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SSA CIO's office shows how IT analytics pay off

BOSTON — If you’re a health care CIO with too few resources spread among too many projects, you’re not alone. The Social Security Administration feels your pain. Its CIO implemented a system of IT analytics that constantly evaluates how its investments are doing — and posts public progress reports on a federal dashboard page as part of President Obama’s open government initiative.

Brian Bissett, staff analyst for the office of the SSA CIO, showed health care and life sciences IT leaders in attendance at Bio-IT World 2011 how his office ruthlessly evaluates and tracks its investments with IT analytics. Ruthless isn’t overstating it; his agency takes pride in its fiscal conservatism that’s consistently kept administrative expenses equal to or lower than 1% of its total expenditures. That conservatism manifests itself in some interesting IT ways — such as continuing to use mainframes for some workflows, which run on some 60 million lines of ancient Cobol code.

“Recently, we’ve become tasked with more legislative mandates to take on more health care IT programs, that has gone through with the new health care [reform] bill,” Bisset said. “…So, having to take all these new health care initiatives on…we evaluate all the costs and benefits of the new programs coming in.”

How do IT analytics come into play? Its Strategic IT Asset Review (SITAR) process combines user input as well as that of expert evaluators (not systems people, but employees who understand the business processes an IT project serves) to rate projects for usage, effectiveness and return on investment. Once the bottom 1/3 are identified, they’re targeted to either be turned around — or killed.

Once setting parameters for analytics, a key to being able to use them effectively is with easy-to-read graphic representation. SSA ports its analytics data to Excel via a SharePoint site, and then to reports and the Web. In internal documents and on the federal dashboard, Bisset explained how, for stakeholders’ quick reference, projects running well are shown as green, those in the “questionable” range are yellow, and the ones in trouble as red.

An IT department can set its own yardsticks for determining what makes projects worth continuing, and what are up for possible termination. At the SSA, Bisset said candidates for termination include: 

  • Those determined to have limited strategic value
  • Is on the line between yellow and red and has not been started.
  • Is on the line between yellow and red and is not doing well.
  • Those “hogging” expert resources.
  • Those whose return on investment have shown to be unfavorable through analytics.

When “sacred cow” projects — you can probably name these in your department; in SSA’s case, Congress mandates SSA proceed with some initiatives that would otherwise be candidates for termination — are underperforming against the agency’s philosophy, SSA determines if it’s possible to slow them down or drop them on the priority list. Within the confines of the law, of course.

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