Social Security's Success Story

Social Security's Success Story

Didn't anybody see the Year 2000 bug coming? The Social Security Administration did. It has consistently received higher marks than any other government agency for its handling of the problem, earning an A+ in a June congressional report card. To learn why, National Journal recently spoke with the assistant deputy commissioner for systems, Kathleen M. Adams, who heads up the agency's Year 2000 efforts. Some edited excerpts:

Q: When did you first hear about the Year 2000 problem?

A: In 1989, the Social Security Administration had a system that experienced a problem because of the Year 2000 [bug], a system that tracked overpayments. At the end of '89, someone tried to set up a repayment schedule that went beyond 2000, and the system couldn't process it. I remember we said, "Whoa, that means other stuff is going to start breaking." You have to remember, no one was talking about this back then. There were no tools. We had to go through and see how many date instances we had in our code, and see if those calculations could handle 00 dates. We found our code was very date-intensive. If you think about what we do, we keep track of important things in your life: When you were married, when you were born, when you had kids and how old they are, how much money you earned in what years. And we came to the conclusion that this was going to be big, that we were going to have to literally look at every piece of software and fix it.

Q: How did you win people over to tackle this problem?

A: I don't remember ever having to convince anybody that this was important. In my talks with a lot of private-sector firms, CIOs [chief information officers] had a lot of difficulty persuading CEOs that this was something you had to spend money on. In this agency, we are very dependent on automation. You cannot manually generate 50 million payments a month. When you tell the leadership across the agency that there's a threat to those systems' working properly unless we make sure they work beyond the year 2000, nobody says, "I don't think I want to do that." We pride ourselves on being very customer-focused. Fifty million payments are made to 43 million people every month. Guess who those people are? My mother is one. We all joke here about how we can't mess up, because we don't want to mess up Mom.

Q: What lessons can be drawn from your experience?

A: I think what a lot of folks are learning is that your systems portfolio is an asset. You can't say, "I don't want to spend money on that, I'd rather spend money on flowers." If Year 2000 teaches anything, it is that there is an information-technology infrastructure in this country, just like we have an infrastructure of roads, and from time to time, they have to be repaved.

Q: Have you won any awards for your Year 2000 work?

A: As I remind everybody, I'm very grateful for the A+, but the only grade that really matters is the final. The final exam will be whether the lights and everything go on when we open for business on Jan.1, 2000.