Oral Histories

Bob Bynum in Austin

Bob Bynum during his oral history interview. SSA History Archives.

This is part of the SSA Oral History Interview series. Today we are interviewing Robert P. "Bob" Bynum. The interviewer is Larry DeWitt and the interview is taking place at the L. B. J. School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas in Austin on May 6, 1996.

Bob Bynum Oral History

Interviewer: Bob one of the things that strikes me about your career is the extraordinary range of jobs that you had in the Agency over the years, starting from your beginning job in a field office and going all the way to the Deputy Commissioner job. So I want to have you walk us through your career and tell us about the jobs you've had and the issues you've encountered during that time and what sticks out in your mind as important at each of those stages in your career. We will just use that as the structure for our interview.

Bynum: Okay, that will be fine.

Interviewer: So, if I've got it right, you started with SSA in January 1948.

Bynum: That's right, almost on New Year's day. Almost on New Year's day in the Montgomery, Alabama Social Security office, as a Field Assistant. I guess I was one of the last of those too, because shortly following my entry in 1948 we began to bring all the people in as Claims Reps or Claims Assistants.

Interviewer: What did the Field Assistant do?

Bynum: The Field Assistant was the person who was at work outside the office.

I was fortunate enough to be hired by Cecil Simpson, who was an old-time manager in Social Security offices in the Atlanta Region, and I enjoyed my time with him and with that office very much.

I also had a remarkable opportunity, when I became a Field Representative, to come to Washington for a year, for an entire year, in what then called the Civil Service Commission, in the Junior Management Intern Program. There were five of us from SSA in the program. The Civil Service Commission sponsored the program and we were able work in an whole series of different organizations within the Federal Government. We went to seminars and did a number of other things. Also, the five Social Security participants in that particular program started one of the first "communes" in this country. We rented a house out on Connecticut Avenue, the five of us, and lived together during the entire 12 months that we were in the program. Two of the individuals were married. I was, and one of the others, and the other three were single individuals. So we started the first commune in this country.

Interviewer: Did you spend all of your time in that developmental program in Washington getting trained by the Civil Service Commission, or were you in Baltimore at SSA at all, or both?

Bynum: Both. It varied, just depending on the individual, as to how long you spend at different agencies. We would actually go and talk to the appropriate person--whether the person was head of the agency, or whoever--about working there, about getting an assignment with them for a month, or two months, or three months. I worked with the Department of Agriculture, the Forestry Service and the Civil Service Commission itself. I had a brief assignment in Social Security in the Bureau of Old Age and Survivors Insurance, as it was called back then, in Baltimore. The other participants from Social Security had similar experiences. I have always felt that particular experience early in my career gave me an opportunity to see how the Government worked across-the-board, not just at my own Agency, and it was really very significant in terms of my lifetime career with the Social Security Administration. It gave me a breath of knowledge, in looking at how other organizations did their work, that I think proved very beneficial to me as I went along.

Bynum and Pogge sitting at desk
Bob Bynum in 1950 meets with Oscar Pogge, Director of the Bureau of Old-Age and Survivors Insurance. SSA History Archives.

Interviewer: Now before we go on past that point, I want to take you back to Montgomery and to that job in the field office. That was before the 1950 Amendments?

Bynum: Correct.

Interviewer: So we hadn't done the expansions of coverage that happened in 1950. What kind of work were you doing in 1948? What was the major task for a Field Assistant?

Bynum: The Field Assistant, or the Field Representative as they would eventually be called, actually had three primary responsibilities. We were public information experts. We visited the newspapers in the 14-county area that the Montgomery office had, we talked on the radio, in the different communities that had radio stations. We also were the traveling claims-takers at the Contact Stations. The Contact Stations were places where the representatives from the office would go perhaps once a week or every two weeks, some of them just once a month, and accept applications from people who came in and answer other kinds of questions.

Back in those days one of the big things that we did, that I guess began to vanish completely from the picture by the late 1950s, was to chase down--and I mean that literally--employers who were not reporting Social Security wages, who were not paying Social Security taxes, and not reporting employees on Social Security tax returns. That was a major problem during those years following World War II, particularly in the South. Timber workers and people like that just didn't think that was a very good thing that they had to do, that the Government, was requiring them to do. Sometimes they were quite belligerent in that. But anyhow we had the opportunity to do that. Thank goodness we didn't have to collect the tax. We just had to make sure that the employers understood what their reporting responsibilities were. And we learned about those cases primarily from bunches of forms we would get from the Division of the Accounting Operations, which listed unreported and non-reported employers, but also employers who reported names but not Social Security numbers. That would give us leads on the employers and that kind of thing. It was fun work, but it was kind of scary work too, in a way.

Interviewer: I want to ask you something about your early training. We used to bring new employees back to Baltimore and do a training session and one of the things we did in that training session was give a lot of grounding in the philosophy and history in the program-the rationale for social insurance and so on. Did you have that experience?

Bynum: Yes. I had that experience in Baltimore as a matter of fact. Some of the people who hear this in the future may remember Francis McDonald, who headed up the Training Division of the Bureau of Survivors and Old Age Insurance, for many, many years. So I was in Baltimore for a couple of weeks for that kind of experience. Then subsequently, after I had gone back to Montgomery and had opened the first Social Security Office, in Selma, Alabama, as its manager, I went back to Baltimore a couple of times to be an instructor in those same kinds of courses, working with individuals from the Division of Training, which again was a great experience for me early on.

Interviewer: Good. Well that's a perfect segue, because that's what I want to ask you next. After you finished that training course you became the District Manager and opened an office in Selma, Alabama, the first DO in Selma. Tell me about that.

Bynum: It was very interesting. Hugh McKenna, the long-time head of the then Division of Field Operations, and I had made several contacts in one way or another. I was helping with the training program and doing things like that, and I had my assignment in headquarters while I was in the Civil Service Commission training program. Hugh had gotten to know me pretty well and in 1951 or 1952, perhaps 1952, the Bureau proposed opening about 25 new offices around the country. Something happened in the budget process that year, I'm not sure just what, but the same kind of things that continue to happen today, and as it turned out the office in Selma was the only one of the 26 or 27 that was opened and I was selected as the Manager. I have often thought it related to my contacts in Washington, and my connection with Hugh McKenna and the other folks that resulted from my experiences in training and staff development that took place there.

