Former Gov. Martin O'Malley, D-Md., President Biden's nominee to be the next Social Security Commissioner, testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building.

Former Gov. Martin O'Malley, D-Md., President Biden's nominee to be the next Social Security Commissioner, testifies during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee at the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Kevin Dietsch / GETTY IMAGES

O’Malley vows to listen to frontline Social Security workers

President Biden’s pick to lead the embattled Social Security Administration said many of the agency’s challenges can be alleviated by a change in culture.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley on Thursday told senators that, if confirmed as commissioner, he would reform the Social Security Administration by instituting a performance management system akin to a “winnable game” that he said would boost both customer service as well as employee engagement.

O’Malley fielded questions from members of the Senate Finance Committee three months after President Biden nominated the former Democratic presidential candidate to lead the embattled agency.

In recent years, the Social Security Administration has struggled to meet an array of challenges, from long hold times at its call centers, lines at field offices around the country and the months-long disability determination process, not to mention outrage over efforts to recoup costs associated with improper payments from beneficiaries.

Meanwhile, the agency hit a 25-year low in staffing in 2022, despite a steadily growing number of beneficiaries, and employee morale has plummeted, falling from the second-best large agency at which to work in the federal government, per the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, to dead last over the last decade.

O’Malley said that if confirmed, he would take a similar approach to the agency as he did to city government as mayor of Baltimore and state government as governor of Maryland, getting away from analyzing performance within the context of annual budget cycles and toward data-focused meetings on a biweekly basis.

“What Social Security has need of is a common operating platform that allows everyone to see what’s happening in the organization,” he said. “Right now, if you look at the org chart, it is massive and extremely siloed. The key to collaboration and improving service and efficiency, as well as staying on budget, is to break ourselves out of 240 years of tradition that says, ‘That’s my data, that’s my budget’ or that information is to be hoarded, and instead realize you need to share information openly and transparently. We need to measure performance, understand what’s happening where, whether we’re on track or not, and who’s doing it well and who is not.”

The former governor envisioned a shift in how agency leaders analyze data, reducing their focus on so-called “lagging indicators” like the average wait time at Social Security call centers or how long it takes for a disability benefits applicant to receive a decision and instead examining how changes to agency practices can affect those measures.

“I believe the top priority is that for as large as Social Security is, there are lagging indicators that are pretty clear that we have to meet,” O’Malley said. “What is not as clear are the measurements on the tactics, strategies and actions that drive you to the lagging indicators. People can gather at the table every month and stare at the hold times or the backlog and shake their heads and wag their fingers, but that won’t improve it. You have to actually measure the leading actions.”

This approach, coupled with a renewed effort to engage with and listen to frontline workers, will be key to turning the agency around, whether through improved service, revamping Social Security’s IT infrastructure or simply retaining a qualified workforce and reversing the downward spiral of poor morale, O’Malley argued.

“My sense from the people that I’ve spoken to is that it’s been a long time since they’ve had leaders who would actually listen to what they’re experiencing on the front lines and doing the work,” he said. “That’s why you have a record year in terms of new hires [in fiscal 2023], and at the same time a record year for attrition . . . I’m looking forward to being an operational leader, to being among and with and lifting up leaders among the eyes of their peers, measuring performance so that the organization can learn from its highest performers, and when you do that, you create a winnable game for people. They want to come to work, they encourage their friends to apply to work there, and that’s what we need to get back to.”

Multiple committee Republicans pressed O’Malley on what role telework would play at Social Security under his leadership, citing difficulties that their constituents have had in recent years trying to attain in-person appointments at local field offices. But while O’Malley said that organizations both in government and the private sector are continuing to experiment with the “right balance” of in-person work and workplace flexibilities, he rattled off statistics showing the drastic reduction in staffing in the lawmakers’ home states as a more likely cause of service delivery issues.

“So for example, in your state [of Indiana], you’ve suffered a 22% loss in SSA staff [since the start of the pandemic],” he said. “Whether someone is coming to a field office in Fort Wayne or Indianapolis, that’s one-fifth of people who just aren’t there anymore. It’s not about telework; the jobs just aren’t filled. And it’s similar in disability determinations: we bemoan the long time that that takes, but you’ve seen an erosion of about 20% in your state Department on Disability Services office, and those state employees are reimbursed by the federal government. So we need to do three things all at once to assess this, with the North Star of getting meetings when you need them: we need a better balance [of telework], we need to hire more people more quickly and retain the people that we have and we also need to speed up things like training as well.”