Will Social Security Get Social Media in the Government 2.0 Age?

In 2010, whether Social Security can better deliver on its mission through adopting social media, more data, better e-services and mobile technologies is an open question.
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On its 75th anniversary, the Social Security Administration ranks as the largest government program by dollars paid in the United States federal government. It surpasses even discretionary defense and Medicare/Medicaid spending in the federal budget. As the 21st century dawns, new technology and a mandate for open government from the Obama administration provide an opportunity for the Social Security Administration to "reboot its relationship with the American people," as its new CIO, Frank Baitman, put it last week. In 2010, whether Social Security can better deliver on its mission through adopting social media, more data, better e-services and mobile technologies is an open question.

According to an independent audit released this month, Social Security's open government plan now ranks in the top 10 of all federal agencies evaluated by OpenTheGovernment.org. While those look at the quality of open government plans, not implementations, the agency has improved its standing considerably since the first audit.

Open Government Employee Awareness Day

Earlier this month, the Social Security Administration held an Open Government Employee Awareness Day at the agency's headquarters in Maryland that highlighted both the innovation and challenges that lies ahead.

The agency recorded the day on video and may make the archive available publicly. Given that the focus of the day was open government employee awareness, posting those archives on the web isn't an unreasonable expectation.

Commissioner Michael J. Astrue highlighted three of Social Security's open government initiatives. In his speech to the agency, he noted that in the next year, the following would roll out:

  1. A Spanish version of Social Security's online benefits estimator by the end of 2010. According to Astrue, it would be first non-English interactive Internet application in the entire federal government. Over three million people used the English-language version last year.

  • A service channeling tool to help visitors to SocialSecurity.gov find information and services more easily. The tool will include the ability for someone to schedule an appointment with a local office if they were unable to complete an e-services transaction. The idea for the tool was submitted by an employee of Social Security, Christie Dickson, who was one of the finalists for the President's SAVE Award.
  • An online life expectancy calculator. This tool may be particularly important because people underestimate the time they live by 7 years, said Commissioner Astrue.
  • During the event, Social Security announced that it will launch a contest that will ask people to submit short videos that share examples of how Social Security has affected their lives. The winning answer will be posted to YouTube.

    Social Security's chief information officer, Frank Baitman, expanded upon Astrue's remarks on open government later in the morning. "I don't see open government as unique from the way do business," said Baitman. "We have a plan. It's out there. When it's done, it will be the way business is done. Open government fosters an informed, engaged public," he said:

    Ultimately, open government reboots the relationship between the American people and their government. It's about government with the people, allowing them to get more involved, knowing, monitoring and influencing what we do on their behalf. If it's done well, open government has the potential to re-energize our democracy. We can be participatory if we first familiarize ourselves with the tools of participation.

    Baitman's further thoughts on open government are embedded below. I also conducted a full interview with Baitman the day before the event.

    Charting the Course of Open Government

    This is about "small changes that make the big ship of state move more effectively," said deputy White House chief technology officer Beth Noveck, the keynote speaker at the event. In her comments at the Social Security Administration, Noveck charted her history with open government, from Peer-To-Patent to the Open Government Initiative at the White House, through today. My interview with Noveck on next steps for open government in May provides deep context for those efforts. So does Micah Sifry's "trim tab solution," in which he discusses the prizes, challenges and innovation approach taken by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

    In her speech at Social Security, Noveck added examples from the present to the accomplishments of the past. She described the new Healthcare.gov as "the only comprehensive place to find information about plans" with "impartial, fair advice." She pointed to the success of the DARPA Network Challenge as a model for how social networking, innovative technology and people can be harnessed to solve big problems. From where Noveck sits, she's seen a "proliferation of open policy-making opportunities," from open nanotech spending to
    FACA 2.0 to connecting domain experts to policy makers "earlier than before" using ideation platforms.

    Noveck also highlighted the Crisis Commons movement as "one example of how this is happening in the private sector. The question is how we bring that into the world of .gov." She celebrated the work going on across the government in collaboration with citizens and the technology community in the private sector and NGO community, including a new focus on "pushing problems and challenges out."

    She pointed, for instance, to the Health 2.0 Developer Challenge, including the health care apps that have already resulted from making community health information as useful as weather data. "These are not cute little iPhone apps. They are game-changing policy tools," she noted.

    All of the open government efforts Noveck described aspire to create a "government of, by, for and with the people," a formulation similar to Tim O'Reilly's. That aspiration is neither a certainty nor an easy path, given the technical challenges posed by the IT gap that persists between the public and private sector, or all-time lows in the public's trust in government.

    One issue, of course, is cost. "How can we afford to be transparent? We can't just flip a switch and make all data open," said Noveck. "There's a lot of info on old servers and national security issues as well." The evolution from simply making information digital, making it available online and then making it available in bulk format is not a weekend project. It's "important to think about how we change the work flow going forward," said Noveck, "not just because in a democracy that it's the right thing to do but because when you make it available, you generate tremendous value and help an agency do its job better."

    She's been active in challenging people to work with government in using data to build new tools, including at the state and city level. For instance, Noveck alluded to an event with the head of Mass Transit in NYC, where the mantra was "Beat Boston!" The Hub was one of first to put transit data online and has since seen developers create successful apps that give commuters better situational awareness about the T.

    Noveck also recognized the complex cultural challenges officials face in adopting open government, both internally and out. "As a professor by training, I don't say 'I don't know,'" she said. "What we should be saying is 'I don't have the answers,' but we can help work with you and collaborate on solutions that are actionable."

    For those used to the world of Freedom of Information Act requests, the relationship between government, citizens and media is frequently adversarial. To move to a culture of open government requires working with people, not just IT tools. "Done successfully, it's not just the CIO," said Noveck. It's important to talk to people in legal, operations, communications and programmatic roles, "marrying top-down and bottom-up strategy to unleash innovation.

    Working with innovators to come up with the good ideas that solve big problems, Noveck suggests, is how to make some progress. "Bring awareness, celebrate the good ideas of people who are here," she said.

    As I argue on O'Reilly Radar, open government is a mindset. Connections are forming between social media, open government and e-government. Whether or not those weak ties become stronger remains to be seen.

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