Social Security Administration:

Stable Leadership and Better Management Needed To Improve Effectiveness

HRD-87-39: Published: Mar 18, 1987. Publicly Released: Mar 18, 1987.

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GAO reviewed management problems that the Social Security Administration (SSA) must address to ensure the continued delivery of high-quality service to social security recipients.

GAO noted that SSA has serious management problems that: (1) are not evident to the public; (2) have contributed to crisis situations in the past; and (3) could interfere with SSA ability to effectively accomplish its mission in the future. GAO found that SSA: (1) has had seven commissioners or acting commissioners over the last 10 years, resulting in frequent changes in priorities, diminished accountability, and little long-term operational planning; (2) has made little progress in modernizing its computer system, particularly its software; (3) plans to spend over $600 million to modernize its computer system; (4) does not have a plan to systematically identify and develop future leaders and managers; and (5) cannot ensure that employees' wage records are accurate. GAO also found that SSA: (1) makes substantial benefit overpayments annually; (2) has been unable to correct its financial management problems because of fragmented responsibility and lack of leadership; (3) has allowed wide variations in efficiency among similar units because of its limited emphasis on efficiency; (4) has neither established nor used measurable, national benchmarks for service quality or timeliness for certain post-entitlement work loads; and (5) has many employees who are uncertain about the future of their jobs and are dissatisfied with many management actions.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has chosen not to act on this recommendation.

    Matter: Congress should consult with SSA on the time needed to automate legislative requirements promptly, efficiently, and effectively, and consider the information provided by SSA in establishing effective dates.

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA has developed a new long-range plan and has received some congressional input. However, this is not a routine planning process, and not all aspects of SSA's current plan have received congressional input.

    Matter: To help sustain the planning process established by Commissioner Hardy and to encourage SSA to follow the long-term plan developed, the appropriate congressional committees should hold periodic hearings on the status of the process and the plan. The committees and SSA should try to agree on the thrust of the long-term plan and the actions and support needed to achieve it. Such agreement would help focus subsequent oversight on progress, problems and their causes, and substantial changes to the plans.

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Legislation has been enacted to make SSA an independent agency as an alternative to solving the problems created by the lack of stable leadership. The term of Commissioner was set at 6 years.

