Questions raised about transparency on Social Security computer system

Two weeks after the Social Security Administration received a report criticizing management for a dysfunctional, $300 million computer system, agency officials provided only a cursory summary of the findings at a meeting of a committee overseeing the project, documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun show.

According to minutes from a June 17 steering committee meeting, agency officials provided limited detail about the report — noting only one of its recommendations, for instance. That lends credibility to claims by congressional Republicans that top officials at the Woodlawn-based agency delayed releasing its full details.


A Social Security Administration spokesman flatly denied that officials were attempting to sit on the report, which was drafted by management consultant McKinsey & Co. The spokesman, Mark Hinkle, said agency leaders began alerting stakeholders on June 4 — a day after they received the document — and said McKinsey representatives led a four-hour discussion about the report with steering committee members July 14.

"Allegations that Social Security did not share the content of the McKinsey report are simply untrue," Hinkle said in a statement, underlying the word "untrue."

But, Hinkle said, distribution of the "entire report was properly limited because it was pre-decisional and contained proprietary information of McKinsey and Company governed by law."

Some portions of the report released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee on Wednesday were redacted and the document was labeled "confidential."

The meeting minutes mention the McKinsey report and note one of its recommendations, that an executive leader be given responsibility for delivering the project. But the minutes make no mention of dozens of other findings and recommendations.

Social Security has come under scrutiny amid revelations that it spent nearly $300 million and six years developing the computer system to speed processing of disability claims yet the system still does not work. Republicans on the House oversight committee, including chairman Darrell Issa of California, released the report a week before the agency's acting commissioner, Carolyn W. Colvin, is scheduled to appear before the Senate Finance Committee to answer questions about her nomination to lead the agency.

In a letter to Colvin on Wednesday, committee Republicans alleged that, according to whistleblowers, "senior agency staff placed a very close hold on this report with the goal of ensuring details … remain secret until after your confirmation."

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Baltimore, the top-ranking Democrat on the oversight committee, has cautioned against drawing conclusions from the report until the agency has a chance to respond.

The computer system is the latest problem for the agency's disability insurance program, which provides benefits to roughly 11 million beneficiaries. In addition to the delays, congressional investigations have revealed that administrative law judges who evaluate disability claims on appeal were rubber-stamping cases.

As of June, more than 660,000 claims were awaiting an initial decision, with an average processing time of 110 days. Another 955,000 cases waited an average of 413 days on appeal.

Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin, which was hired as the lead contractor for the computer system, described the project in a 2011 news release as a "highly available, scalable and modern web-based system."

The project was expected to save Social Security money by eliminating the need to maintain 54 separate systems, and allow the agency to process claims "faster and with higher consistency."

The report called on the agency to strengthen its management of Lockheed.


An earlier version of this story misstated when Social Security Administration officials discussed the details of an independent report with members of a steering committee overseeing an agency computer program. The Sun regrets the error.