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SSA CIO Sean Brune Says Pandemic Sparked ‘10 Years’ Worth of Modernization for Social Security

For the Social Security Administration, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 was the impetus for a much-needed digital transformation that has ushered the agency into a new era of speed, accuracy and efficiency.

During his keynote address at the Potomac Officers Club’s 3rd Annual CIO Summit, Sean Brune, SSA’s chief information officer and deputy commissioner for systems, said, “The first 10 months of the pandemic brought on about 10 years worth of acceleration of business modernization.” 

He added that SSA was challenged not only from an information technology standpoint, but from a service perspective too. “Our bread and butter in March 2020 was, in fact, in-person face-to-face service” Brune said. “The majority of our service now is delivered through digital channels. And while we were busy building those channels, the customer’s expectations changed rapidly.”

This shift in customer expectations in recent years highlights a larger effort within the federal government to catch up to the private sector by adopting industry technologies and innovations. Brune cited modern activities like ordering groceries online or seeing a physician through a telehealth visit as common, and often preferred, experiences for many Americans today, but SSA in particular lacked the IT environment and infrastructure to match these kinds of offerings in the public sector.

“We represent Social Security beneficiaries,” he explained. “If we have those experiences and we have those preferences, that’s what our beneficiaries expect. So digital is not a ‘nice to have,’ digital is a ‘must have’ for the public we serve.”

SSA CIO Sean Brune delivers his keynote speech at the Potomac Officers Club’s 3rd Annual CIO Summit (photo by Alex Mangione)

Brune pointed to the agency’s ongoing cloud adoption and its strong cybersecurity footing as key steps in SSA’s overarching modernization, but he also noted that technology is playing a steadily increasing role in how the agency better serves its beneficiaries.

“Beyond the cloud and the focus on zero trust, our technology focus is also on adopting, at scale, more robust technology for assisting in adjudication or decisions on claims,” shared Brune. “Particularly in the disability arena, we are expanding our use of artificial intelligence to identify evidentiary documents that meet our requirements and flag them to the decision maker.”

This AI program, referred to as automated decision support, is currently used in production, Brune said. However, SSA’s adoption of AI has only been made possible by a department-wide centralization effort.

“Until this year, there were 54 different unique systems to adjudicate those funds,” he said. “Now we have one nationwide disability claims processing system. We’ve retired those state legacy systems, and that has enabled us to apply artificial intelligence.”

To hear more about how other federal agencies are driving innovation at the speed of need, join the Second Annual IC Acquisition and Technology Innovation Summit, hosted by our sister platform, GovCon Wire Events, on May 4.

The summit will kick off with a keynote address delivered by Dr. Stacey Dixon, principal deputy director of national intelligence, followed by expert panel discussions and keynote speeches from other leading Intelligence Community officials. Register today!

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