Social Security’s Acting Chief Pushes Long-Term Vision

Acting Social Security Administration Commissioner Carolyn Colvin. Acting Social Security Administration Commissioner Carolyn Colvin. Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press

The word “acting” attached to her title has not deterred Social Security Administration Commissioner Carolyn Colvin from taking the long view.

On April 27, she and her team released a 10-year service delivery plan titled Vision 2025 that—after capturing input from employees, Congress and Social Security beneficiaries—will set the nearly 65,000-employee agency’s course toward a “superior” customer experience, “exceptional” employees and an “innovative” organization.

The plan explores the loss of institutional knowledge, outdated technology and budget uncertainty, pointing like “a North Star” toward solutions in meeting customer needs, leadership and workplace collaboration.

“We are a community-based organization, and in many communities we are the front door to the federal government, through which people walk during times of need,” the introduction reads. “The person-to-person conversation at the center of our service-delivery model for the past 80 years is what makes Social Security unique.”

In a telephone interview Wednesday with Government Executive from her Baltimore office, Colvin described how the plan came about at a time when the agency is grappling with such challenges as the rising number of baby-boomer beneficiaries, pressure to integrate digital technology into a program that turns 80 in August, and a backlog of disability claims.

The agency spent nine months developing the vision document after a study by the National Academy of Public Administration highlighted changing customer expectations, she said. SSA held virtual meetings and forums with employees and pored over thousands of comments from customers, labor and management associations, community representatives and Congress.

After that “monumental task,” Colvin said, “we’re now getting started developing a strategic plan for implementation over the next two years and beyond.”

The limited feedback from employees so far is positive, she said, though the still-uncertain response by congressional budget writers may be equally important. “The outstanding service the country expects from us will be in direct relation to the funding we receive, and we’ve been able to make that case over the last two years,” Colvin said, noting that several years of cuts beginning in 2010 were followed by increased appropriations in 2014 and 2015. (President Obama in February requested a hike from $11.8 billion this year to $12.5 billion for fiscal 2016.)

“The increases meant we were able to replace about half the staff we’d lost, but unfortunately, because of attrition, we’re now at a net loss from where we were in 2010,” she said. “The aging workforce means there’s attrition each year, which impacts our work because new folks have to be trained and mentored. It takes two years to be able to fully do the job.”

Colvin, who won Senate confirmation as deputy commissioner in 2010 having been an executive at SSA in the 1990s, was nominated for the top job in June 2014. Her predecessor, Michael Astrue, had left after his six-year term the previous January. Despite winning approval from the Senate Finance Committee in a 22-2 vote last September, her nomination stalled in the new Congress. “My name was not submitted a second time, but under our independent status, I can be acting for as long as the president wants me to,” she said. “I think we’re doing a good job and have an excellent executive team and competent staff, irrespective of my title.”

Budget Challenges

One area where Congress’ impact has been felt was in 2011 when SSA suspended mailing of Social Security prospective earnings and benefits statements, an idea of the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., required by law since 1995.

In April 2011, in the run-up to the budget stalemate that produced the Budget Control Act, Social Security decided to save money by suspending the mailings. Mailouts resumed in February 2012, but only to those 60 and older not collecting benefits, and to workers turning 25. In 2013, the mailings halted again before resuming in September 2014 on a limited basis—to workers every five years from ages 25-60, and then yearly, except to people who signed up for an online My Social Security account.

“We know they’re important from the reaction by the public and Congress,” Colvin said. But mailing them “costs $70 million a year, and that’s three potential furlough days. Currently about 18 million Americans are getting their statements online. “With 176 million wage-earners, she said, “even with automation there is potential for error, so it’s important that people check their information.”

Vision 2025 “outlines the use of technology so that employees can better serve customers, but also how we can become more efficient,” Colvin said. “Technology will help as an enhancement of what we do, but it won’t replace human interaction on a daily basis,” she added. “Many customers will not be able to embrace technology and will prefer face-to-face.” Still, the secure My Social Security website is handy for accessing benefits statements, changing a name or address and for financial planning, Colvin said.

Videoconferencing technology has allowed SSA to offer beneficiaries a more convenient communication option if they can’t visit one of the agency’s 1,200 offices, and helped put a dent in its million-case backlog of unresolved disability benefits claims. “The backlog is unacceptable,” Colvin said, “but there is no one solution. It takes continuous improvement of our business processes to shorten it and make it simpler.”

Technology also allows claimants to share medical records electronically and facilitates data-sharing with other agencies such as the Veterans Affairs Department, she added. Hiring more administrative law judges—a longtime goal—would help too, but “we’re also looking at different staffing models” to tackle the claims backlog.

Data mining technology is essential to SSA’s ongoing battle to curb improper payments. The SSA inspector general “tells us we have less than 1 percent fraud, but even that’s too much. We pay almost $1 trillion in benefits a year, and we know fraudsters are always looking for ways. Our robust anti-fraud program ranges from prevention to detection to prosecution. Technology allows us to use data analytics to see patterns, to establish various models to minimize risk,” she said.

To alleviate a brain drain, SSA’s vision sets sights on recruiting “a whole gamut” of future employees, Colvin notes. They include front-line workers dealing directly with the public to determine eligibility, as well as information technology professionals, attorneys, human resources specialists, law enforcement people, procurement experts and managers. “Anyone looking for a career in public service would find SSA rich and rewarding, and we probably offer one of the broadest ranges of service of any federal agency,” she said. “We’re large enough so that there are development opportunities. Our retention is good. We’re No. 6 on the list of Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.”

Colvin is well aware of Social Security’s status as a political football in the current climate in which some on the right wish to cut benefits while some on the left want to expand them. “There are short and long-term issues,” she said, noting that it’s not her role to weigh in with Congress but that she plans to advise the administration.

“We are one of the largest government programs in the world, and we touch the lives of nearly every American here and abroad. We have over 65 million on our roles, and are a vital part of the economy,” she said. “Social Security will always be here, but we recognize that changes will be necessary.

“The president recommended a reallocation of funds from retirement to disability funds, 0.9 percent for five years, which would make the retirement and disability funds solvent until 2033,” Colvin said. She expressed hope that Congress will adopt the plan, which has precedents. “If not, then people would be looking at a 20 percent cut in disability benefits, which at $1,200 a month are already inadequate.”

In the long term, said the acting commissioner with 20 months to go, “We hope Congress will [take a bipartisan approach], as was done in 1983 under the Greenspan Commission. Our agency’s role is to provide data and analysis to the White House and Congress on the impact of the various proposals.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify Colvin's long-term vision for Congress.

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