Online Social Security Statement in limbo as agency adjusts for future

GAO report outlines Social Security Administration’s online challenges as benefits debate simmers in background

While the debate over Social Security benefits is heating up in Congress one of the most basic ways everyone interacts with the agency - the yearly Social Security Statement - is in limbo as the agency struggles to move it online.

The Social Security Statement had been issued every year since 2000 to more than 150 million workers serving as the government's key way of communicating with workers about benefits, earnings records and how much retirement money they have.  The statement is also a key tool for communicating with the public about the long-term financial challenges the Social Security system faces. However, whether you realize it or not,  the SSA suspended mailings of the statement in March citing budgetary concerns.

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A report out today from the Government Accountability Office said that while SSA's budgetary decision to suspend statement mailings will leave some Americans without a statement this year, it has also created the impetus for SSA to seek new and more cost-effective ways to distribute this information. That's where moving the statement online comes in.  If SSA can assure the security of this sensitive information, this approach holds real promise: it can both meet the electronic demands of an increasingly Internet-literate population while providing flexibility for improved statement design, the GAO stated.

But there are problems of course. From the GAO report:

  • Although SSA's first attempt to make the statement available online in 1997 was short-lived due to privacy concerns, SSA may now be better positioned to move forward with this approach, though it is unknown when the agency will be fully ready. SSA is developing a new electronic authentication system and a "MySocialSecurity" Web page to allow individuals to access personalized SSA information online. Officials report that both the authentication system and the "MySocialSecurity" Web page have already undergone initial testing to assess their feasibility and public opinion about such an approach.
  • While the agency had not determined what information would initially be made available through this portal, when the Commissioner suspended mailings of the statement in March of this year, SSA decided that the statement would be the top priority. According to officials, both the authentication system and the statement page for "MySocialSecurity" are currently in the initial development phase, as staff build the prototypes. Once the prototypes are completed, SSA will conduct additional testing both internally and with the public, on an iterative basis, until the agency determines that both the authentication system and the statement page on "MySocialSecurity" provide sufficient safeguards and are user-friendly. SSA officials said that testing of the online statement page will begin in August, but they could not provide a date for when the authentication system testing will begin. Because officials do not know how long the testing phase will last, they could not provide a date for when the statement will be available to the public online.
  • Although officials told the GAO that they plan to fully assess the portal's safeguards before moving ahead with the online statement, SSA's Inspector General recently expressed concerns about the agency's information technology systems, including service delivery. Specifically, in a recent report on SSA management challenges, while the Inspector General noted his support of SSA's decision to offer more services online to enhance customer service, he cautioned the agency to proceed carefully with this initiative, ensuring proper authentication controls are in place before full implementation.
  • SSA has not yet considered how they will reach those who cannot or will not obtain the statement online, though at least some will not be able to read statements provided only in English. Through its own 2010 survey of statement recipients, SSA found that only 21% expressed a preference for receiving the statement electronically instead of by mail, including 8% who said they would prefer to receive the statement on request via e-mail and 13% who said they would prefer to obtain it online. These data suggest that SSA will need to employ a substantial public relations strategy to ensure workers are made aware of and encouraged to access the online statement.
  • SSA officials also could not provide information on how they plan to address access issues related to the online statement. Although SSA currently has a pilot project underway that has made computer workstations available to the public in selected field offices, SSA officials have not yet determined how those could be used to access the portal and online statement. However, such use may be needed by individuals who do not otherwise have Internet access. In addition, key officials involved in the online statement project could not provide information on any other plans SSA is developing to address Internet access issues.
  • While SSA officials reported that upcoming tests of the portal will focus on its user-friendliness, they do not have plans in place for publicizing the online statement. Specifically, the project lead for the online statement said that an internal work group is currently considering options for SSA's public roll-out of the online statement, but the agency has not yet developed a plan for carrying it out.

In the end, if reforms currently being debated in congress are enacted, educating the public about program changes and how they will affect benefits will likely be a high priority for SSA, and the statement is likely to be one of the agency's key mechanisms for accomplishing this goal.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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