As the commissioner presiding over the Social Security Administration in an election year, Martin O'Malley is focused on making sizable customer experience improvements in a potentially short window of time.

As the commissioner presiding over the Social Security Administration in an election year, Martin O'Malley is focused on making sizable customer experience improvements in a potentially short window of time. Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images

Martin O’Malley is on a one-year sprint to save Social Security

Despite shaking up the culture one of Washington’s most risk-averse agencies, the former governor said his biggest task is convincing Congress to reinvest in the Social Security Administration’s administrative overhead.

At an early June meeting of SecurityStat, a new performance management initiative at the Social Security Administration, Commissioner Martin O’Malley was eager to analyze a recent spike in call volume at the agency’s teleservice centers from the prior week.

On June 2, an obscure website published a false article claiming that Social Security beneficiaries may be entitled to an additional $600 in benefits this month. It was then erroneously republished by, leading to a flood of calls to SSA’s 1-800 number.

As O’Malley was recounting the incident, SSA Associate Commissioner for Customer Service Delma Cardona flipped to the next slide in her presentation, which outlined the incident and highlighted a couple of ideas to better combat misinformation going forward.

“Ah, I jumped the agenda again,” O’Malley groaned.

The former governor and presidential candidate’s torrid pace has been a major shift for officials at the agency responsible for doling out retirement and disability payments to more than 80 million Americans. Prior to his confirmation last December, employees said the Social Security Administration had suffered from an acute case of paralysis, where management became so risk-averse that even minor tweaks to agency processes were doomed to sit unimplemented.

O’Malley’s confirmation came amid an agency-wide crisis. Over the last decade, the SSA has experienced a steady growth in beneficiaries amid a decline in funding and manpower. The agency’s union, the American Federation of Government Employees, has been sounding the alarm for years that the frontline workforce was approaching a breaking point and warned that without decisive action, it could experience a staff exodus that would spark a downward spiral in its customer service.

Beginning in January, O’Malley went on a whirlwind tour of SSA facilities, visiting all nine regions over the course of 16 days, all while launching a new online suggestion portal for employees called Engage SSA. And by early February, he had stood up SecurityStat, a performance management tool that he first borrowed from the New York Police Department after he became mayor of Baltimore in 1999.

SecurityStat takes issues at the heart of the agency’s customer service crisis; including call center performance, benefits processing, disability processing and appeals, and over- and underpayments; and requires agency officials to brief O’Malley—and one another—on their progress every two weeks.

According to statistics at last week’s meeting about the agency’s call centers, officials celebrated a 57% reduction in the average wait time on SSA’s 1-800 customer service number since SecurityStat began, from 42 to 18 minutes. And for the first time since O’Malley’s confirmation, the call center’s answer rate exceeded 70%.

Though O’Malley and his deputies celebrate each improvement, he said everyone is keenly aware that their work is far from over. Although leaders have found ways to chip away at the metrics, there are core deficiencies in how the teleservice centers receive calls that have yet to be dealt with.

“[The phone system] has what they call a ‘business intelligence’ at the center of it, which does a very poor job of allocating calls to the right places, especially when you’re serving a clientele that stretches across three or four time zones,” O’Malley told Government Executive. “That creates problems and then some shift—if the so-called ‘business intelligence’ puts you into a queue that’s going to an eastern time zone, where the call center people go home at 5 o’clock, and it puts you in there at 4:30—and far too many people still receive polite hang-ups. Like, our answer rate is 70%. What happened to the other 30?”

When O’Malley was nominated for Social Security commissioner, he was pegged for the final year of ousted former Commissioner Andrew Saul’s six-year term, meaning if President Biden loses his reelection bid in November, he likely will be replaced under a second Trump administration. The politician turned government data analytics evangelist said his time in elective office prepared him well for this challenge.

“I suppose when you run for office and serve for a limited period of time as an executive, you always have one eye on the clock,” he said. “So when I was asked to take on this job with these good people, it was not because we were doing well. We’re in the midst of a customer service crisis borne out of serving the greatest number of customers we’ve ever had with the lowest amount of staff we’ve had in 25 years. So, I was anxious to get started.”

