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Privatization not the answer to Social Security's computer woes [Letter]

Letter writer Thomas F. McDonough has it all wrong ("Social Security boondoggle proves conservatives' point," July 29).

Not so long ago, the Social Security Administration was faced with a similar programming embarrassment. There was a scandal involving losing people's records. What was happening was that each of the national programming centers and the headquarters here in Maryland had their own individual tracking systems that worked by reading a punch card kept in a pocket in the file at each location the file passed through. None of the jurisdictions' systems talked to each other. After years of unsuccessfully trying to fix this problem, similar headlines to the current ones embarrassed them into forming a "dream team" by pulling all of their best programmers and analysts from other projects and giving them unprecedented leeway to get the job done.

Aided by new technology and equipment, they not only created a system that used bar coding to track everything, they also did away with the paper files in favor of paperless images on the computer screen. Most of the dream team members were longtime employees covered under the civil service retirement system. People, like Mr. McDonough, who always think the private sector is the answer, wanted the government to contract out everything. That push, along with current government budget deficits, led to cutbacks and the people who could do the job were given early retirement offers to get them off the books as quickly as possible. My point is that I am enjoying my early retirement and the problem I am reading about was caused by a brain drain. Contracting with private industry is not the answer.

One other thing I'd like to share is that programming is merely translating English into a language the computer comprehends. What the dream team learned is that the people doing a complicated job have great difficulty putting what they do into English. The dream team overcame this by bringing people from all over the country into the same room and the programmers were able to tell the users exactly what was needed from them and vice versa as the analysts directed the meetings and took good notes. Under current budget conditions, there is no money for travel.

Steven Davidson

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