But the experience of opening a new office, Larry, is unique. That again served me in good stead in subsequent years when I became the Director of the Bureau of Field Operations and we were opening several hundred new facilities around the country, I could at least remember all the pain and turmoil I went through when I was doing that in a small community of Selma, Alabama.

Interviewer: How big was that first office?

Bynum: Five people, including the Manager. One Claims Representative, two clerical people, a Field Rep., and a Manager. It grew to seven people before I left there a couple of years later, but it served four counties.

Of course, remembering too, that this was just after significant amendments to the Social Security Act were passed that brought self-employed people under coverage, and a number of State and local employees as well. Those people, for the most part, had not yet been employed long enough, or been contributing to the Social Security system to get benefits. So we were spreading the word, the public information word again. But the actual workloads for claims processing and all that had not yet developed, because the coverage was so new and it just had not had time to materialize.

Interviewer: Did you have any issues around compliance, with the extensions of coverage?

Bynum: Oh yes, of course. The same issues as earlier. The self-employed small-business person--whether agriculture, or commercial, or retail-- typically are very independent, quite suspicious of Government. A lot of them didn't think that they needed government imposing its will on them, that they would take care of themselves at whatever age.

One of the interesting things is the fact that the most common criticism, or the most often expressed item of concern today-especially by younger people--is that Social Security will not be there when they get to be 62 or 65 or whatever. That was a big item back in 1950 as well. They "knew" it would not be there. Well, most of those people who knew that, have long since been drawing Social Security payments and many of them have died, and survivors benefits have been paid on their accounts too. But that has been the underlying current that has run through my entire time with the Social Security Administration, which numbered quite a few years.

Opening the office though was a good experience. I was running a Resident Station, as we called them back then, in Selma, which meant I was permanently stationed or located in Selma as a one-person office. I would fill-out the claims in the Resident Station and the processing was done back in the Montgomery field office. From that Resident Station the workloads were developed and the decision to open a new office came from those workloads.

You mentioned early on that we were doing this review in Austin, Texas in connection with the celebration of 30 years of Medicare. I thought so many times of how much the world has changed here in the length of time I worked with Social Security. But the Contact Stations that I maintained, both as a Resident Representative and as a District Manager, were always segregated, waiting rooms had "White Only" signs. Those sorts of things existed back in the early 1950s, and it wasn't just in the South either, it was predominately in the South, but in other parts of the country as well. How much progress that we tend to overlook, I think from time to time, was made in connection with equal rights and equal opportunities.

I guess the point I really want to make in that connection is what a major role Social Security played in bringing about those social changes. I was reminded of that by some of the speakers that we've had here at this Medicare celebration today. My own guess is that some of the things that they talked about being in place 30 years ago-- hospital segregation for example--would not have been broken-down if it had not been for the Medicare program. Because the standards for the Medicare program absolutely required that there be no discrimination and that patients just be placed in the order in which they came in. If that meant in a four-bed ward, two blacks and two whites, then that's the way it had to be. One of the things that we did in the early days of Medicare--we are skipping forward quite a distance in the story--was to go to those hospitals, those places where there was any rumor reaching us, or any allegation reaching us, that they were not maintaining an integrated facility, and inspect, actually walk through the hospital. We would talk to the staff and listen to some of their complaints and all of that kind of thing too. The Medicare business became so significant in terms of the overall economic success of the hospital, particularly as Medicare began to take off, that those kinds of changes that had to be made, were made.

And let me just back-up, while we are on that same line, because that also happened with our Contact Stations and with our offices in the South. The person from whom I probably learned the most, Hugh McKenna, decreed--and this would have been before Medicare, in the early 1960s--that we would no longer serve any community that did not provide a completely integrated facility, whether was the Courthouse, or whatever, as long as they had discriminating signs. I was working for McKenna in Baltimore at the time, heading the Management Branch of the Division, I guess I was an Executive Officer at the time. Anyhow, we actually decreed that we would absolutely not put a Social Security representative in non-integrated facilities. We gave them three months to comply. In my former service areas in the South we only had three, as I recall, that we had to close of about 650 that were listed as having some discriminatory practices, whether in the restrooms, or in the eating facilities, or in any of those kind of things. There were a number of others in other parts of the country too, it wasn't just in the deep South.

Interviewer: Approximately what year are you talking about?

Bynum: I'm talking about 1961 or 1962 or 1963, I don't know.

Interviewer: Even before we had the Civil Rights Act?

Bynum: Oh yes.

Interviewer: We were doing this on our own?

Bynum: We were. And we had a lot of criticism from some of our sister Federal agencies. As a matter of fact, the Internal Revenue Service in two or three locations-and one of them was the Atlanta District of the of the Internal Revenue Services--said, "Hey you're just ruining our reputation, ruining our image by the actions that you are calling attention too." But it brought about the necessary changes, at least in process and procedure, not necessarily in the hearts of men and women. But it brought about the changes that were required.

So again, referring to what we've been talking about at this particular meeting, I couldn't help but reflect on that and also on what Medicare helped to do-to really break down the walls and barriers and bring about much better relationships, with or without the Civil Rights Act. Although Medicare itself is built on the Civil Rights Act, we had that included in the law, but we certainly didn't have that included in the basic Social Security Act to begin with.

Interviewer: All right, let me take you back then to the time when you left Selma and came to Central Office in 1955. You were with the Bureau of District Office Operations (BDOO) in various staff positions for several years?

Bynum: Except it was called the Division of Field Operations then, because the Bureau was still in existence-the Bureau of Old Age and Survivors Insurance.