    Matter: To provide more stable leadership for SSA, Congress should enact legislation fixing the term of the Commissioner of Social Security at 8 years. In the case of removal, the President should be required to inform Congress of the reasons. In addition, Congress should periodically monitor SSA progress in solving its managerial and operational problems. If, in the long term, Congress believes the recommended actions are insufficient, it should consider other organizational alternatives to administer social security programs.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: More awards have been granted, and the award amounts have been increased over the past 2 years. In addition, SSA has an ongoing focus on improving the work climate and has paid more attention to employee concerns about the work environment over the past 3 years.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) reassess the emphasis given to initial claims statistics by managers to determine whether changes would be appropriate to achieve a more balanced approach to all important work loads and other objectives; (2) more clearly define and set objectives for the SSA goal of maintaining a favorable work climate, include such objectives in SES contracts and merit pay plans, and systematically measure progress; and (3) improve the effectiveness of employee recognition efforts by allocating a portion of award funds to all operational components on the basis of unit performance, and emphasizing to supervisors and managers, through training or other means, the importance of prompt recognition of employee contributions.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA has an agency-wide effort underway to improve the policy development process. More user surveys are planned to determine the success of the project. SSA actions have resulted in reducing the time to issue regulations, and SSA periodically surveys staff on POMS improvements and uses this information to further make POMS user-friendly.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) periodically evaluate whether the new process is reducing the time it takes to finalize regulations and implement further improvements if warranted; and (2) periodically survey operating personnel to determine the extent to which improvements in the Program Operations Manual System (POMS) have been effective.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Managers are being held accountable for POMS requirements and plans developed to improve POMS.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) through Senior Executive Service (SES) contracts, hold appropriate managers involved in the regulation development process accountable for complying with the new rulemaking procedures; and (2) identify underlying causes of Program Operations Manual System (POMS) problems, develop specific plans for correcting them and, through SES contracts and merit pay plans, hold managers accountable for implementing agreed-upon actions.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A new set of budget guidelines was developed and published in November 1987 and December 1988. Managers are being held accountable through their performance review process for adhering to the new budget policy and time frames. No progress has been made on establishing work standards.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should take the following actions to improve budget development in SSA: (1) expand on the May 1986 permanent agencywide annual budget instructions covering all components in SSA to adhere to the objectives set forth in the November 1984 proposal submitted by the Acting Deputy Commissioner for Management and Assessment; (2) hold managers accountable for adherence to budget policy and requirements; and (3) establish standards for the amount of time SSA should take to complete its various work loads and use those standards in developing the SSA budget for operating staff. These standards could be based on engineering studies or on actual times required by better-performing offices to do the work. Any adjustments to the standards should be based on careful study reflecting the appropriate time needed to implement operational changes.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA is developing a coordinated SSA-wide planning system. It has established a high-level planning staff and developed a long-range plan. SSA has also developed component plans. The plan is being used to guide component planning, but it will take time to complete the projects and plans essential for ADP development.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) develop and implement agencywide, long- and short-term operational plans; (2) consult with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Office of Management and Budget, congressional committees, states, client groups, and others as to how SSA should do business in the future, as part of the process of formulating a long-term plan; and (3) use the plan to guide policy, budget, and automatic data processing (ADP) systems decisions and hold managers accountable for adhering to it.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA formalized the process through its Executive Secretariat. Decisionmaking guides have been revised.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should maintain for significant decisions a formal and structured decisionmaking process that sets forth: (1) who can make what decisions; (2) the documentation that must be prepared, including analyses of alternatives and risks; (3) how and when the views of knowledgeable or affected employees and outside independent experts should be obtained; and (4) how decisions should be communicated to employees who need to know.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA established a chief financial officer. SSA has published its first audited financial statements covering fiscal year (FY) 1987 and included them in its 1987 Annual Report. The Inspector General approved the statements.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) establish a controller or comparable position to consolidate and enhance the importance of financial management at SSA; (2) require SSA deputy commissioners to work with the controller to improve SSA financial management systems and to perform Financial Integrity Act reviews of SSA benefit payment processes; (3) direct the controller to work together with the Social Security Board of Trustees to develop an auditable set of financial statements for social security programs; and (4) work with the Inspector General, Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), and the Department of the Treasury to arrange for an independent audit of the financial statements.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  8. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA placed the Office of Systems under the Deputy Commissioner for Operations, and moved the Office of Assessment from the Deputy for Management to the Chief Financial Officer. The Commissioner established an Executive Secretariat to help formalize and guide the decisionmaking process, elevate efforts to develop better management information, and develop a tracking system.

    Recommendation: For the longer term, the Commissioner of Social Security should consider the major changes needed in SSA headquarters and field structure to best facilitate: (1) making decisions and policy; (2) developing and implementing plans; (3) improving program and functional accountability; (4) reducing levels of review; and (5) establishing clearer delineation between line and staff.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA established a central planning staff in the Office of the Commissioner, an Office of the Chief Financial Officer, and an SSA General Manager position.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should improve the SSA organizational structure so that it is better able to sustain efforts to address problems when confronted by the changing priorities and agendas of different commissioners. The Commissioner should take the following short-term actions to improve accountability for SSA programs and major initiatives: (1) establish a general deputy commissioner, or comparable position, preferably from the career service, to share responsibility for managing SSA daily operations and to enhance stability during transitions in commissioners; and (2) maintain a small central policy, planning, and management staff, reporting to the Commissioner's office, to facilitate agencywide planning, monitor and integrate component planning and activities, and oversee performance of agencywide issues. This staff should also facilitate effective coordination with other agencies.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  10. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Recent commissioners have made a long-term commitment to remain at the agency and have focused on solving the agency's operational problems.

    Recommendation: In recognition of the critical importance of social security to the nation and the problems SSA has experienced with instability of leadership and frequent changes in direction, especially regarding computer systems modernization, the President should, when nominating persons to fill the commissioner's position, focus on individuals who: (1) view the position as one requiring long-term commitment; (2) are inclined to focus attention on resolving significant long-standing problems; (3) are comfortable adhering to long-term operational and computer systems modernization plans, unless major changes are justified and concurred in by the Secretary of Health and Human Services and reported to the appropriate congressional committees; and (4) are committed to the programs' goals and to providing high-quality, efficient service to social security recipients.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President

  11. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Recent commissioners are appointed on a full-time basis.

    Recommendation: In recognition of the critical importance of social security to the nation and to the problems SSA has experienced with instability of leadership and frequent changes in direction, especially regarding computer systems modernization, the President should limit, to the extent possible, the appointment of Commissioners of Social Security on an acting basis.

