Our division, the Office of Electronic Policy Applications (OEPA), at the Social Security Administration, works with systems and operational components to develop and support policy-driven electronic tools that address all facets of the disability determination and decision-making process. Our best practice is the model of cross-component teamwork we use that promotes open communication, transparency, and side-by-side collaboration.
Many consider our model of teamwork to be innovative and effective. Our division functions, as much as is possible, outside the limitations of most traditional governmental organizational structures and diverges from the traditional structure of SSA systems projects. One problem we found with the traditional structure is that systems, policy, and business representatives typically function in separate and somewhat isolated offices that do not allow for optimal communication. While policy and business requirements have traditionally driven systems development of applications, never before have the components worked as a single entity.
One of our original projects is the electronic Claims Analysis Tool (eCAT), a policy compliant web-based application designed to assist adjudicators throughout the sequential evaluation process. The tool aids in documenting, analyzing, and adjudicating the disability claim in accordance with SSA regulations. We decided that for this project we would try a unique model of collaboration to see if we would reap better results. Systems, Operations, and Policy combined into one integral group as a cohesive unit dedicated to maximizing the efficiency of traditionally discrete components. We worked together as a distinct organizational unit and utilized user feedback throughout the lifecycle of the application development. Developing the tool with all parties present ensured that we were capturing the intended requirements and that the tool met the needs of the users. Including the users also increased their ownership in the tool and facilitated training and marketing of the application.
We presented our best practice at a Future Systems Technology Advisory Panel (FSTAP) meeting in May 2010, that included the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration, numerous SSA Senior Executive Staff, as well as VIPs from industries such as Amazon, Craigslist, AARP, Pitney Bowes, IRS, and T. Rowe Price. We received positive feedback from the panel members with one individual remarking, “SSA had gotten it right this time” in the way that we worked to develop eCAT.
The model that we use has received numerous awards, including a Commissioner’s Team Award, acknowledging the success of our collaborative approach. The result of our approach, eCAT, was highlighted multiple times throughout the 2013-2016 Agency Strategic Plan (ASP). The ASP even mentioned the endorsement we received last year from the ACUS.
Within OEPA, we now strive to use this model of collaboration and teamwork on all of our projects. Over the last year, we started working on the electronic Bench Book (eBB). eBB is a web-based tool for the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) to use before, during, and after a hearing to help standardize, provide consistency, and document the hearing process and outcome. One of the reasons we were selected to work on this project is the success of the approach we used in developing eCAT. For eBB we collaborate closely with Systems and ODAR. Again, we are working diligently to bring in the users at every step of the process. We find that this formulation has led to increased openness to new ideas, more flexibility, as well as increased job satisfaction.
As an extension of this model, we have developed several collaboration tools to further involve the users. For example, we have crowdsourcing tools for eCAT and eBB known as IdeaCAT and IdeaBench. Users are encouraged to enter their suggestions, review the suggestions of others, and comment/vote on these ideas. We received one of the first Open Government awards “in recognition of outstanding efforts to promote participation and collaboration at SSA by engaging users to improve the quality of the electronic Claims Analysis Tool.”
We hope that by sharing this best practice other organizations will consider moving to a similar model especially with the current environment of limited budget and resources.