The Inspector General’s Report on SSA’s (still missing) Service Delivery Plan

On July 29, 2011, the Social Security Office of the Inspector General sent a report to Rep. Sam Johnson (R, TX), Chairman of the Subcommittee on Social Security, House Ways and Means Committee, on Social Security’s Service Delivery Plan. There is no plan; there are some indications of what service delivery is expected to be like in the next three to five years. But even this is very sketchy.

A major item in the report is that Social Security wants customers to interact more online. There is an implicit assumption that online interactions are more efficient than in-person or via-the-phone interactions. This is probably true, but this has yet to be shown. Several years ago, SSA hired Booze-Allen-Hamilton that claimed to show this. But the report is flawed. It showed that whereas in-person application processing for RSI (Retirement and Survivors Insurance) claims takes on average 36 minutes of employee time, online applications take, on average, 24 minutes. First, notice that online application does not mean automated application; there is still considerable human intervention. Second, the 36 minutes for in-person processing time does not reflect what SSA’s own accounting folks say- average RSI task is over 70 minutes. Amazingly, SSA folks cite the online advantage based on this one report that is glaringly not consistent with its own accounting numbers. Does anybody at SSA actually read these reports, for which they (actually, we, the taxpayers) pay handsomely?

With more than half of online applications, customer reps have to call the applicants back for more information, or to inform them that they have various options that were not made available to them online. Sometimes reps have to make several calls, leave messages, try again, until they reach the applicant. SSA cannot track when these happens. Often, people call for help with their online applications, while they are applying or before or after applying, but here too SSA cannot track when this happens. It may happen that applicants visit in person after applying online, just to make sure they understand what is going on, and SSA cannot keep track of that. Bottom line, we really do not know how much more efficient online applications are in terms of saving time. And we certainly don’t know if the online process is less costly (IT is very expensive at SSA). What we do know is that the average OASI (Old Age and Survivors Insurance) administration cost per OASI beneficiary has been steadily increasing during the past decade.

The other problem with current online applications is that they are not as informative as in-person applications. This is something that the unions have been pointing to for years, but SSA leaders dismiss because they are so determined to get people to apply online. A service delivery plan should include not just more online applications, but online applications wherein the experience is as rich as that of applying in person, with the added convenience that one does not have to deal with the hassles of traveling to an office.

Thus, when a future service delivery plan is finally created, in its discussion of electronic services, it should do more than just say that SSA will have more folks interacting with the Agency online. It should demonstrate that these interactions with be as informative as in-person interactions and also would reduce overall costs of delivering Social Security services.

The report says, “Since SSA does not have a long-term customer service delivery plan, we identified issues that SSA should address when it develops such a plan. Specifically, SSA should address the following issues:

• Electronic services
• Information technology (IT) environment
• Staffing
• Physical infrastructure
• Performance metrics
• Potential challenges”

I will add that all these must be addressed in the context of very tight budgets, expected increases in workloads, and serious staffing problems (which the report mentions).

The report concludes- “SSA must develop a long-term customer service delivery plan that serves as a roadmap for ensuring the Agency is technologically and structurally prepared with appropriate staff to address increased workloads and provide service delivery in an electronic environment. The plan must identify what the service delivery environment will be in the future, including what services customers will expect and how they will want to receive services. The plan must also include timelines and performance metrics to reach its long-term customer delivery goals. In addition, SSA must exert strong leadership to implement the long-term service delivery plan. In commenting on our draft report, the Agency agreed that a long-term customer service delivery plan is needed. The Agency further stated that it will develop a long-term plan.”

My paper, Social Security 2020: Vision and Strategy , has a section on Operational Vision for SSA in the coming decade and an Appendix that lists capabilities that a Twenty First Century Social Security must have. It would be interesting to see whether the promised service delivery plan will actually deliver. But even before that, when are we going to see this promised service delivery plan? We have been promised one for a long time.

You can read the Inspector General’s report at http://www.ssa.gov/oig/ADOBEPDF/A-07-11-01125.pdf .

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