Interviewer: One of the things that you worked on was some of the planning for the 1956 Amendments, which was the disability program. Tell me a little bit about that what your role was and what was going on in the Agency around the 1956 Amendments.

Bynum: Okay. We were still located in downtown Baltimore. The Division of Accounting Operations was down on the harbor in an old building, the Candler Building. The administrative offices of the Bureau were in the Equitable Building, which is right downtown. And in a couple of the surrounding buildings we had some offices at that point too. My role at that particular point was to head up the training and staff development for the Division Field Operations. Interestingly enough, I was talking with Bill Fullerton--who is here and on the agenda for this meeting-- and Bill was one of the people who was assigned to me, one of the five who were working on the training and staff development for all the field offices around the country at that time. We were as busy as can be with all kinds of training activities-bringing people in from the field for the kind of training that we talked about earlier. But also for training the trainers, if you will, in connection with the disability amendments, like the "disability freeze," which we had to begin with. You are not old enough to know about that, but you've read about it.

Interviewer: Yes, I've read about it.

Bynum: For a couple of years the law simply provided that if a person became disabled then we would not count the time that he was disabled against him or her in terms of calculating his benefits or in terms of calculating the insured status. So it really was just a freeze. Then it didn't take Congress but a couple of years or so to realize that was not really doing all that much so disability benefits were passed--by a one-vote margin, I believe, or something like that. And off we went on that particular program as well.

At that time we created a separate division for Disability, DDO, the Division of Disability Operations. Art Hess-who subsequently became Deputy Commissioner of SSA and has been very prominent in Social Security matters over the years--was made the head of that particular operation, I believe. We spent a great deal of time, at the Headquarters level, trying to cope with the changes that were brought about by the disability program. Meanwhile, we still had new areas of coverage, that we talked about earlier--the self-employed, State and local government employees. Professionals finally came in, doctors, and attorneys and others like that.

Keep in mind, too, that we had just moved in the early 1950s--really about the time I moved from Selma, Alabama into Baltimore--we just moved from what was essentially a paper-record process of all the earnings records of people around the country, to the early stages of the use of the computer. IBM actually had a facility at Social Security Headquarters where they were working on their processes.

Interviewer: Like a test-bed?

Bynum: Yes, like a test-bed, that's right. In that day we probably had about as sophisticated a record-keeping and computer system and telecommunications system as any organization. Maybe the CIA or some of the others had something a little better, I don't know. But I think the organization moved along very rapidly in that respect--and again I am jumping around--but when we built the new facility in Baltimore to house the computer process and all the records processes it was a five or six or seven story building and all of the space was really needed to house the equipment and the people. It is my understanding that now most of that building is used for other purposes because of the enhancements that have been made by the industry in terms of telecommunications and record-keeping and all of that.

Interviewer: So when we put in that first electronic system that was a major event?

Bynum: Oh yes, it was.

Interviewer: Even traumatic in some ways for people, because it was such a change of how we had done business and what our procedures had been. Is that right?

Bynum: That is absolutely correct. It did not affect, in a real sense, those of us who were in the field operations part of the business nearly as much as it did those in the Divisions of Accounting Operations where the records were maintained. Even after the computer was the basis for maintaining those records, out in our field offices you simply got the wage record and you could calculate it there--the benefits of the individual--and send it back to what was then the Division of Claims Control, later called Area Offices and Program Services Centers, for them to calculate or recalculate and make sure that the field offices had made the right decisions and made the right calculations. And a lot of the record-keeping that we did to measure the quality of work performed by the field offices was based on those "write backs" that you got from your Area Office, or Payment Center, as they were called at that time. If you got lots of those back, then you knew that something was going wrong and some added training was needed in a facility or in a group of facilities, or indeed in all facilities. Sometimes you had to go to the Division of Claims Control, as they subsequently became known, and argue-out issues with them, because they simply were interpreting things a little bit differently from what our training materials had said to the field offices.

I filled several jobs after the one heading up the training operation there in the Division of Field Operations. I took over the budget shop. In fact, I think, probably even today, that I am the only Budget Chief of the field operations that ever got cited by Congress for over-spending our budget. That is a dubious claim to fame.

Interviewer: I can't resist that one. Tell us about that?

Bynum: Well, I always maintained, and I know this is true, that it was not my negligence or anything else that accounted for this. I took over the Budget Office about six weeks before the end of the fiscal year. The previous individual, who served as the Section Manager, was long since gone. He went to an office in New York to manage. The die was already cast. So while I was the one cited--Hugh McKenna and I were the ones cited--it really came as a big surprise to me, because I was too new on that job to know what was going on, but the damage had already been done. It was the source of some embarrassment to a lot of people around there that we had over-spent our budget. At that time we didn't get a composite budget in the sense that we've gotten in the last 25 or 30 years. It was a budget that was broken down by Division and each Division Director. . .

Interviewer: So DFO over-spent it's budget, not the Agency?

Bynum: DFO, the one that I was responsible for, over-spent its budget. So if you go back and look, I'm on record.

Interviewer: So that's one of your claims to fame?

Bynum: That's one of my claims to fame. And I guess at that point I didn't know enough about the whole process to worry that much about it. But it sure did embarrass, Oscar Pogge, who was probably still around as the head of the entire Bureau, and Hugh McKenna. They were really the ones that got cited, but my name was mentioned over and over again in the citation too.

Interviewer: By the way, for the 1956 Amendments and disability, did we expand the number of offices to accommodate that? I know we did when Medicare came, but did disability cause any expansion in the field offices?

Bynum: Not very much. There was the usual process of adding offices, which we did almost every year, maybe two or three, perhaps 10 or 15, but no, there was no real expansion at that stage.

Interviewer: At some point in this process, in this period from 1955 to 1967, while you were in DFO, you became the first Executive Assistant in DFO?

