In Context of the Bigger Picture

We are torn apart by two seemingly incompatible political/economic philosophies. One asserts that government is incompetent, so it is best to minimize its role. The other asserts that we need government to take care of our social responsibilities as a nation, so it is sometimes necessary to grow it. Being a democracy, the two sides must compromise for the country to run, but compromise is difficult because neither side sees any element of truth in the position of the other.

The way I see it, both camps have elements of truth. My experience at Social Security taught me that government is, if not incompetent, at least very backwards and unwilling to take the necessary steps to catch up. The actual administration of Social Security services is too expensive and not responsive to the desires of the citizens or its own workers. Senior management will tell you otherwise; but field workers know that this is true, and to new hires, this is obvious. Furthermore, SSA’s plans for the future will only make its service delivery more expensive and still not satisfy the demands of its constituents. On the other hand, more and more Americans will need Social Security services in the coming decades.

What is most disturbing is that SSA’s leadership never addresses this dichotomy. There is no serious effort to reshape Social Security so that fundamentally its service delivery will become simultaneously better and more efficient. Quite the contrary, the attitude at SSA is that either it gets more money to continue business as usual or that its services will degrade. You will not find a single Agency approved SSA document that challenges this basic alternative scenario.

I find the same to be true in all of our Federal agencies. I have never seen a single document that discusses fundamentally changing how things are done in any of the agencies so that ultimately it can deliver better services at reduced costs. We see initiatives that try to save money here and there, but they do not take into account their overall effects on agency efficiency. The discussion is always, “what can we cut?” It is never, “how can we do even more with less money?”

I think the reason that this is happening is that we have become intellectually both lazy and cowardly. We are scared of big challenges. It is easy to slash a budget and then see what results. It is easy to increase funding to do more of the same. But to actually think of what an agency should look like, say, ten years from now, how different should it be from what it is today, that is beyond our scope. But this is exactly what I think we have to start doing.

When I was at Social Security, I asked myself, if we had to redo Social Security today from scratch, without changing any of the laws, what would it look like? It turned out that it would look quite different from what it does today and from what it will look like in several years if SSA continues with its current projects. It would run much more efficiently, more accurately, provide much better services, have happier employees, and cost a lot less to administer. Getting to this new SSA would be quite a challenge; you have to build it and transition from the old to the new, and do this all within a very tight budget environment. But it is doable; one only needs the right leadership and encouragement. Of course, if we also allow changing the laws, we could do a lot more. But even with the constraint of keeping the law as is, the exercise provided sufficient insight into how much better we could do.

To me, spending some time and money on considering this option, especially in light of the fact that the alternative is clearly heading the wrong way, is a no-brainer. But SSA’s leaders refused to even think along these lines. Psychologically, they locked themselves into the belief that this is undoable; of course it is doable, and we Americans are excellent at meeting such tough challenges when we are motivated to do so. Instead of creating a clear vision of the future, SSA leaders inundate each other and their constituents with enormous details, which only continue to add to the complexity that has grown over decades of legacy accretion. They are all so immersed with details that they never get a chance to consider the fundamentals. SSA leaders are experts at diverting real discussions with such tactics.

SSA’s leaders are not malicious people. I believe that in their hearts they want the best for both the agency and the American people. But they have been indoctrinated by the current ethos of “either-or” without any consideration for creative destruction, the type that drives the private sector to modernize. Where I do fault them, however, is for their refusal to act, even on a minimal level, when a serious alternative was presented. Instead of engaging external experts, they made it impossible to do so and relied on insiders with no real knowledge of modern information systems. Instead of talking to supporters of the type of change I was proposing, they unilaterally quashed it.

What is Social Security’s services delivery plan? What is their Agency Strategic Plan? How are they addressing the looming crisis as simultaneously budgets are shrinking while service demands are increasing? We must insist that SSA’s leaders answer these questions. And if they cannot, we have to find new leaders who can.

Read my paper, Social Security 2020: Vision and Strategy

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One thought on “In Context of the Bigger Picture

  1. To start off, I am not a “life-time” employee with SSA, so I have a limited perspective of leadership within Central Office. None, basically.

    I do not agree with much of what is argued here because I’ve seen the same thing happen in the private sector and other agencies. The keys to the “vision thing” are leadership, experience, training and most importantly executive persistence. I am not aware of a single university which offers a degree in looking into the future and being able to apply that skill / knowledge successfully. And true visionary leaders are as rare as hen’s teeth.

    Most MBA programs seem to me to be a joke in terms of strategic training (based only on the MBAs I’ve met). I’ve never attended an Executive Program so I can’t speak to the effectiveness of training managers and executives who have 10+ years of experience and are still looking to sit in the “big chair”. I imagine the closest thing we have to strategic training occurs at the military academies and the general staff colleges. So, my question to you is: where is the civil servant supposed to get training in developing and implementing a vision of the future?

    I do agree the options appear to be a false dichotomy. There is no either-or solution. It is a spectrum. But, with limited vision, this dichotomy is the easiest way to make a case to Congress and the American public.

    Again, this is no different from convincing a Board of Directors or stockholders. That’s why so many executive management teams do what they do to get what they want.

    If a leader “at the top” cannot be convinced to see the vision of someone not at the top, the natural organizational reaction is to quash the vision. Do you really expect otherwise?

    As for the delivery plan and the strategic plan… You can read them both and still get nothing from them. Watch your own presentation if you’ve forgotten how generic and meaningless these are (the documents, not just SSA’s versions). But again, this is little different from industry or the government’s of other countries. And several high ranking executives would be out of jobs if the documents didn’t come out periodically.

    My bottom line is you cannot get to a point of your transformative vision without a persistent leader with the vision and a senior cadre prepared to implement the vision. Jack Welsh could do it at GE because he had over a decade to push-push-push and grow his team internally. I’m not sure it can ever happen with a 5yr Commissioner tenure.

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