Drama in the Social Security IT Department over Modernization

Susan Hall

Earlier this week, the CIO at the Social Security Administration resigned with little explanation, other than that many of his office's functions were being transferred elsewhere in a reorganization of IT within the agency.


A Federal Times story suggests there's lots of drama within the government agency's IT department. Ephraim Feig, formerly the agency's associate CIO for vision and strategy, says he was fired for offering a "vision" different than the status quo. Feig's departure was announced last month in a memo at the time of the big shakeup. In an interview, Feig, who formerly worked at IBM and Motorola, told the site:

"The challenges have gotten to the point where the more we invest, the worse things get." But at the Social Security Administration, he said, "people are very nervous to rethink how things are done."

He took the job as a political appointment in March 2010. But Feig says he was fired by SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue after compiling a document questioning the agency's plan to spend $500 million on a new data center, saying that in five years "the same amount of processing, storage and communications power will require less than one-fifth the space."


He says the agency's IT systems are reminiscent of the 1970s and '80s and that new employees "are screaming for something that's normal for the 21st century."


Feig posted a version of the document on his personal blog (that certainly raises some issues), where he writes:

Currently, the Agency looks at what it has today and figures out what to do with it in the next few years. This sounds logical, but when it comes to strategic thinking, it is constraining. My starting point is to consider what Social Security has to do by law. If we had to create an Agency from scratch today, what would it look like? Once we figure that out, then we go back to today's reality and figure out how to get from where we are to the ideal. Not that this ideal would necessarily be the Agency we would ultimately achieve, but at least having an ideal would set a direction.

The Times story says Scott Bernard, a top technology official at the Office of Management and Budget, enthusiastically supported Feig's proposal to operate more like the private sector, an alternative he pressed as being less costly. But Astrue did not, and fired him in a phone call.


The article did not include Astrue's or Bernard's take on the story, and I haven't found their comments online elsewhere.


But Feig isn't the only one crying out about the state of government IT. The Marines' top general also was quoted this week, saying that the Defense Department's IT is in the "Stone Age."

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