The Social Security Administration should consolidate its network of field offices and rely more heavily on automated and digital avenues for providing customer service, according to a new report that a union says would mean massive job cuts.
The National Academy of Public Administration -- a congressionally chartered organization -- worked with SSA to make 29 recommendations on how the agency should modernize and reform itself by 2025. Chief among the suggestions was to more aggressively embrace new technology to deliver services to Social Security recipients, and to move away from in-person customer support in favor of “virtual channels” such as phone, online and videoconferencing options.
Throughout the interviews with 70 SSA employees and executives, it became clear the agency could not continue on its current trajectory, NAPA said.
“While justifiably confident in its high standard of customer service and strong record of data security, the agency is not currently poised to meet the significant operating challenges it is likely to face over the next 10 to 15 years,” the report’s authors wrote.
SSA has already faced dramatic workforce reductions; it currently employs just more than 60,000 workers, while it maintained nearly 70,000 just four years ago. The NAPA panel that wrote the report said SSA must adjust to the reality of a smaller workforce, and alluded to additional cuts in the future.
“With a shrinking workforce, the agency cannot afford to continue to operate in this way,” the panelists wrote. “Furthermore, as more work is automated, it becomes less necessary to maintain the current structure.”
While NAPA did not make any specific estimates of potential job cuts -- Project Director Roger Kodat said it was “too early to make that judgment” -- the union representing SSA employees said the results would be drastic. The American Federation of Government Employees estimated if fully implemented, the recommendations made in the report would result in 30,000 job cuts and the elimination of all 1,250 SSA field offices.
Kodat said this analysis “reflects [AFGE] ignoring the report,” as the panel was careful to ensure at least some network of field locations was still available. AFGE maintained NAPA’s proposal -- which the union fears SSA is seriously considering -- would make the Internet “the exclusive channel for customer service,” adding more than 40 percent of seniors do not use the Internet at all. Kodat disagreed with that interpretation, saying anyone who wanted in-person service in the future would have access to it.
“The panel in no way seeks to eliminate the option of a face-to-face service,” Kodat said. The report also noted even with SSA’s current inadequate virtual channels, the use of online services has grown to 51 percent of claims in fiscal 2013 from just 35 percent in fiscal 2010.
Still, AFGE said the plan would result in unacceptable cuts.
“Americans are going to be cheated out of what they deserve just for SSA to save a buck,” said AFGE SSA Council President Witold Skwierczynski. “People rely on trained staff to understand the complex SSA system, their eligibility and benefit options. Under Vision 2025 this level of customer service will be a thing of the past. Every Social Security beneficiary deserves the personal assistance they have paid for their entire lives.”
The report specifically mentioned the need to work with groups like AFGE if the recommendations are implemented.
“Efforts to redefine roles and responsibilities and reengineer work processes will have to address union concerns, such as employment opportunities, pay grades and work rules,” the panelists wrote.
The authors suggested SSA adopt greater workplace flexibilities and better training initiatives to retain employees. It noted, however, workers will have to do more with less.
“SSA should continue to review its position descriptions to identify the positions that should be combined or eliminated to improve the agency’s operational efficiency,” the panelists wrote. “Under a more integrated service model, each frontline position will represent a much wider set of duties and responsibilities.”
NAPA said the “can-do attitude that pervades” SSA enables its workforce to accomplish its mission, despite tight financial constraints.
SSA should also partner with other agencies to pursue shared services to find savings, the report suggested. The agency could collocate with the Veterans Affairs Department, NAPA said, to reduce its physical footprint. SSA plans to spend $727.6 million on rent in fiscal 2015.
For its part, SSA said it has not examined all of NAPA’s recommendations but plans to issue a response to them, and will consider the panel’s input when it publishes its own long-range strategic vision in October.
“The agency will engage broadly with internal and external stakeholders, including Social Security employees, labor organizations, management associations, the Social Security Advisory Board, members of Congress and their staffs, advocates, and -- most important -- the public we serve, as we develop our vision,” agency spokesman Mark Hinkle said.