Righting the managerial ship

During one of O’Malley’s trips to Social Security facilities across the country, he encountered an employee in the Atlanta region who had developed a tool to reduce the time it takes for an employee processing a “Medicare-only application,” i.e., a 65-year-old who is not ready to stop working and collect Social Security, but wants to get on Medicare, from eight minutes to eight seconds.

“Wow, that’s great—are you using it?” O’Malley said he asked the employee. “They said, ‘Not yet, we haven’t been able.’ [Atlanta Regional Social Security Commissioner] Rose Mary said to me, ‘We haven’t been able to get approval from the commissioner’s office. So I said, ‘When did you send it?’ She said, ‘the first time was in 2013, and then we’ve sent it up every time there has been a change in command.’

“I asked why wouldn’t they approve it. She said, ‘Oh, a variety of reasons, sometimes all of them at once. The lawyers say that there may be a legal problem with it, and the information security people that guard us from cyber hacks say they’d have to get an Authority to Operate that might take months and they’d really have to look deep at it. And then the labor people think that maybe the unions might have problems with it.”

O’Malley called up the agency’s general counsel, information security associate commissioner and labor relations deputy, and the tweak was quickly approved and rolled out to employees. He similarly orchestrated a quick green light to implement a long-requested “No to All” button for the portion of the Supplemental Security Income application process wherein SSA employees ask, as O’Malley describes it, “41 questions asking essentially different angles of ‘Do you have any money?’”

SSA executives described a night-and-day change in the leadership culture atop the agency since O’Malley joined, citing the “infectious” energy he brings to SecurityStat meetings—and the follow-up meetings across the hall, whose entrance is adorned with the words FOLLOW UP in bold block letters—and a dedication to breaking down hierarchical silos that have dominated the agency’s decision-making in recent years. But at least on some of these issues, O’Malley is uncharacteristically modest for a former politician.

“There’s an energy that comes from having a new leader, and you have a golden window to get a lot of stuff done that’s been bottled up for a long time,” he said. “[During my confirmation process], Sen. [Thom] Tillis, R-N.C., said to me, ‘There’s gold on the floor over there. You just need to bend down and pick it up . . . Once we started hitting SecurityStat, it was like I had come home with this bag, like Santa, with this bag over my shoulder filled with things that people were hoping we would get done.”

O’Malley attributes the agency’s paralysis prior to his arrival to two key things: a very conservative approach to management, and the slow degradation of the agency’s funding since the George W. Bush administration made Social Security’s administrative funding part of the discretionary budget.

“The great news about this organization is that they are super risk-averse,” he said. “The bad news about this organization is that tends to make them not as agile or nimble as the current challenge requires.”

There is a palpable energy present during a SecurityStat meeting. Mid- and late-career executives bat ideas around with one another, which they then take over to the aforementioned Follow Up room to iron out details and determine who will be accountable for following through by the next meeting in two weeks.

One executive said that the leadership team was only able to respond quickly to the erroneous news article because SecurityStat had made it easier to communicate and work together on challenges as they arise.

“All of this has been, I think, liberating, especially for the Senior Executive Service,” O’Malley said. “[A] person in the Office of Hearings Operations said to me, ‘It’s kind of fun to be getting things done again.’ They were just waiting to be told that they could. But the context of everything we do is against the backdrop of the highest number of customers ever and the lowest staffing in 25 years.”

Once SSA’s administrative funding—long locked at 1.2% of benefits distributed—became discretionary, it was tucked into the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies appropriations package. As a result, it had less visibility during the budget process, leading to the first dip below 1.2% in 2017 and culminating in the current funding and staffing crisis.

“We don’t even warrant an initial [in the bill title],” O’Malley quipped in a text message.

Last March, O’Malley testified before Congress in what was the first budget hearing devoted to SSA’s administrative expenses in nine years. O’Malley said last week that he remains hopeful that lawmakers will ultimately correct their decade-long neglect of the agency.