Bynum: Yes, I think in about 10 or 11 of the jobs that I filled in my career, I was the first person in those particular jobs, and this was one of them. The Bureau, and we were a Bureau at that time, was headed by Hugh McKenna, whose name I have mentioned so many times already in this discussion, and Elmer "Pinky" Lupton who was the Deputy. We had, I believe, four Divisions, because we were operating under the Bureau structure. So we had a Division of Management, and Programs, and so on. So we decided, it was decided, that with all the staff there, and with the added staff that we were putting out in the Regions, that the position of Executive Assistant was needed to help in the front office to make sure that everything was done on a timely basis and all those kind of good things. I reviewed most of the work there that came out of the Divisions and stayed in that job for about, I think about a year-and-a-half, or maybe two, I can't remember exactly. I then became the Chief for the Management Branch at the time when we only had two Branches, or two Divisions within the Bureau. And I served that way for quite a period time.

Bynum seated behind desk

Mr. Bynum at his desk, date unknown. SSA History Archives.

Interviewer: Now one other big event of course during this period was Medicare in 1965, which we've mentioned earlier. How did that impact on BDOO and SSA?

Bynum: Well, of course at that point, all the health insurance business was a part of SSA. By that time we had set up Assistant Regional Commissioners in the 10 Regions. So we had a different structure out in the field with the Bureau of District Office Operations having one of the units out there, the Regional Representative for District Operations. So we organized around that kind new structure.

I happened to be in Atlanta at the Regional Conference at the time the reorganization was brought into place. Bob Ball called me and told me that he would like for me to make the announcement to the Regional Conference of what the new changes would be and what the setup was to be. So he went over them with me and I announced it to the Conference. And there were one or two people there who no longer had Bureaus for offices, they were abolished under the reorganized structure, which made for a little bit of excitement at the time too.

But we did a lot of the work in connection with the coming of Medicare. People signing up for Medicare changed our whole public information thrust to making sure that people did come in and apply for benefits whether they were actually going to retire or not, to be sure that they were eligible for Medicare payments, even if they were still working. We were the only structure that was dealing with Medicare at the time, and we set-up a Bureau of Health Insurance, that was part of this reorganized structure. They set the policy of payments and all that kind of stuff, and worked closely with our Regional people in the field to come up with the carriers and intermediaries that actually handled the Medicare payments in the field. But the District Office was still the only real point of contact for all the issues that Medicare brought to us--for handling all the program responsibilities and any help with claims filing, the whole smear. We were the only presence out there, long before the Health Care Financing Administration was formed.

So we worked closely with the Bureau of Health Insurance. Art Hess helped us get the health insurance program under way, just as he did with the disability program, by heading up that particular Bureau, a name well-known throughout Social Security in the early history, and later history too, as far as that is concerned. But in any event, everyone of these things that happened put us in an operating mode-- us being all of Social Security--where you could no longer make your own decisions. In the glory days of the field division of SSA-- when I first went to Baltimore-- for other than the claims policy issuances, which were in a Claims Manual, you were your own boss--I mean you didn't have all these other offices and programs and concerns to coordinate with and to work with. You made the decisions and you sent out the directives and those things were done or not done.

Interviewer: Let me see if I understand, because I think this is an important point. In that early time, the BFO was the heart of the Agency, in the sense that you were driving both the policy and the operation. It was more than just an operating component.

Bynum: Yeah, it really was. I'm sure in the organizational manuals of that day it was an operating component. But you had three principle players at that time, outside of the Bureau Director, Oscar Pogge and company. You had BFO, and you had the Division of Claims Control, which was the Payments Centers; and then you had the record-keeping operation, which was DAO, the Division of Accounting Operations. There were some other staff offices. But essentially, what we said went for the field operations; and what the people in the Division of Claims Control said went for the Payment Centers, the area offices; and what Joe Fay--who was with the organization from the very beginning, who set up the Division of Accounting Operations--what he and his staff said, controlled the record-keeping operations there. As we added disability, as we added health insurance, as we added Supplemental Security Income, all these other programs as they came along this just made the need for--the absolute necessity, just not the need, but the absolute necessity--for coordination and working with other Divisions and other Bureaus, as they were subsequently called. It was just absolutely necessary.

Interviewer: Two points about the Conference. First, let me make sure that when Medicare came in we did expand the number of offices, is that right?

Bynum: Yes we did. Large numbers of offices were added at that point. And then again when SSI came in we went up another bunch.

headshot of Bynum
Bob Bynum in official Agency portrait, 11/5/69. SSA History Archives.

Interviewer: We're going to talk about SSI later. But let me ask you a general question about of the management challenges SSA has faced over the years. It seems to me that in the initial implementation of the 1950 Amendments, the expansions of coverage in the early 1950s, the disability program, and Medicare, that the Agency responded to them successfully and that we were able to accommodate those challenges and sort of rise to the occasion and that our reputation was more or less untarnished. That changed with SSI, we stumbled with SSI, uniquely for the first time, in a way that we had not stumbled with disability and Medicare. Is that accurate in your view?

Bynum: It certainly is, Larry. I received a Distinguished Service Award from the Secretary of the Department, Caspar "Cap" Weinberger. I was head of the Bureau of Field Operations at that time, including all the District Offices. I received the highest award that the Department can give, for the successful implementation of SSI. I have used that as a case study.

Since retirement I've done some work for the Office of Personnel Management in their Executive Development Seminar Center out in Denver, where high-level federal executives come in for two or three weeks. And I have served as the Father Confessor, the teacher, the person running some of those seminars. And I've used that particular episode as a case-study in asking these federal executives, and would-be federal executives, a variety of questions about what happened and what went wrong. And after we've had that half-day of discussions, I tell them just what I've told you. That here in a special ceremony, two or three of us received this highest Commendation that you could get from the Department, and yet you characterized it exactly correctly. It wasn't a fiasco by any stretch of the imagination, but those were very, very difficult days for us in Social Security, for two reasons.

We had built our confidence on all those other things you mentioned. We could do it and do the job right, which had been what was happening all along. So perhaps we were a little bit too cocky, and I don't mean just us in the Field Division, I mean SSA as a whole, and indeed the Department. That was one issue.

