The GAO Report

GAO: SSA is an Agency without a Plan

Commissioner Astrue’s management of SSA was the subject of a GAO report issued in January 2009. The report notes that, in fiscal year 2008, SSA’s approximately 1,300 field offices provided service to about 44 million customers. But over the last several years, GAO noted, “staffing reductions have challenged field offices’ ability to manage work while continuing to deliver quality customer service.” The GAO report makes the following points:

  • Problematic staff reductions. Cuts to staff have made it difficult for the agency to provide proper services to American retirees and disabled workers. Between 2005 and 2008, GAO said, the number of staff in field offices dropped 4.4 percent. As a result, during that time, there was a three percent drop in SSA’s overall customer satisfaction rating, from 84 percent to 81 percent. Moreover, the staffing declines have “resulted in customers waiting longer to be served and difficulties for field offices in answering calls from customers.”
  • Astrue has no strategy. SSA, said the GAO, “does not currently have a detailed plan to address future service delivery needs.” While noting that Commissioner Astrue has discussed his “strategic plan” with the GAO, the agency commented: “While the plan includes the goal of significantly expanding the use of electronic services, it is not clear how this will mitigate SSA’s increasing workload.” As a result, GAO recommended that SSA “develop a service delivery plan that describes how it will deliver quality service in the future while managing growing work demands and constrained resources.” That plan, it said, must establish standards for field office waiting times and phone service that don’t exist now. In his response to the GAO, Commissioner Astrue refused to accept this recommendation.
  • Drastically reduced services. In 17 of the 21 field offices visited by GAO, managers and staff said that long waiting times were among the top customer complaints. One recent survey of field offices found that 51 percent of customers that called 48 randomly selected offices had one or more calls that had gone unanswered. But according to GAO, “because SSA based its results only on customers who were ultimately able to get through to the field offices, the actual percentage of customers that had unanswered calls was likely even higher.”
  • More stress for SSA employees, to the detriment of retirees. As a result of the changes at SSA, staff at some offices visited by GAO said they have less time to spend with customers, “potentially leading to mistakes and also limiting the ability of staff to ensure that customers fully understand their options and benefits.” That, in turn, has increased the stress on SSA employees. GAO asked 153 SSA employees at 21 offices to rate their stress levels they experienced trying to complete their work in a “timely manner,” and 65 percent reported feeling stress to a “great” or “very great” degree. The stress, GAO said, was felt most acutely by office managers, 74 percent of whom described high levels of stress. Moreover, the workload pressures have “led to cutbacks in the amount of time allocated for training and mentoring new staff,” while SSA has reduced the number of continuing disability reviews and SSI redeterminations that are conducted to ensure that disability beneficiaries are paid the correct amounts.

To read the full GAO Report, click here.


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