“We have to do a better and more concerted job of telling our story, and we have to do a better job of letting our shareholders and stakeholders understand that just a few years ago—2017—we operated at a pretty high level of customer service for what was also then a rising number of customers,” he said. “[When] I said that at the [House] Ways and Means Committee hearing, I could see both Republican and Democratic heads nodding when I showed them the chart of the rise in customers and decline in staff. I don’t think it was intentional on their part. I think they really didn’t know that when they kept doing level funding, level funding, level funding, that, for us, with a rising customer base, that meant declining staff, declining staff, declining staff.”

Salves for a beleaguered workforce

Rich Couture, president of AFGE Council 215 and the union’s chief negotiator with SSA, said O’Malley’s tenure thus far has been a breath of fresh air for the agency’s frontline workforce, though he acknowledged that much more still must be done to reverse its attrition crisis.

“What [O’Malley’s listening tour] did right away was reverse the sense employees had that the very top of the agency doesn’t want to hear from them and isn’t going to do anything with regard to their concerns, ideas, suggestions and working conditions,” Couture said. “[The] commissioner’s actions upon his entry to the agency with regard to wanting to hear from employees provided a much-needed morale boost at a time when we are dead last in the Best Places to Work rankings, though there are still very major and systemic problems that need to be addressed and resolved to see a full turnaround of morale.”

O’Malley said that in addition to the typical benefits of enhanced engagement that his visits to SSA offices across the country provided, he has found that typically, government employees’ and customers’ interests are aligned.

“What I’ve learned is that you have to meet people where they are, and you have to listen to employees,” he said. “And if you listen to enough of them, you’ll figure out what the most impactful we can do are. And the beauty of this exercise is that usually, the things that reduce the workload on the workforce are also the things that make for a better customer experience . . . We have to make people believe that things are about to get better; otherwise, you know, the bottom falls out of this operation.”

The Social Security Administration has historically had an icy relationship with its labor partners. Couture said that even when times were better, such as during then-Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin’s tenure under President Obama, he did not have the level of access to leadership that he has now.

Couture said that although the labor-management relationship had repaired somewhat after the Trump administration’s crusade against federal employee unions, and the parties reached a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement last year. But it remained strained until O’Malley arrived and installed new leadership in the form of Acting Associate Commissioner for Labor-Management and Employee Relations Eddie Taylor.

O’Malley, who reinvited Colvin back to the agency as commissioner emerita and set up her office adjacent to his own, said as a former mayor and governor in the Democratic stronghold that is Maryland, working collaboratively with unions comes naturally. AFGE, O’Malley and other SSA leaders all meet on a monthly basis, although Couture often communicates directly with the commissioner even more frequently.

“This notion that labor is the enemy, you know, it doesn’t help us get things done for the American people and the customers we’re serving,” O’Malley said. “They’re not the enemy—they’re workers, and they represent our workers . . . We have to recognize that if we’re going to serve the American people better, we have to recognize that our workers all have legitimate concerns, and they need to be heard.”

Couture said the monthly labor-management meetings have thus far been very candid and constructive. Both sides have an understanding that big changes, like an ongoing effort to make new employee training more effective and engaging, are needed to slow attrition and make the agency an attractive employer again.

“He told me once, and it was later confirmed by HR, that we used to be a ‘receiver’ agency, meaning when we were more desirable, we’d pull employees from other agencies,” Couture said. “But now, we’re a donor agency, meaning we’re giving employees to other agencies because of the imbalance in working conditions, pay, etc. Now, for every employee we take in from another agency, we’re giving away more than 100 employees. That is mindboggling, but that’s the challenge.”

For O’Malley’s part, he said he brings the same forthrightness he employs in SecurityStat to the monthly meetings with the union representatives.

“When we can’t do things that labor would like us to be able to do, I’m honest about it,” he said. “I just tell them I can’t do it, and I tell them why. Or I tell them that I can’t because I’m constrained because of the budget this year, but I understand why they’re asking, and hopefully things are going to improve.”

Couture said described the core of O’Malley’s approach to customer service and workforce issues as having a common “sense of humanity” toward both customers and employees.

“For too many years, there’s been a wall between how this agency has viewed the public we serve and how it views the workforce that serves the public, and I believe there’s finally a recognition that this entire crisis has to be viewed as a whole,” Couture said. “If employees aren’t taken care of, then the public won’t be taken care of and we’ll continue to see employees leave this agency in large numbers to other federal agencies.”