A message on improving Social Security service

Published 10:08 am Thursday, November 21, 2019

I have been frequently asked why, at age 73 with a loving wife of 51 years, a beautiful family, and a successful business career, I would want to take on the responsibility and stress of running a huge government organization that affects nearly every American. My answer is simple. I took the job as Commissioner of Social Security because I saw that this very important agency faced an increasing number of challenges. Millions of Americans depend on SSA to do our job well, each day, no excuses—because when we don’t, people suffer. I took the job because SSA must dramatically improve customer service for you, your loved ones, and everyone who depends on our programs.

What is my plan?

When I speak to groups of SSA employees, to my senior managers, and to external groups including Congress, they ask what I plan to accomplish. It is no secret that the government is full of bureaucratic processes. There are Agency Strategic Plans, Annual Performance Plans, Budget documents for this and future years, IT strategic plans, and any number of internal organization planning documents. I understand that these writings serve to provide direction and transparency, but I doubt most employees or members of the public read them. I am hopeful that this letter will answer your questions in a straightforward and easy to follow way.

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My plan is rooted in common sense. SSA has many departments and over 60,000 employees who perform millions of functions each year. But, whether it is issuing retirement checks, processing disability claims, or providing Social Security cards, our fundamental mission is to ensure timely and accurate service for the public. My plan is to emphasize and restore fundamental public service so that when you call us, we answer timely. When you come to our offices, we serve you timely.

When you apply for benefits, you receive a timely answer from us and, if you are approved for benefits, you receive a timely check from us. Some SSA employees and the three unions who represent them may suggest we simply want to push employees even harder. I’ve run enough businesses and organizations to know that no employer gets 100% from every employee every day—there is always room to improve. Over the past 5 months, I have met with and observed many, many SSA employees.

Let me tell you what I determined: they care. They are just as concerned and stressed about work piling up as I am. They dread the feeling of coming into work knowing the public will line up and wait far too long for correct answers. That is demoralizing. I don’t want our excellent employees to feel beaten down or think that headquarters fails to appreciate their challenges. By getting wait times down, we allow our employees to do their work in a better environment where they can focus on the action in front of them not the piles of work around them.

As important as it is to serve you timely, we need to serve you well. We need to evaluate how we train our employees, review their work and give feedback, and appropriately simplify our policies to be easier to implement and understand. I have reviewed audits and noted that we consistently receive poor marks in certain areas. You should expect that we will properly pay benefits to only the folks who are entitled to them and we should always pay them the correct amount.

That is important not only for stewardship but also to each of you who receives a check from us. I also cannot ignore the message from significant workloads like litigation, which can occur when we do not properly apply policy. Yes, we must address the affected cases but we must also fix the root cause. Getting things wrong has been very costly to us. It is time to invest in ensuring we get things right.

Part of the answer is technology. However, before we can readily implement more efficient systems, we have to fix some core issues. Did you know we store a beneficiary’s address in something close to 20 different systems? If you move, we can change your address in one place but that may not change it in the others. We are working to fix this and other problems. Our new approach will not look at our services from our vantage point, such as using a specific system to complete a singular action we are working on in the moment. We will look at our work from your perspective. Meaning, if you go online and then call us and then come in to an SSA office, our employees will know that history and you don’t have to start from square one each time.

However, technology alone is not the solution. Sure, many people like the idea of going online for convenient service and we need to modernize and meet that need. But, many other people need a little extra help, a little more information, maybe even some reassurance from an expert. Thus, we need a responsive workforce. We already have people who care deeply about our mission and the public. Now we need to have enough folks to meet the demand so that they can spend the time they need to handle each customer’s need correctly. We need to implement additional quality checks so that we can let our employees know when they misapplied a policy or missed a key issue. Our employees want this feedback. We need to give our employees what they need to get you the right result.

We need to assess how we do our work, how we use technology, and how we empower our employees at SSA. All of those things are complicated, but they are necessary to accomplish my plan for SSA. What is the plan? We are going to work every day to improve the public service you receive from us. As I said, common sense.

What happens next?

Right now, SSA’s Office of Systems is working with public and private sector experts to modernize our technology infrastructure so that we can serve you more efficiently and with greater accuracy. At the same time, we are shifting resources to the front lines of our public service operation. Our Office of Operations manages nearly all of our public facing services like the field offices in your communities and the National 800 Number. It is logical and appropriate that we focus on these offices first. Some people may believe that is a “hiring freeze” but I call it “smart hiring”—sending our resources to the front lines where you benefit most. Dependent on our final appropriation for fiscal year 2020, we are targeting additional hiring in these public service offices, and I have already directed that SSA hire 1,100 more people to do this work.

During a time of more constrained resources, the agency closed field offices early on Wednesdays. We are ending that practice to provide you with additional access to our services. We are also ending a telework pilot, which was implemented without necessary controls or data collection to evaluate effectiveness or impact on public service. I support work-life balance for SSA employees consistent with meeting our first obligation: to serve the public. A time of workload crisis is not the time to experiment with working at home, especially for the more than 40,000 employees who staff our public facing offices.

Modernizing technology and getting more employees back into the offices are critical first steps. We will take additional steps to chip away at our current wait times; however, the first obvious move is an infusion of resources into key offices, increasing the availability of those offices to the public, and holding all of our employees accountable. We know how important our work is and understand the consequences of poor service.

You will hear from me again with straightforward information about our progress. I appreciate your patience as we work to improve our performance in service to you.”

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Andrew Saul is the commissioner of Social Security