SSA not ready to meet future challenges

Wednesday - 7/23/2014, 4:55pm EDT

By Ariel Levin-Waldman
Special to Federal News Radio

The Social Security Administration is ill-equipped to meet the challenges the next 15 years will offer, according to a report by the National Academy of Public Administration. NAPA will present the report, which details steps to modernize the agency, to Congress before the end of 2014.

"We anticipate a future with tight budgets, a shrinking workforce, increasing work volume, rapidly changing technology and changing customer expectations for service delivery," said Jonathan Bruel, NAPA fellow chairman of the study's panel.

The report says SSA's IT network is a major impediment to meeting future goals. SSA relies on the COBOL programming language, invented in 1959 and still used (with its many upgrades) throughout the federal government. Since COBOL is incapable of supporting web applications and as greater numbers of people who understand it retire, NAPA says it is fast becoming unsustainable. NAPA says SSA also needs to offer modernized digital and telecommunications services.

IT specialists are not the only retirement concern. The average age of SSA employees is 47, according to NAPA. In 15 years, 55 percent of supervisors and 45 percent of non-supervisors will be eligible to retire. SSA faces a high rate of attrition. The bulk of 11,000 employees who left the workforce in 2011 were retirees, according to NAPA.

"SSA is operating in an austere budget environment. As a result, a hiring freeze has been in place since FY 2010, and the agency has not been able to back-fill its retiring workforce. As baby boomers reach their disability-prone and retirement years, SSA's workload has increased significantly for the past few years, and is forecasted to continue to grow," the report said.

It isn't the first time NAPA has pushed SSA to go digital. NAPA consultants drafted a plan for SSA to close field offices to boost customer service. The American Federation of Government Employees says more than 1,200 offices could close and as many as 30,000 employees could lose their jobs. The plan, called Vision 2025, emphasizes online, self-service options for customers and drew fire from Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) who says many rural communities lack the digital infrastructure and many seniors lack the digital experience to participate. NAPA maintains that physical offices will remain open along with digital services.

"Social security must - number one - provide quality service, primarily through virtual channels, such as online, phone, or video conference, and do this in the future while continuing to provide personal service as required," said Bruel.

NAPA believes its ten-category plan with 29 steps would bring the SSA up to future standards.

"Social security must become more nimble, such as improving data access, developing a more agile workforce, and expanding use of shared support services to enable more rapid response to changing customer needs," said Bruel.

The ten focus areas set by NAPA:

  • Develop a cost effective virtual means of providing service, but also keep personal service delivery when necessary.
  • Develop a comprehensive policy review and a business intelligence strategy to guide other improvements.
  • Improve access to data through the internet.
  • Improve investment management by incorporating more business and contractor input.
  • Work towards attracting and retaining more employees.
  • Develop a more flexible position and grade structure for workers while hiring more analytical specialists to create a more agile workforce.
  • Gather data on best practices.
  • Conduct needs assessment and expand planning activities.
  • Engage all participants in the service delivery planning process.
  • Reduce costs and increase flexibility through shared support services

Ariel Levin-Waldman is an intern with Federal News Radio