Last week, I visited Social Security Administration headquarters outside of Baltimore to speak about social media and government at its Employee Open Government Awareness Day. Before my presentation, I sat down with Frank Baitman, the agency’s chief information officer, to talk about Gov 2.0, open government and technology. A video of my interview with the Social Security CIO is embedded below.
What does open government mean, in the context of the agency?
“Social Security touches virtually every American,” said Baitman. “I think over 97 percent pay into retirement now. A large number of Americans come into contact with the agency for other reasons as well. Social media and open government offer ways to communicate with them. In a democracy, it’s core to government that people understand what government is doing with their tax dollars.”
Where does open data and Data.gov factor in to that discussion? “We had 16 data sets at the beginning,” said Baitman. “We have many more now. I see that as just the beginning. Putting data out there from an agency that’s data-centric is really what we’re about here. There are cool things happening out there in the not-for-profit and open government community.”
There’s much more from our extended discussion on social media, teleworking, cloud computing and accessibility after the jump. Look for a followup article on Social Security and open government later this week.
Steps toward socializing Social Security
How does social media relate to open government? “When new social media tools come along to communicate tools with the American public, the opportunity becomes far more meaningful, and far more difficult,” said Baitman. “We’re a representative democracy. We choose people to represent us in Congress but not to vote as we would, necessarily. Social media serves a vital role in mediating that conversation. One of the tools that the government used in the launch of the Open Government Initiative was Ideascale. It is an incredibly effective tool but, like anything, it can be gamed. We need to be aware of that potential.”
The issue of data leaks through new communication channels is not a negligible concern within the Office of the CIO, particularly as open government efforts move forward. Asked about that issue, Baitman said: “Open government is about communicating with the public, not sharing sensitive data. To the extent that we do share data, we extensively scrub it. Open government has nothing to do with personally identifiable information (PII). That has to do with what government is doing for and behalf of its citizens.”
So how could Social Security be using Twitter and Facebook? “Right now, the principal reason is to communicate with the public, and to get messages out there” said Baitman. “We need to make better use of these tools. The Department of Defense has been out there on the cutting edge in making use of these tools for their business purposes. I think it’s wonderful that DoD is out there setting the standard for the rest of the government, not only in their policy but in how they use social media in many different fora, including out in the field. We want to do the same.”
What business purposes might the Social Security Administration find for social media? “We’re understanding that social media is becoming another means to communicate with a wide range of citizens,” said Baitman. “Since Social Security touches virtually every American at some point of their lives, social tools are critical to communication.”
On that count, Baitman pointed out that accessibility of government websites and social media tools is crucial. “The folks at IdeaScale worked very hard to address these issues. It came a long way and became a much better tool. That’s one of the benefits to working with government.” Baitman noted that there’s going to be a White House ceremony today celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, including a showcase focused on accessible technology. “The CIO council has also set up a committee on accessibility, which I’m co-chairing,” he said. “It says something about this administration that Social Security is out there in front this time.”
For the most part, however, access to social media tools are blocked on the Social Security Administration network, with exceptions for certain employees on a case by case basis. The use of social software on the public intranet or on the internal intranet is at an embryonic stage. Baitman said they’re hopeful that they’ll find a long-term solution that allows them to deal with security concerns that are principal there.
Within the agency, the use of social software also is similarly new. “I’ve begun a CIO blog internally, using Drupal,” said Baitman. “We’re putting a big toe in the water and seeing how these things play out. I haven’t seen any other blogs internally. We’re a customer service agency, with the vast majority of our employees are in public-facing roles during their eight hours. We need to be creative in figuring out how to engage our own employees in a way to share information.”
Could staff be learning or sharing knowledge with more home access? Network access is only available per the VPN, said Baitman. “You can do it if you have a Social Security laptop. We’re actually buying a bunch of them. Thousands. There will be more people who can access internal networks.”
What’s the IT environment like at Social Security, in terms of the use of Macs, smartphones and laptops on the network? Baitman said that he uses Macs at home. Currently, only Windows machines can connect to the local area network at the agency. Will that change? “It’s in government’s interest to have diversity,” he said. “Darwin taught us that. It’s more cost effective, competitive and enhances security. Technological diversity is good.”
Closing the IT Gap: Teleworking, mobile access and cloud computing
Recently, federal CIO Vivek Kundra and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) director Peter Orzag have focused on the IT gap between the public and private sector. How is Social Security approaching that challenge? “Ultimately, government is held accountable for the quality of services delivered and their cost,” said Baitman.
“There’s no question that government can be more efficient. It’s nowhere near as effective as the private sector in delivering services over the past decade. We’re hearing that from Orzag and Kundra and I firmly believe it. Since we haven’t accomplished that, we now have a huge opportunity to make a difference in a short amount of time. There are, however, differences between public and private sector. We hold very serious data from American public that’s both personal and private. I’m not going to take any chances with it.”
The House passed a teleworking bill this month that could allow federal employees to work remotely up to 20 percent of their time. Where does the agency stand with teleworkers? “Very few people at Social Security telework,” said Baitman. “They exist in small pockets. Historically, the agency served the public face-to-face in field offices. In that model, telework isn’t possible. You can’t do that from home. Technology has changed a lot. The American public has as well. Today, 37 percent of retirement applications are taken online. Think about that, more than 1 out of 3 are choosing to do that online. That’s a trend we hope will continue to grow.”
So are there laptops at Social Security? “Laptops exist,” said Baitman. “We’re buying more. An important part of our future is increasing the number of laptops.”
What about the risks of enabling increased mobility for a federal workforce, given the history of data breaches, like those at the Veteran Administration? “I’d challenge the premise of increased risk,” he said. “When you have proper procedures in place for securing PII, you’re probably much better off using tech than not. When you take a look at data breaches, you’re much more likely to see one on paper because it’s much harder to encrypt paper. People who take paper home stand a greater chance of losing it, having it stolen from a car or throwing it out without being shredded. When people lose BlackBerrys, we brick them. The same goes for laptops. We have full disk encryption on every one.”
What about the potential use of cloud computing for the Social Security Administration? “It depends,” said Baitman. “Given what we have to protect and the way we interface with the public, well, some stuff is incredibly sensitive. I doubt we’ll ever see it go into a public cloud — and it shouldn’t. There’s a false dichotomy in there. Can you assume that a government-owned computer in a government-owned data center is more secure than a rented computer in a private cloud? That doesn’t make sense. Actual possession of a computer doesn’t increase security of data.”
Baitman sees potential for use of the cloud, depending on the usage scenario. “One of the things I’m quite optimistic about is thin clients. That play very well to cloud computing. They allow you to secure data because it doesn’t reside anywhere than your cloud.”
What about the future? “As computing becomes more network-centric, you could imagine a variety of devices, some smart, some dumb,” Baitman said. “Thin client will play a role, just like iPhones and BlackBerrys do. For the foreseeable future, however, our programmers will be doing programming on fat clients.”