The major issue though, was that in the legislation passed by Congress we did not get quite the clout that we really needed in terms of dealing with the States. You know this, but maybe for historical purposes, some of the people would not. We didn't just setup the SSI program. What we did was bring in 50 State programs, into a single system. And the records kept by some of the States were atrocious. None of them were very good, and all of them had to be brought into this single new system--which had different criteria and different standards, and different payment levels in the individual States--into this single Federal system.

On top of that, we have particular problems with a number of the States, including some of the very largest, like the State of California Cap Weinberger was our Secretary at that point, and he'd come out of California, and he knew something about the complexity of the situation out there. I remember he met with us, with Bob Ball and several of us, just before we went "live" with SSI to see whether or not we really wanted to. We had the option of delaying for a year the inclusion of any of the States if we felt that was necessary. We said, "No, we can handle it." But Cap was concerned about that at the time. He wasn't so sure that we could, I guess. And besides some of the State people had pressured him a bit too about whether or not we were ready to do all these kind of things.

But anyhow, the complexity of the 50 programs that we brought in and had to meld them into a single one; the inadequacy of the their records; and frankly, the antagonism among the States--not all of them, some of them were very glad to get rid of the job, but a number of the States, we were convinced, went out of their way to make the transition difficult, not easy, but difficult--and it was indeed difficult. We had hundreds of thousands of people paid the wrong amounts--generally overpayments. And all kinds of other things, checks not getting out on time. And we set up systems to rush checks out for all of that.

The Bureau of Data Processing--as it was called by that time, the old Division of Accounting Operations--simply could not cope with the record-keeping requirements that were laid on them as a result of bringing these 50 plans in and making them into one plan.

We set up a Bureau of Supplemental Security Income (BSSI). Sumner Whittier, who had some experience in the Federal Government and otherwise with these kinds of programs, was named the Director of that Bureau. Their role was to simply develop policy. Our role in the Field Operation, which I was heading up at that time, and in the Data Processing Operation, was to implement it, to make it work.

Now of course we took hundreds of thousands of new applications, because our rules were much more liberal than the rules had been in some of the States. We also at the same time agreed--in about 16 or 18 of the States--to handle their supplemental payments. Because, again using California as an example, their payment level was considerably higher, as a State program, than the new Federal SSI program provided. And so law provided for us to take on the role of paying the State supplement in addition to the other benefits we were paying under the Federal law.

So all of that put together, just made for a very, very hectic two years. We had the media in almost all of the time. I know one of the writers-- I think that he was hoping to win some kind of a prize, Pulitzer or otherwise--called several of the "Barons of Woodlawn"--which was where the Central Office was located, and all those decrees that we put out and all that kind of good stuff.

It was an exciting time. It was a fun time too. But it was exciting and very frustrating too for many of our Field Managers and Field Office staffs. I tried to get out to as many of those as I could during those days and literally for the first time we had to hire guards for some of the offices for crowd control.

For example, I went into New York city, the downtown office. They were just over-run with people testing the system, you know filing a claim thinking "oh hey, we can make it under this one." Several of our managers had some real serious health problems, because again, they had previously been able to cope with everything and now they couldn't.

Bob Ball, who had been our Commissioner for a number of years and the recognized expert on Social Security issues--not just in this country, I think, but around the world--was relieved of his position by President Nixon, who called in all of the political appointments that were made when he began his second term. He just decided to replace them, quite a number of them, and Bob Ball did not continue. So we had a new crew of people coming in, and that--up until today--became a point of difficulty, I think, for all of the senior staff and even the other staffs within Social Security.

Interviewer: The turn-over in leadership?

Bynum: The turn-over in leadership, yes. All of them were very smart people. In fact, that might have made it worse, I don't know. Because they would come in with at least some preconceived notions of what needed to be done. It reminded you a little bit of the Freshmen Republicans in Congress this year. I mean they came in with a very definite push to get certain things done, and I'm sure that some of these individuals in talking with the President had their missions outlined for them; you need to do this or you need to do that, or you need to do the other. And so that added to the confusion of the whole process. Fortunately, at the second level below the Commissioner--and the Commissioner at that point was the only political appointee we had--below that level we had, for the most part, experienced people who had been with the organization for some period of time.

Let me digress for just a minute. I consider myself particularly fortunate for having come into the organization when I did, and for having the experiences that I had with the first leadership team of Social Security. Many of them were the ones that started the whole "shebang" and were still there. One was Hugh McKenna. Joe Fay, whom I've mentioned. Ewell Bartlett, who headed up the Policy Division and helped set policy. Alvin David. Art Hess, who was around. Just a whole number of people at the top level. Oscar Pogge, whom I mentioned earlier, who had started the Bureau and who had built into the organization a sense that we are in the public service business and we are going to do this job in the way that best benefits the public. They were all still there. I had the opportunity--one of the very few people, really, who is still around--who had the opportunity to serve in a fairly significant role while these people were there to be viewed, with their sense of mission and purpose for the Social Security Administration. And to learn from them, and to listen--just as we are doing with this tape--to listen to their stories about the kinds of things that we had gone through over all the years.

One of the deputies that I had mentioned earlier, Pinky Lupton, had been with the organization from its very beginning. He came out of Kansas and into Headquarters pretty earlier on in the Field Operation. I've said many times that in terms of new ideas and dealing with related issues, Pinky may not have been the most innovative, but boy he knew what wouldn't work from his 20 or 25 years--by the time he became my Deputy, when I became his boss--he knew where we had gone astray and where things went wrong in the past and could counsel on that and was very helpful in that respect. But again, the opportunity to be in that in-between situation, where I had the old experienced heads, and then I, along with two or three others, perhaps, were able to capture that and then to move on and to bring along the people who have subsequently provided the leadership for Social Security, was something just very special.

Interviewer: We need to go back. We skipped a step in your career that I didn't want to skip. So we need to go back to 1967 for a minute when you became the Regional Assistant Commissioner of Atlanta, tell me about that.

