VOIP isn't just a new phone

A conversation with Thomas Hughes, CIO of the Social Security Administration

Few agencies are facing a tidal wave like the one approaching the Social
Security Administration. The agency estimates that 10 million people will
retire in the next five years, but it doesn't expect its workforce to grow along
with the expanding base of customers. Technology is the only way to meet this
demand. One of the technologies SSA will lean on is voice over IP. In March,
the agency awarded a $300 million contract to Nortel Government Solutions
to build a VOIP network for its 1,600 field offices. Thomas Hughes, chief
information officer at SSA, spoke recently with Editor-in-Chief Nick
Wakeman about VOIP and its potential to transform operations.


Q: Why is VOIP so important to
SSA?


Hughes:
Our new commissioner,
Michael Astrue, has challenged the
agency to transform itself, and
VOIP is the foundation of that. It is
the [information technology] pillar
of his strategy.

We need to drive electronic services
more effectively to our citizens.
We make about 8 million external
phone calls a year and 80 million
internal phone calls. In the future,
those will be part of our VOIP
solution.

We are not just replacing 65,000
phones. It really is about trying to build a
business strategy.

Q: What is VOIP's benefit?

Hughes:
From a purely return-on-investment
perspective, the agency saves money on
phone calls. But from a business perspective,
it is a transformational effort. We have to find
a way to service [the growing customer base].
We can't do it in the traditional way of people
walking into the office.

VOIP allows you to do voice, video and
data down the same line. It allows you to do
much more intelligent analysis of your customer.
It allows you to be much more dynamic
as to how you want to transfer information,
and it allows you to offer a much more integrated
suite of solutions.

For example, we have about 2 billion
health care records. If we can more effectively
integrate all that data to serve our customers,
that is a big deal.

Q: What are the challenges?

Hughes:
VOIP has different issues surrounding
data security and information security.
As we transition to the VOIP environment,
we have to effectively address those.
The other thing is that it requires a close
relationship with Nortel. We have got to
make sure that we partner.

The third thing is to work with Nortel and
the other vendors. Our stuff goes from
Plantronics to Cisco. We have handsets,
servers, routers, switches and phone lines.
All of these contractors have
to understand their dependencies
to each other.

Q: What lessons can other
agencies learn from this
project?


Hughes:
You have to know
why you are doing this.
Executives at any agency need
to understand where they are
trying to take their agency.
We are trying to drive a particular
type of service delivery
to our citizens. We realize
voice, video and data are all
bits, and we see the value of
having all those components together
when we go about solving a problem
for our customer.

It is not a technology project. It is a
whole different way of doing business
and of how you communicate.

Q: Will a lot of people be watching this project?

Hughes:
Congress will keep an eye on this.
Social Security is going to be one of the more
important agencies serving the country going
forward. I am just very happy that we have
made the right decision to go forward with
this technology.

About the Author

Nick Wakeman is the editor-in-chief of Washington Technology. Follow him on Twitter: @nick_wakeman.

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