Success factors in driving digital transformation at the Social Security Administration

Tips for driving change among multiple stakeholder groups.

porting converting repurpose code birds in flight transformation
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The digital transformation at the Social Security Administration (SSA) is remarkable for its approach to ensure a successful outcome. Shifting the process of retiring into a digital world required overcoming a resistant culture, managing multiple stakeholder groups’ needs, surmounting organizational structures and ensuring leaders didn’t lose sight of the end outcome and focus too much on process. The SSA transformation initiative faced the same challenges that commercial businesses face. 

Frank Baitman, SSA CIO at the time, recalls the agency experienced management challenges due to its structure using 1,300 field offices across the US. Its 40,000 field workers spent most of their time assisting people going through the retirement process, which didn’t give them enough time to effectively handle disability determinations and claims, and address a backlog in disability case processing. Disability, a more complex process, required far more human attention and support than the relatively simply retirement process.  

Managing resistance to change 

The agency launched its transformation in 2010 with the objective of transitioning the retirement process away from field offices to an online process. SSA understood citizens about to retire were likely to resist the change, even though many of them were accustomed to using computers. In addition, the initiative experienced internal resistance right away. Baitman explains the agency has a patriarchal culture, and the employees – accustomed to providing one-on-one support in the agency’s field offices – wanted to make sure that the online process would enable citizens to make the right retirement decisions. 

Baitman, who managed transformations at multiple government agencies and held management roles at leading commercial enterprises, believes employees are willing to change, but organizational structure and processes often hinder their willingness. “You can avoid employee resistance to change by engaging with them throughout the process, letting them know what they do matters to the organization,” says Baitman. He admits it takes time to do this but says engaging employees appropriately in the change, instead of imposing change on them, will cause them to want to participate in the change. “Then the changes are much more likely to stick,” he adds. 

Designing thinking approach 

This was a key consideration in the transition plan. The agency involved employees in the design thinking process so that the new business model would satisfy their concerns. As a result, the website includes a validation process so SSA employees can check in with individual retirees, and make sure they made well-informed decisions when using the online system. 

The design thinking process also focused on another stakeholder group, the retiring citizens. With 42 million Americans retired and receiving Social Security benefits, the agency knew that changes had to be well-considered and applicable to a large, diverse population. The agency contracted with IDEO, which sent anthropologists to SSA field offices to observe how the retirement process took place and to seniors’ homes to watch how they used computers. They examined people’s expectations about the retirement process to learn what would make them comfortable with retiring online. 

The IDEO research formed the basis for SSA’s segmenting retirees into four profiles based on how much information a retiree would want to access and how much decision-making support the individual would need. Thus, the online system makes it possible for individuals to find their own path, engaging and learning along the way as much or as little as they want. The system equips them with the right level of analytical information to support their individual decision-making processes. The system also provides retiring citizens with the ability to explore more robust support mechanisms if they have questions. 

Phased approach 

In transformation journeys, a phased approach allows evolving to the outcome in manageable, bite-sized pieces, that allow validating that the progress is consistent with the outcome. 

SSA phased the work on the website over several years. The agency rolled it out slowly through scheduled maintenance and upgrades. As with any digital transformation initiative, there are many unknown aspects at the outset, and a phased approach to the journey allows monitoring necessary change and incorporating it quickly. They learned from each phase and could roll back aspects if necessary, or adapt as they moved forward. This strategy de-risked the journey. It also shortened the time to value as they could incorporate changes as they went along, thus avoiding a possible system failure. 

Another advantage of the phased approach is that it avoided the common problem of people focusing too much on the process and thereby losing focus on the intended outcome. This approach allowed SSA to schedule changes to the system in manageable, bite-sized pieces. 

To enable the intended outcome for the online process, Baitman says the agency also worked closely with the contractors who coded the website. “We didn’t say to the contractors, ‘Here’s a wireframe, go build a website.’ We explained what we had been through in the IDEO research and design thinking process so that the contractors would buy into the process,” says Baitman. SSA invested time and resources in onboarding the contractors, educating them and getting them to understand the richness of the intended outcome so they could deliver on the promise. 

Lesson learned 

In addition to the contractors, SSA educated potential retirees about the transition to an online process. 

The transformation initiative was successful, and today about 70 percent of Americans who retire use the online process, more than doubling over the past eight years. Most importantly, field office staff has more time to offer necessary support in disability applications, and the disability claim determination backlog has been reduced. 

However, in hindsight, Baitman says one factor that would have made the transformation more successful was better educating the more than 40,000 front-line workers in 1,300 field offices and at headquarters. “Their performance is measured every day, so they are likely to be averse to changes that could have an unknown effect on their performance metrics,” he explains. He adds that spending more time with them regarding the change to an online process would have been a worthwhile investment. He explains it was difficult enough to justify the incremental investment in something that Operations didn’t demand, so SSA did not invest more in employee engagement because funding had not been budgeted for this effort. He believes a stronger educational effort would have resulted in less resistance from the field offices, a faster rollout and better feedback from the field about adjustments needed to the new business model. 

Creating new value 

“I’m particularly proud of what we did at Social Security,” Baitman states. “We had a couple of things going in our favor at the outset such as the fact that using computers wasn’t novel to the people who would retire. But what we didn’t have working for us was a culture of citizens and a culture of agency employees that were accepting of the transition to an online process.” 

Through the approach the agency took, they succeeded in surmounting that hurdle that often causes transformations to fail. The result was more than a changed, improved process. The agency succeeded in creating a different business model that would deliver more value to the agency’s constituencies.

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