Bynum: Yes, the best years of my Social Security life probably. The Regional Assistant Commissioner job and it was subsequently re-titled, while I was there, to Regional Commissioner, which is what it should have been all along. Jack Futterman gave it its title and Jack was for a long time the head of the Division of Management--the Associate Commissioner for Management, depending on where we were at any given time. He came up with a title because he didn't want anybody to usurp the title, if you will, of Commissioner. He thought Regional Commissioner was going to almost be in the same league with the Commissioner of Social Security. So my understanding is that he convinced Bob Ball that we ought to at least be Regional Assistant Commissioners. So that's what I was for about a year or two there, but then for most of the time I spent in Atlanta I was the Regional Commissioner, with responsibility for the eight southern States. I would say the southeastern States, seven or eight thousand employees.

The Regional Commissioner had semi-aligned responsibilities for supervision of the various Regional Representatives--Health Insurance, Disability Insurance, Field, etc., but not really direct line responsibility. They were responsible, first of all, in terms of line direction, from their Bureau head or their Associate Commissioner back in Baltimore. And the Regional Commissioner job was more a coordinating job of making sure that the program worked, you were the person out front in terms of being the spokesman for the organization, you were active in the community of Atlanta and throughout the Southeast, as far as that is concerned, in terms of really being "Mr. Social Security". And you could pick and choose among the things that you felt were most important to do in the areas that you felt you needed to influence the most, because you didn't have that line responsibility.

So it was happy years, and a great staff in Atlanta. Gordon Sherman, the present Regional Commissioner, was one of the persons working for me at the time. I subsequently made him Deputy when the opportunity arose, and then by that time, when I was leaving, I was in a position to make sure that he became the Regional Commissioner following me, and a number of other Regional Commissioners I appointed, of course, at that time. But it really was a great experience.

It was during that time too, or shortly after that time, I was able to select a group, take a delegation, to the Soviet Union, looking at their social security system. And a couple of other places. And to entertain people coming in from other places as well. It was just a very pleasant time. Atlanta was a good city to live in, not nearly as crowded as it's going to be with the Olympics this year.
small photo of Bynum
Bynum in April 1967 around the time of his appointment as Regional Assistant Commissioner in Atlanta. OASIS photo, SSA History Archives.
Interviewer: Okay, so now let's pick back up with your career sequence. You came back to Baltimore in 1971 and ended up being the Director of BDOO, is that right?

Bynum: Yes, that's correct.

Interviewer: Then there was a reorganization in 1975 and we did something with the Bureau structure, not quite what happened later, but you became the Associate Commissioner for Programs, if I am correct?

Bynum: Yes.

Interviewer: What was that 1975 reorganization about? Was that a significant change?

Bynum: It was a very significant change, again relating to some of the things that we've already talked about, with the increased complexity and increased numbers of programs-just the size of the organization, in terms of numbers of facilities, the numbers of employees and all those other kind of things. And the importance of the programs with the Congress, with whoever is occupying the White House at the time-- everything was increased, really, to a significant degree.

So the decision was made to reorganize and to set-up a system where you would have a single Deputy Commissioner, who turned out to be Art Hess at the time. Stan Ross, who was active in social insurance issues and still is active in some of these things around different places, came in. We set-up the new organization and they asked me if I would serve as Associate Commissioner for Program Operations. That included supervision over all the operational aspects, except the Division of Claims Control, and the Program Service Centers. So that meant, I guess at the peak of all of this, there were 70 thousand people reporting up through the lines directly to me. So it was a major reorganization.

A number of staff-type Associate Commissioner offices were established at that time too. So that you had a situation where again there was an increase in the number of staff people at high levels reporting to the Commissioner. That increased the problems of communication across the board, as well as some of the other things some of the earlier reorganizations had done.

And keep in mind too, Larry, that this was at a time when we were still stumbling a bit and struggling a bit, as a result of the SSI implementation, and people--the Congress, occasionally the White House, and the media--were looking at us in a more critical vein than they ever had. Also, the tax rate, or the Social Security contribution rate, as we were prone to call it, rather than tax, had increased, and the average citizen was saying "Hey, you know, it's not $30 a year, which is the most that could be taken from your wages for the first 14 years of Social Security, it's not $30 or $100, it's a $1000 a year or maybe $2000." So they began to be more aware of the impact of Social Security on them; and the beneficiaries, likewise, because they were getting increased benefits. So we were more the focus of scrutiny by all kinds of people at that time than we had ever been before, which made the job even more difficult.

A story I have told lots of people: we had a breakfast meeting over at the Capitol, set up with some members of Congress who were still concerned about the SSI program and some other things as well. I explained to them what all we had done and the fact that we had not lived up to our estimates of the number of SSI recipients that we would be paying at the end of three years. And about everything that the organization had done to get the word out to try to get people to sign up, if they were entitled. One member of Congress, who is still there, stood up at one point, and he was seated most of the time, and pointed his finger at me and said "Mr. Bynum, so long as there is one person anywhere in this country who is entitled to SSI payments and not getting them, you're not doing your job." And I said, "Yes sir." I knew it was no point in arguing with him at that stage of the game.

But anyhow, the scrutiny really did become much, much greater. Our budget, where it had been in millions and hundred of millions, was up in the $2 billion range. And the fact that almost every year-or at least every two or three years--we would improve our administrative costs as a percentage of total intake, was not all that significant to them. Because even so, we are talking about two or three billion dollars, and while we were doing the programs for less than one percent of the intake or the payout, either one, it was still a pretty sizable hunk of money.

Interviewer: You mentioned something that was an interesting aspect of what Stan Ross did in his 1979 reorganization. One of the consequences of what he put in place was that more people were reporting directly to the Commissioner. And I think that he did that deliberately, if I understand him, because he wanted that control. How did you see that work out? Did it pan out the way Stan Ross hoped it would or was it more problematic than you thought?

