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US Deadlock is the next crisis data management?

  • 08/08/2011
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  • Posted by EuroSTAR

The hubbub surrounding the US Government’s impasse over raising its debt ceiling has made many of us aware of the mind-numbingly huge sums of money involved in government running costs but behind the headlines, there are issues pending that money alone may no longer be able to fix.

At the start of the year, there were reports that the problems facing the day-to-day operational requirements of the American Social Security Administration (SSA) have reached a critical point. The cause is not the usual, and divisive, issue of funding but a quite different and potentially overwhelming problem – data.

A report by the Inspector General warned that the current system is near to collapse as it tires to process the volume of claims it is now receiving – projecting that as the Baby Boomers approach retirement, claims could rise to 10,000 per day. The authors of the report sum up why this matters: “Whether it is after the loss of a loved one, at the onset of disability, or during the transition from work to retirement, SSA touches the lives of virtually every person in America.”

This is a classic illustration of how a government agency’s data management impacts on the life quality of its citizens. This is not an academic exercise or a dry review of process but is critical to how government takes care of its most vulnerable beneficiaries.

‘Improving efficiency through automation’ was an obvious recommendation which in turn led to the clear need for strategic planning and management of its IT investments. Money has been made available, some $500m to date, in order to replace the current NCC system. It was first introduced in 1979 and now the report states: “…the NCC as a stand-alone data center will no longer be able to support this expanding environment.”
We are now approaching that capacity ‘deadline’. The other alarming revelation is that “…the Agency has projected that this new facility cannot be operational before 2015.”

Crisis indeed and evermore so as federal budgets are being slashed yet one voice emerged to underline the fact that paying more to prop up an ailing system is no longer enough.
Ephraim Feig, the SSA’s associate CIO for vision and strategy said: “The alternative – continuing business as usual – is not sustainable. Social Security should rethink its strategy for moving forward. It should stop thinking of how to augment to their archaic technology.”

Fresh thinking and the creation of an innovative data management solution sounds precisely what is called for but this doesn’t take into account the labyrinthine complexities of changing how things are done in a large organization. Ephraim Feig has since lost his job – he alleges that it was because he challenged the agency’s approach to modernization.

Another deadlock? It seems almost inevitable when any changes are suggested that will impact on the apparatus of the state. But solutions – that include but do not stop at funding issues – are urgently needed and new thinking merits serious consideration.

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