I think that the one thing that I always tell my staff is to keep your eye focused on service, that's why you're here.

Mr. Lawrence: Bill, that'll have to be our last question. Greg and I want to thank you for squeezing us into your busy schedule and being with us this morning.

Mr. Gray: Great, thank you, Paul. It's great to be here. Anybody that's listening, I would encourage you that if you want to do business, visit us at www.socialsecurity.gov. We have a variety of services up there and questions that can be answered. I think you'll find it a very good website.

Mr. Lawrence: Thanks, Bill. This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Bill Gray, Deputy Commissioner of Systems at the Social Security Administration.

Be sure and visit us on the web at businessofgovernment.org. There, you can learn more about our programs and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness, and you can also get a transcript of today's very interesting conversation. Once again, that's businessofgovernment.org.

This is Paul Lawrence. Thank you for listening.

William Gray interview
09/18/2004
"Modernizing the disability benefits process enables us to move from a paper to an electronic environment. We eliminate mailing, filing, and storing paper and focus on having information available to decision makers at the right time."

You may also

Broadcast Schedule

Federal News Radio 1500-AM
  • Mondays at 11 a.m. Fridays at 1 p.m. (Wednesdays at 12 p.m. as
  • available.)

Our radio interviews can be played on your computer or downloaded.

 

Subscribe to our program

via iTunes.

 

Transcripts are also available.

 

Your host

Michael Keegan
IBM Center for The Business of Government
Leadership Fellow & Host, The Business of Government Hour

Browse Episodes

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

Recent Episodes

11/13/2017
Dr. Barclay Butler
Defense Health Agency
Component Acquisition Executive
11/06/2017
Dan Chenok
IBM Center for The Business of Government
Executive Director
11/06/2017
Haynes Cooney
IBM Institute for Business Value
Research Program Manager,
11/06/2017
John Kamensky
IBM Center for The Business of Government
Senior Fellow
10/30/2017
Jin-Oh Hahn and  Monifa Vaughn-Cooke
University of Maryland
Assistant Professors, Department of Mechanical Engineering