Bynum: I think it was more problematic. How he tried to compensate for that, Larry, and how he did compensate for it, was to bring in quite a few additional staff people reporting directly to him. They served in a very special relationship with him. Several of them were people he had known all along, maybe from his law firm days, and other times too, but people who knew him and would want to do exactly what he wanted to do. He brought them in to serve as sort of an intermediate point between those of us who were Associate Commissioners and himself. And they took some of the load from him because he trusted them completely--not necessarily in terms of their knowledge of SSA, but their knowledge of what he was attempting to do at the time.

At that time, when Stan came in, I moved from where I was, into a Deputy Commissioner alignment. And the Deputy role that I played at that point was not dealing with operations, but dealing with Program Policy and everything else other than operations.

Interviewer: Before we go to that, there are a couple of other things that I want to cover first. One of the things you said just caused me to think about something. You mentioned earlier the fact that the tradition at SSA was for the Commissioner to be a political appointee, and not many other folks were. What you just described with Stan Ross sounds to me like one of the things that he did was to bring in more political types from the outside and in some sense began a process of more politicizing the Agency than it had been in the past. Is that correct?

Bynum: That is exactly correct, yes. I don't even know what the current situation is.

Interviewer: The trend has not diminished. It continues to this day.

Bynum: I am sure that there are many, many more that are really political appointees, and by definition are. I don't really have a problem with that as long as the individual who comes in is aware enough of the complexity of the program with which he or she is dealing and will surround themselves with people who have experience in running the program. And I think--there may have been one or two exceptions, three or four exceptions over several decades--but I think the people of SSA were so inculcated with the desire to get the job done and to do it right and to serve the public that they wouldn't be that Machiavellian and try to lead the new political appointee astray. They would do all they could to advise and counsel and make sure that things went in the right direction. And sometimes our ideas, those of us that were with the organization a long time, would not be the best ideas and they should be countermanded, no question about that. But on basic issues, the new person coming in, and in particular the new person coming in who knows he or she is only going to be around for only a couple of years, needs to proceed with some degree of caution. They see it, though, as proceeding with a great deal of urgency, because they are only going to be around two or three years. So, whatever they see as the need to get done, they will try to do.

Interviewer: The next thing that I want to talk to you a little bit about is the 1977 reorganization when HCFA was created and the Bureau of Health Insurance was removed from SSA. That was a major change, a major reorganization?

Bynum: It was indeed, because up until that time we were health insurance; I mean, we ran that program completely. You had the Bureau of Health Insurance and, subsequently, an Associate Commissioner for Health Insurance. However, when HCFA was created and established and set up in one of our buildings there in Woodlawn, which they still occupy.

Interviewer: Not anymore. Last year they moved into their own building.

Bynum: No fooling? Okay.

Interviewer: Big new building.

Bynum: So that building that stands by the Administration building is back with SSA?

Interviewer: Yes.

Bynum: Well okay, that's progress I guess. In any event that made quite a change. And initially was a source of, as you know, of some conflict. What made the transition easier was that for the most part the early HCFA was made up of SSA people. They just moved over and had a different boss, but they were SSA people, who knew the total program-- many of them did. And they knew that they were going to need to continue to work very closely with the SSA staff. My impression is that is still the case. There is a close working relationship. I hope that is the case, because the organizations really are so intertwined in terms of a number of things that they do. But it did complicate the process, just a bit, in terms of policy and procedure and coordination, and lots of other things to have them as a separate agency.

Interviewer: Now was there some issue or some debate or some discussion about the impact of this upon the people in SSA and in the Bureaus that remained? I have seen memos where there was discussion of downgrading some Bureaus and there was some debate about that. In fact, I've seen your name on some of those memos. Do you recall that? Was that a significant issue?

Bynum: Well the issue, if you talking about a issue where I got pretty strident with some of my suggestions and complaints, was back in the earlier reorganization, when we first set up the Associate Commissioner for Program Operations. I had been Associate Commissioner over Regional Commissioners and then when they setup the Deputy Commissioner for Operations, I was still to be, in a sense, in charge of the Regional Commissioners, but the responsibility for line management was coming from this other job, which I subsequently moved into after Hugh McKenna retired. But there was a period of time of several months where we were really floundering and the Commissioner did not just to resolve it say "this is the way we are going to go."

I still wanted to be the boss of the Regional Commissioners and the regional operation. On the other hand, as it turned out, that was not the idea. The person who filled my particular role in the new structure, the role that I had been filling, was to be a staff person--almost a staff person--to this new Deputy that was being setup.

But I also had a lot of interplay with the Commissioner, and with the Office of Management, and a number of others too, as we went along. I can't recall if it was specifically the 1977 organization or not, but having some pretty strong feelings about organizational direction and how to avoid any more confusion out in the field where the public is served directly, than we could help. So I staked myself out pretty firmly in that respect. I guess then after I was made Deputy Commissioner and Associate Commissioner for Program Operations, then I was kind of arguing against myself at that point.

Interviewer: Okay. In the 1979 reorganization you became a Deputy Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner for Programs. What was that job? In recent years we've had a job titled that, but I'm not sure if it is the same function.

Bynum: Well, the Program Policy-setting operations came under my jurisdiction at that point. By that time I was in a position where I was seriously considering retirement. My wife Norma had major brain surgery at Johns Hopkins in 1975. She had enough of other things that had happened to her, and we concluded that since I was now eligible for retirement, not because of any unhappiness about the work or anything like that, but I had concluded that I really ought to get out of this stressful kind of situation where I was away a good deal of the time and everything else. It was just time to make that kind of a move. So in talking, I think again it was with Stan Ross at that time, about the situation and he first said, "Bob I'll set you up as a Special Assistant to the Commissioner." Well, I didn't want any part of the Special Assistant to the Commissioner because that's a dead job. So I said "No, that won't do, I'll just go ahead and hasten my retirement rather than take on that kind of a role." I think I could have been helpful to him.

