Social Security Administration:

Service Delivery Plan Needed to Address Baby Boom Retirement Challenges

GAO-09-24: Published: Jan 9, 2009. Publicly Released: Feb 9, 2009.

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Millions of people rely on the services of Social Security Administration (SSA) field offices. In fiscal year 2008, SSA's approximately 1,300 field offices provided service to about 44 million customers. People visit field offices to apply for Social Security cards, apply for retirement and disability benefits, establish direct deposit, and a host of other services. Over the last several years, staffing reductions have challenged field offices' ability to manage work while continuing to deliver quality customer service. To better understand the challenges SSA faces in delivering quality customer service, GAO was asked to determine (1) the effect that staffing reductions are having on field office operations and (2) the challenges SSA faces in meeting service delivery needs in the future and the agency's plan for addressing them. In May 2008, GAO reported initial observations on the effects of reduced staff levels. To conduct this work, GAO interviewed SSA headquarters and field officials and analyzed various data on SSA's workloads and customer service.

Staffing constraints are having adverse effects on field office services. The number of staff in field offices dropped 4.4 percent from 2005 to 2008. As a result of greater efficiencies, field office work produced fell only 1.3 percent during the same period. To manage the reduced staffing, SSA deferred work deemed as a lower priority, such as conducting reviews of beneficiaries' continuing eligibility. However, deferring these reviews means that beneficiaries who no longer qualify for benefits may still receive payments erroneously. Reduced staffing also impacted key customer service indicators. In fiscal year 2007, more than 3 million customers waited for over 1 hour to be served. Further, SSA's Field Office Caller Survey found that 51 percent of customers calling selected field offices had at least one earlier call that had gone unanswered, but for methodological reasons, the unanswered call rate was likely even higher. These factors may have contributed to a 3 percent drop in SSA's overall customer satisfaction rating from 84 percent in fiscal year 2005 to 81 percent in fiscal year 2008. Increases in retirement and disability filings and a significant retirement wave of SSA's most experienced staff pose difficult challenges for SSA in meeting future service delivery needs. SSA estimates that retirement and disability filings will increase the agency's work by about 1 million annual claims by 2017. Further, SSA will experience an agency-wide retirement wave in the coming years--the agency projects that 44 percent of its staff will retire by 2016. SSA published its new strategic plan in September 2008, which calls for SSA to eliminate the backlog of disability hearings and increase online retirement filings to 50 percent of applications. While discussing the plan with us, SSA officials noted that it is not intended to be a service delivery plan detailing how the agency will address the service needs of the retiring baby boom generation. While the plan includes the goal of significantly expanding the use of electronic services, it is not clear how this will mitigate the increasing SSA workload.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To pursue high-quality field office service, SSA should develop a service delivery plan that describes, in detail, how it will deliver quality customer service in the future while managing growing work demands with constrained resources. This plan should identify the extent that new business processes will allow SSA to accommodate growing demand or whether additional resources are needed to achieve its strategic goals. Further, this plan should establish standards for field office customer waiting times and phone service to help identify and improve offices with poor service.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In 2009, SSA disagreed that it did not have a detailed plan to address future service delivery needs, stating that it continually plans for the future and has been long aware that the Baby Boom generation would have a dramatic impact on internal staffing losses, as well as escalating disability and retirement claims workloads. The agency described its current efforts as being the Annual Strategic Plan and the agency's annual budget documents. However, in response to continuing concerns about a lack of a consolidated plan to address the disability and retirement wave of the Baby Boom generation, SSA commented that it is developing a single document that describes the many planning efforts that it has in place. SSA commented that its consolidated document will, at a minimum, include comprehensive plans for expanding electronic services for customers; increasing the centralization of receiving phone calls and working claims from customers while maintaining the network of local field offices; enhancing phone and video services in field offices (where applicable) and piloting self-service personal computers in the reception areas of those offices; and continuing to assess the efficiency of field offices. SSA did not agree with our recommendation to establish quantitative standards for field office customer wait times and phone service, stating that such standards would create problems by diverting staff already spread thin across field offices away from processing claims and post-entitlement work. SSA stated that it tracks waiting times and makes adjustments as necessary to improve service, and that many of the recently hired field office staff went to offices with the highest waiting times. GAO recognizes the many pressures SSA faces, but continues to believe that clear standards that establish a minimum level of quality customer service are an essential first step for organizations to measure success. SSA provided no updates on this recommendation in FY10 and FY11. In FY12, SSA reported that it continues to disagree with this recommendation.

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