Yesterday the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report on Preliminary Observations on Key Management Challenges that Social Security will be facing over the next few years. (The report uses the word “challenges” instead of problems but they are really problems.) The report divides the problems into four main areas: (1) human capital, (2) disability program issues, (3) information technology, and (4) physical infrastructure. I am going to summarize the report below.
Over the next decade, SSA will face a decline in a workforce due to retirement and a hiring freeze. “Although not all employees will necessarily retire when eligible, nearly 7,000 headquarters employees and more than 24,000 field employees will be retirement eligible between 2011 and 2020. The agency projects that it could lose nearly 22,500 employees.” Apparently most of the employees who are eligible to retire happen to be the most experienced. Regional and district managers told the GAO they have already lost staff experienced in handling the most complex disability cases. This is comforting news! No wonder why it takes long to get paid.
Disability Program Issues
An entire report could be devoted to this topic alone. The Social Security Administration has made progress in reducing the backlog of pending cases. Unfortunately they have not been able to keep up. SSA’s 707,700 initial claims pending in fiscal year 2012 were 27 percent higher than fiscal year 2008 levels. The number of disability beneficiaries is projected to grow about 15 percent between 2012 and 2025. At the hearing level, SSA completed more hearing requests in fiscal year 2012 than in previous years, but the agency fell short of its hearings completion target by more than 54,000 hearings, and at 321 days, the average wait time for hearings exceeded the agency’s target by 41 days.
Although I receive numerous inquiries about continuing disability reviews (“CDRs”), apparently they are not as numerous as I thought. “SSA reported that in fiscal year 2010, the agency did not conduct 1.4 million CDRs that were due for review, in part because of competing workloads. In June 2012, the GAO also found that the number of childhood CDRs conducted fell from more than 150,000 in fiscal year 2000 to about 45,000 in fiscal year 2011 (a 70 percent decrease). During this time, the number of adult CDRs fell from 584,000 to 179,000.
Social Security has weaknesses in their computer system and in storing sensitive data. Their own study determined that the weaknesses are internal. Nevertheless, the GAO found it important to remind them that in 2012, a former SSA employee was found to have used her position to provide personally identifiable information to a person outside the agency, who is accused of using the information for criminal purposes.
SSA is taking steps to centralize its facilities management, which may standardize facilities decisions, but the GAO’s preliminary results show that the agency lacks a proactive approach. SSA has resisted consolidating offices contrary to other agencies such as the Census Bureau and USPS. An official told the GAO that Social Security has “long considered face-to-face interaction to be the gold standard of customer service, and that any changes away from that model would represent a major cultural shift for the agency.”
The GAO felt that the SSA was limited in these four problem areas because while SSA has ongoing planning efforts, (1) its planning efforts are short-term and do not adequately address emerging issues, and (2) it lacks continuity in its strategic planning leadership.
It seems that the Social Security Administration has many “challenges” ahead. This report was a preliminary report; the GAO expects to publish a final report in June.