The Social Security Administration is crucial to our national fabric and will touch all of us sooner or later. SSA has a strong track record of meeting customer needs, but its ability to provide quality service to all Americans in the future may be at risk as the agency faces budgetary constraints, projected higher work volumes and a shrinking workforce.
Without a rapid and profound transformation of its complex service delivery platform and the workforce training needed to implement it, the agency will likely fall short of meeting customer service expectations 10 to 15 years from now. Preserving SSA’s current reputation for quality customer service will require a strong commitment to change from agency leaders and the creation of an integrated agencywide transformation team to produce and execute a focused vision and strategic plan. Much is at stake.
These are among the chief conclusions of a July report by the National Academy of Public Administration outlining a strategic plan for SSA in 2025-2030. SSA is using the academy’s report to inform its own efforts to craft a vision for 2025 that should be available to the public later this year.
The road ahead is unambiguous. Based on the academy’s research and discussions with SSA leaders and futurologists, both rural and urban Americans will live in a very different world 10 to 15 years from now. The agency will still need to provide in-person service to some portion of its millions of customers, but an ever greater number of Americans will prefer to receive SSA services through virtual channels. These include the Internet, telephone, videoconference, instant messaging and click-to-chat. Secure and user-friendly virtual means must be the primary delivery channels to provide most SSA services.
SSA’s workforce has a positive reputation for meeting customer needs today, but the academy asks an essential question in this report: Is SSA sufficiently nimble to rapidly adopt advanced technologies from private sector service providers that will become the delivery methods of choice in 2025-2030? The agency has met operational challenges in the past, but it must adopt more profound and comprehensive changes during the next decade.
There are reasons to be concerned. Weaknesses in SSA’s investment management process threaten its ability to deploy the technologies needed to meet future customer service demands and manage operating costs. Recent news reports about delays and cost overruns in developing the Disability Case Processing System, a key agency project, underscore this concern. More broadly, much work still needs to be done to align SSA’s organization and workforce skills to meet the anticipated service delivery needs in 2025-2030. This realignment will require a transformation in the agency’s rigid and insular culture, which has derailed past change efforts.
The daunting organizational challenges are complicated by constrained budgets and, in some instances, by policies that inhibit process changes needed to improve service delivery. Congress should work in collaboration with SSA to provide the necessary funding and facilitate policy refinement. SSA must provide Congress and stakeholders with a clear vision and plan to instill confidence that the resources would be well-invested.
During her July Senate nomination hearing to serve as SSA commissioner, Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin said one of her top priorities is strategic planning “to position SSA so it can adapt to a rapidly changing world and continue to provide excellent service to future generations.” We look forward to seeing SSA’s vision and strategic plan.
Given the gap between SSA’s current service delivery capability and the academy’s vision for 2025-2030, there is little time to waste. Strong leadership and a dedicated transformation team must act now to shape a fast approaching future.
Jonathan D. Breul is chairman of the panel that prepared the report on SSA’s vision for 2025-2030, and Roger Kodat is project director at the National Academy of Public Administration.