Thinking Small

SSA chief Michael Astrue works all the angles to shrink a daunting disability backlog.

The Social Security Administration's Michael Astrue must feel some solidarity with Sisyphus.

Since being sworn in as commissioner in 2007, Astrue has been working diligently to push a boulder of disability backlog claims up a hill fraught with political and logistical challenges. Astrue and his SSA employees were just beginning to make progress when the recession came, prompting a spike in claims that threatened to knock the agency and its boulder back to square one.

In normal times, SSA would have expected to receive about 2.6 million applications for disability benefits a year. But the recession has had an effect on disabled workers' ability to get and keep jobs, causing workers who otherwise might be working to file claims. The economic downturn has led to about 650,000 extra cases a year, for a total of 3.3 million claims a year, according to Astrue. This increases the workload not only at the state offices that first process these applications, but also at the appeals level where administrative judges must adjudicate claims.

Despite the complications, Astrue is happy with the headway he and his employees have made. "We've continued to make big progress when we've really gotten walloped by unexpected workload because of the recession," he says.

That progress has come from investments and innovations on numerous fronts. He has taken extra funding, both from Congress' annual appropriations and from the Recovery Act, and invested in staffing and technology. "We have an enormous number of new offices being opened and new judges being trained and judges being transferred to new offices," he says. "We're doing historic expansion in the hearing office structure."

Astrue says the number of offices and judges in 2007 was about the same as when he left the agency in 1988, despite huge demographic shifts in the country: "We not only had a national backlog, but we had even worse regional backlogs in parts of the country where . . . the population had exploded, or the economy had tanked."

The agency is in the process of adding 25 hearing offices in an 18-month period and already has set up five national hearing centers where judges, who primarily conduct video hearings, can work with the offices facing the greatest backlogs. The agency is hiring more than 200 judges this year and increasing the use of video hearings to reduce travel for judges, which Astrue says is expensive and a drain on productivity.

"About half of this we've done with more resources, and we're grateful to the Congress for that," he says. "But we've also done about half of it with increases in productivity. We were in such bad shape we really needed both."

Not everyone is willing to give Astrue credit for the strides SSA has made in tackling the backlog. "Quite frankly, you have to give praise to Congress for finally providing budgets for this agency so it could appoint judges and hire staff," says D. Randall Frye, president of the Association of Administrative Law Judges. "As soon as the additional judges and staff were hired, we started making inroads into the backlog."

Frye also credits the judges and their productivity, which he says is as high as it's ever been. "What I hear from judges across the country is they're working well beyond the normal workweek to try to get the backlog under control, and I think we're having huge success in doing that."

From a management perspective, Astrue says he has taken the slow and steady route, but it is paying off for the agency and for citizens with disabilities. "The only way to fix this system is good old-fashioned management and doing hundreds and hundreds of things better than what we did before," he says. "It's not glamorous. There was some disappointment when we set the plan up because there wasn't a magic bullet and there wasn't a sexy name, but that's the right way to do it. If you're fixing it almost as quickly as it got broken, which is kind of where we are, then that's good in my book."

Astrue might yet free himself from his Sisyphean challenge. He believes SSA will meet its goal of eliminating the disability claims backlog by 2013 and says both the agency's inspector general and the Government Accountability Office agree the goal is realistic.

Elizabeth Newell covered management, human resources and contracting at Government Executive for three years.

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