Social Security not ready to provide services to aging baby boomers

Growth in online services has not taken up the slack created by a shrinking workforce and a growing workload

The number of people performing electronic transactions with the Social Security Administration grew by 27 percent during the past year, from 2.9 million in fiscal 2007 to 3.7 million in 2008, and worker productivity is increasing. However, the shrinking SSA workforce has not been able to keep up with a growing workload, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office.

“According to an SSA official, staffing shortfalls resulted in a buildup of 1,000 work-years for work that SSA was not able to complete at the end of fiscal year 2007. SSA projects that the buildup will grow to 5,800 work-years by the end of fiscal year 2009,” GAO said in its report..”

The agency is being hit with a double whammy by the aging baby boom generation: 44 percent of SSA's staff members are expected to retire by 2016, while the agency expects to be processing 1 million additional claims a year from retiring boomers by 2017. The process y has already started. SSA’s field office staff declined by 4.4 percent from 2005 to 2008, GAO found, and office visits increased from 42 million in 2006 to 44.4 million in 2008.

SSA operates a network of about 1,300 field offices throughout the country, 63,000 employees and a budget of about $10 billion a year. It paid out $650 billion in benefits to 55 million people in 2008, and for years has anticipated the onslaught of boomer retirement.

“We have long been aware that the baby boom generation would have a dramatic impact on our own internal staffing losses, as well as escalating our disability and retirement claims workloads,” SSA said in its response to the GAO report. “As a result, we have been working on many fronts to increase our productivity to enable us to process more work without increasing staffing levels.”

The agency has responded with a number of strategies, including increased use of online, telephone and video services; load balancing by shifting work between offices; and deferring less essential jobs. But despite an increase in average productivity of 2.9 percent since 2005, the amount of work actually done fell by 1.3 percent, GAO found. “Staffing declines resulted in customers waiting longer to be served and difficulties for field offices in answering calls from customers,” the report said.

In 2008, three million visitors to field offices waited an hour or more before seeing an employee. In a 2007 survey of callers, most said at least one call went unanswered, and eight percent said they waited an hour or longer to talk with someone. The average waiting time for a call went from 15 minutes in 2002 to 21 minutes in 2006, and staff members in two Social Security offices said they did not answer their phones at all. But SSA plans to leverage more advanced technology.

“We have an IT Advisory Board that is responsible for long-range IT planning,” SSA said. “In the face of dwindling resources and risking workloads, our IT investments are critical to keeping pace with an ever-growing demand for our services.”

SSA’s strategic plan released in 2008 calls for having half of all online retirement applications filed online by 2012 and one quarter of all disability claims. “Online filing provides work efficiency to offset the impact of a part of the increase in claims,” the agency said.

“Achieving the plan’s goal of an online filing rate of 50 percent of retirement applications will surely relieve some service-demand growth at field offices,” GAO said. “However, it is not clear how SSA plans to accommodate the growing workload and the goals of the strategic plan, while ensuring quality customer service at field offices.”

Online services so far have not produced a big benefit, SSA staff members told GAO. Relatively few customers use them, and because of erroneous or missing information on some online forms additional time is required by staff to contact customers to gather or correct information.

“While SSA is encouraging customers to use automated services to help field offices accomplish their work, many field staff said that real gains in automated services will likely be achieved by future generations of customers,” GAO said. “SSA’s vision for its ‘eService’ program is that the public, businesses, and government agencies will be able to conduct all business through secure, electronic channels — thereby increasing the efficiency with which the agency can serve the public.”

SSA said it is developing a comprehensive plan to address the growing imbalance between workforce and workload, and the document will -- at a minimum -- include comprehensive plans for:

  • Expanding electronic service.
  • Increased centralization of processing telephone and claims workloads while maintaining the network of local field offices to serve the public.
  • Field office service enhancement with new phone systems, video services where applicable, and piloting self-service personal computers in reception areas.
  • Service delivery assessments of field offices to ensure that the agency continues to provide efficient customer service.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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