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Reports forecast trouble for Social Security Administration

The Social Security Administration is at risk of losing its reputation as one of the most effectively managed federal agencies, according to recent and upcoming reports. Baby boomers are expected to overwhelm the agency's ability to meet customer demand for disability services in the next decade, a report issued by the Social Security Advisory Board in January predicted. And an upcoming report from the board will reportedly conclude that customer service is declining because the agency has suffered staffing shortages while workloads have increased. The Social Security Administration has long been considered a paragon of customer service in government. SSA's telephone service is highly regarded and the agency consistently receives high service ratings from its customers. Last year, SSA received an 84, on a scale of 1-100, on the American Customer Satisfaction Index. The index is a measure of quality and value as perceived by customers, and is used widely in the private and public sectors. The average private sector score in 2000 was 71.2, while the federal government got an overall score of 68.6. At a 1998 hearing, Rep. Steve Horn, R-Calif., cited Social Security's financial management as a model for other agencies, and the agency was one of only four of the 24 largest federal agencies to receive a grade higher than a "C" on its 2000 performance report. Social Security also received the highest grade for computer security in Horn's 2000 federal computer security report card. Despite all this, an upcoming study by the Social Security Advisory Board will highlight declining customer service at the agency, according to a report in The New York Times. The study, expected to be released in early March, reached some stark conclusions: The number of Social Security disability insurance benefit recipients is expected to increase by more than 40 percent in the next 10 years; the quality telephone service is declining; the backlog of appeals for denied benefits is growing; time spent face-to-face with customers is decreasing, and crowded field office waiting rooms are becoming more common. All this while the number of Social Security employees is dropping. Social Security officials said the agency would meet the challenges cited in the report. "There's nothing surprising in this report," said agency spokesperson Carolyn Cheezum. According to Cheezum, a planning paper issued by the agency on how it will operate in 2010 addresses the same issues mentioned in the report. About half of SSA's employees, more than 28,000 people, are expected to retire by 2010, Cheezum said. But the agency is anticipating the losses and has programs in place to address the problem, she said. "We definitely are looking at bringing new people into the workforce…it's a very competitive workforce… and we also have initiatives to train and give our own workforce opportunities," Cheezum said. The agency's 2001 performance plan projects that workloads will increase over the next 10 years while resources may not. The agency plans to rely more on information technology to improve its service delivery, both through electronic government and by replacing time-consuming paper processes with electronic ones.