    Agency Affected: Executive Office of the President

  12. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA has completed a business plan for the agency that does not specify how and where SSA will provide services to the public in the future.

    Recommendation: To help gain better managerial and technical control over SSA computer operations and modernization efforts, the Commissioner of Social Security should complete those aspects of a long-term operational plan that set forth how SSA will deliver services in the future, and revise the modernization strategy to be consistent with the service delivery needs. Managers should be held accountable for adhering to the modernization strategy unless changes are fully justified.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  13. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: New policies and guidance on ADP decisionmaking appear to meet GAO objectives.

    Recommendation: To help gain better managerial and technical control over SSA computer operations and modernization efforts, the Commissioner of Social Security should establish an effective process for making key ADP decisions, which is based upon thorough analysis of mission needs, priorities, alternatives, and their costs and benefits and the effect on other aspects of the Systems Modernization Plan. SSA should continue to routinely obtain advice on major decisions from well-qualified, independent technical consultants knowledgeable about SSA programs, operations, and ADP environment.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  14. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Project control and integration systems were established.

    Recommendation: To help gain better managerial and technical control over SSA computer operations and modernization efforts, the Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) expeditiously establish effective project control and integration for the modernization effort, including more effective use of an integration contractor to help integrate Systems Modernization Plan projects and make the transition from the old to the new computer system; and (2) reassess whether the location of the ADP procurement review function within the Office of Systems provides sufficient internal control over this process.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  15. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA has developed more rigorous selection criteria for the most prevalent 35 field management and supervisory positions, including the operations supervisor (OS) position. SSA is also rewriting the job standard for the claims representative position to upgrade its pay grade. If approved, this will directly affect the grade of the OS position as well.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should reassess SSA selection practices for supervisors to minimize the selection of employees who do not have the appropriate skills and abilities for, or who do not fully understand, the duties and responsibilities of the job. In addition, the Commissioner should reassess the structure of the operations supervisor position to determine how more emphasis can be placed on making it more rewarding and attractive.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  16. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA has begun to plan for turnover in executive and mid-level manager positions. SSA has designed a three-tiered management development program and has implemented the first two tiers. Implementation of tier 3 (executive training) has been delayed indefinitely by HHS due to the budget crisis. SSA has also acted to upgrade its overall training program and increased its staff development programs.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) determine what senior- and mid-level manager positions will likely have to be filled over the next several years, the adequacy of the existing pool of available candidates, and the specific recruitment and development changes needed so that SSA will have enough qualified candidates to fill future vacant positions; (2) establish a formal program to identify and develop managers at all levels of the organization; (3) determine how SSA can make staff more aware of requirements and availability of training for new supervisors and managers and the benefits that accrue from fulfilling the current training curriculum; and (4) develop a training program to enhance the knowledge, skills, and abilities of lower level staff to assume future supervisory and management positions. Such a program could be similar to the training program SSA now has for newly promoted or assigned supervisors and managers.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  17. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA is pursuing a pilot project to enhance salaries of operations supervisors and is revising its job classification standards to provide opportunities for freer movement of field employees to other field or headquarters locations. Award funds have been substantially increased in lieu of promotions.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should assess what can be done to address employee concerns about diminishing advancement opportunities, such as restructuring jobs or reevaluating grade structures for employees assuming greater or more complex responsibilities as a result of increased computerization and shifting of responsibilities among units.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  18. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Acceptable progress is being made to improve communications. SSA held nationwide management forums with its supervisors in 1988 and plans to hold more in 1989. SSA has published the actions it plans to take on recommendations made at the forums.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) improve communications with employees on major changes planned or underway, their benefits and possible adverse effects on employees, actions planned or being taken to address these problems, and progress being made, giving priority to better informing employees on more specifics about staff reductions and systems modernization; (2) as part of her initiative to improve communication with employees, further encourage managers and supervisors to solicit employees' advice on SSA-wide changes needed or how to best deal with various changes; and (3) reassess SES contracts and merit pay plans to see that work production goals give consideration to the time employees need to learn new techniques during Systems Modernization Plan implementation.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  19. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: While SSA has established performance standards for certain services--i.e., address changes--there is no overall agency measurement of the timeliness of these changes from the time of initial client request. Such measures are needed to guide agency activities in regard to ADP modernization, service delivery, and staff and manager accountability. SSA plans to improve notices to the public, but continues to experience difficulties due to slow, manual processes in its field offices. Also, the agency has not worked systematically to identify and resolve field office problems associated with serving the medicare population. SSA has closed out tracking this recommendation.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) establish national performance standards and measures for important services, such as address changes and services to Medicare beneficiaries; (2) hold managers accountable for meeting performance standards; (3) consider what additional actions are necessary to improve notices sent to the public and SSA ability to respond to recipient questions, specifically expediting necessary computer system improvements, holding employees and supervisory personnel more accountable for notice quality, and determining the extent to which SSA field offices have sufficient information to explain notices to recipients; and (4) more systematically identify field office problems in serving Medicare beneficiaries and promptly develop resolutions. The Commissioner should seek assistance from the Secretary of Health and Human Services, if necessary.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  20. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Commissioners have not made a commitment to improve productivity through the use of performance standards. Instead, the Commissioners have used total quality management as a tool to bring about greater efficiency.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should take the following actions to enhance productivity, without diminishing the organization's strong commitment to providing high-quality service to the public: (1) improve SSA focus on productivity by establishing more specific expectations for efficiency in Senior Executive Service (SES) contracts and merit pay plans as a basis for gauging performance (regional and local variations can be recognized where justified); (2) require the use of work measurement data and periodic cost reports for all SSA cost centers, such as regional, area, and district offices, to identify targets of opportunity for improved efficiency and cost-effectiveness; (3) allocate staff resources to similar units, district/branch offices and program service centers, on the basis of performance expectations; and (4) develop and implement strategies for addressing external factors that could impede improved efficiency.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  21. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A management information policy and plan was developed in 1990, commensurate with SSA long-range plan. SSA also intensified its efforts to improve MI data bases and appointed a data administrator as the focal point for developing and overseeing MI policies. However, SSA has abandoned its policy and automated system for assessing its operational plan and translating this plan into individual milestones and standards for SES performance. SSA tracking of this recommendation is now closed.

    Recommendation: To help gain better management control over management information, the Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) develop a comprehensive management information policy commensurate with the agency long-range operational plan; (2) establish performance standards and measures that are based on the goals and objectives in the operational plan; (3) develop future management information requirements based on the modernized computer system; and (4) intensify efforts to improve SSA databases and establish an SSA-wide focal point for overseeing and integrating SSA management information and database activities, including reviews and evaluations.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  22. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA has completed its long-range business plan for how it wants to conduct business. This was needed to guide development of information systems planning. More needs to be done to address software problems and to automate manual operations.

    Recommendation: Because SSA will be dependent on its inefficient existing systems for a longer time because of major delays in redesigning its new system, the Commissioner of Social Security should also reexamine the current allocation of resources and priorities established for maintaining and improving the existing system and redesigning the new one. This reexamination should focus on: (1) developing a clear picture of how the new system will be implemented, including how system components will be integrated, how SSA will make the transition from the existing system to the new system, and when major redesigned system components will be operational; and (2) assessing the effect that problems in the existing system, such as the inefficient software and manual operations, are having on service to the public. Such an assessment should include an estimate of the resources and time that would be required to correct the problems in relation to when the redesigned system will be operational.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  23. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA has conducted two agencywide surveys of employee job satisfaction and morale. The effects on systems employees are undetermined.

    Recommendation: To help gain better managerial and technical control over SSA computer operations and modernization efforts, the Commissioner of Social Security should periodically survey systems staff morale, particularly regarding organizational and management problems perceived as contributing to low morale, to determine whether improvements have resulted.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  24. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A technically proficient manager has been assigned to run the systems organization.

    Recommendation: To help gain better managerial and technical control over SSA computer operations and modernization efforts, the Commissioner of Social Security should designate a qualified technical manager to lead and be accountable for the SSA modernization effort.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  25. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: A formal inventory of ADP staff resources has been completed and is used to determine staff and training needs.

    Recommendation: To help gain better managerial and technical control over SSA computer operations and modernization efforts, the Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) identify the number, type, and qualifications of automatic data processing (ADP) personnel needed to carry out the modernization program and maintain and improve the current systems; and (2) take steps to obtain the necessary skills.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  26. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Software standards were issued and a group was established to monitor compliance.

    Recommendation: To help gain better managerial and technical control over SSA computer operations and modernization efforts, the Commissioner of Social Security should: (1) accelerate the completion of software development standards and implementation of effective enforcement mechanisms; (2) not begin software design work until sufficient work has been completed on functional requirements and systems users approve the requirements; and (3) enhance controls over user changes to functional requirements after software design has begun.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

 

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