As it turned out, he was really very appreciative, for the period of time that he was there, of the support that I was able to give him. Because, I was about the only one left that had been there for a long time in that position of responsibility. When he talked with folks in the White House and Bob Ball and a number of others, they, as he told me later, they clearly told him you had better keep Bob on the staff in some capacity and not let him retire until you've gone through a period of time. So we set-up the two Deputies, one for Operations and one for Programs. Since I had been for several years in operations, it was perfectly all right with me to take the other role, which meant dealing more with the Congress and with the White House and with Washington instead of the operational end.

Interviewer: The first time in your career, really, that you made that break from being in operations?

Bynum: Yes it was. I had been in operations the whole time, although filling some staff positions along the way, like training, the budget, and that kind of thing. I enjoyed those couple of years very much. I did spend a great deal of time on the road back and forth between Baltimore and Washington. Sometimes the driver would transport me three times a day to some kind of a meeting the Secretary had, or someone else was having, or over to see some member of Congress and then back to the office in Baltimore. And we had offices in both places, here in the Altmeyer Building and in Washington too. But I think it was a good ending, Larry, really, for my career. I was by that point the senior career person, maybe not in chronological years, but certainly in terms of experience in the organization. And I felt that I could be quite helpful in these transitional times that were taking place, with Commissioners beginning to come and go, and with the other kinds of changes that were taking place.

Interviewer: That 1979 reorganization that Stan Ross did was kind of the "atomic bomb" of reorganizations at SSA, and it created this functional organizational structure, and got us away, completely, from the Bureau structure, or remnants of whatever was left of the Bureau structure.

Bynum: And I guess that is pretty close to where we are today. Is it?

Interviewer: Yes. It hasn't changed yet. We have the functional structure still in place. It's been, you know, tinkered with at the edges, but it's the same basic structure. I still hear people complaining about that reorganization today--years later.

Bynum: If you talk with a lot of people who left the organization at that time, many did simply because they were moved from one operation to another, one staff role to another--numbers of people retired at that point, numbers of people who were eligible. I guess, in retrospect, beyond the health issues that I mentioned relating to my wife, probably one of the reasons that I retired, I felt at the time, under that arrangement--and again I was the Deputy for Programs and all that kind of stuff at that point--I felt at the time that my influence was no longer needed or could be as fully utilized as otherwise had been the case. Stan apparently did not feel that way at all. But I guess in one sense, Larry, getting out of operations into program planning, that kind of operation, is quite a change. I guess just that kind of a change made me realize that maybe it would be a good time to move on out.

Although at the time, Joe Califano was being replaced as Secretary of HEW--Joe had brought Stan in as Commissioner--and Stan Ross was leaving at the same time, they asked me to stay. Stan talked to me on two or three occasions about, "Don't retire now Bob, because you know there's got to be some interest in you being Commissioner of Social Security." And I said, "Well, we have made that decision." And the fact of the matter is I really was not interested in being Commissioner of Social Security. It probably would never have happened anyhow. So I just set that aside. Then when I knew that the Commissioner that was coming in had been the former head of the Veteran's Administration--I didn't know him that well--but I felt we probably couldn't do any better than to have someone who has had that kind of in-depth experience and he'll do a fine job. But it turned out, I think, that for the most part it was to be a kind of a holding-operation, because that was the election year (1980) and Bill Driver only stayed a year and he was gone. And if I had agreed, and if I had been designated, it probably would have been in the same situation with me too.

Interviewer: Just three more questions and then we're done. I want you to give me your assessment of the Bureau structure as opposed to that functional organization, because you worked most of your career under the Bureau structure and you saw the functional organization get put in place. I would be interested in your assessment of what worked better. Do you think that we lost something when we left the Bureau structure?

Bynum: Yes, I think we lost something. I think the main thing that was lost is that under the old structure most people clearly understood where their instructions were coming from, where their marching orders, if you will, were coming from and who they were primarily responsible to for the job that they were to do. I never did see under the new structure, that, that was the case. In fact, there were things built into the new structure to make sure, if you will, that was not the case. While you had a Deputy for Operations and you still had the Commissioner, who was the boss of everyone, having everyone responsible to a whole host of people, once you get below the Commissioner level, I just didn't think it was a better way to go. And I still don't, but keep in mind Larry, that I left in January of 1980, with only limited experience under that type of structure. Unfortunately, the organization since that time has had so much turnover in the Commissioner's position, and also in other high-level positions, as you mentioned earlier, because they brought in many more people and made many more changes than they did in the older and simpler days.

Bynum shirt and tie
Bynum in late 1979, shortly before his retirement. OASIS photo, SSA History Archives.

Interviewer: Well that's a good segue to my ultimate question. Before I turned the tape recorder on, I was telling you that one of the people I worked for briefly, and whom I admire very much, Herb Doggette, used to say to me that you were one of his role models and that he looked to you to learn how to be a good manager. You were the model of what a good manager in SSA was. So I want you to tell me a little bit about what your philosophy of management was. What was a good SSA manager to you? How was it that you were able to inspire Herb?

Bynum: Herb is so wise. Herb is a great individual, and again, before we started taping, I said to you that he reminds me so much in appearance, and the way he talks, of Colin Powell, and he really does. He has youngsters, incidentally, who have attended school, as did he, in Huntsville, Alabama. So, I maintained a little bit of a connection with him even after I retired. I've also gone out, while he was still in Social Security, and made talks and different things like that for him.

Yesterday, one of the Regional people here, the Regional Commissioner, as a matter of fact, Noel Wall, said that one of the things that he had based his career on came from a talk that I had given at a Regional Conference back, oh I don't know, 25 years ago. It probably would have been in the SSI days, where one of the managers got up and said, "What we are dealing with now is just unmanageable." And I said, in response to that, "That's not true, everything is manageable. You can manage sometimes to a better result than other times, but I don't want to hear any talk about things being unmanageable."

I really believe that and I think that the whole attitude that permeated SSA over all the years, and I hope still does today, is that the work can be managed. At times it's awfully hectic and it's very difficult, and it's harder on some individuals than others, but the workload can be managed.

The other bit of philosophy that I've built my life around, I guess, for the most part is, that people can be trusted and relied on to do the job that has to be done. If you provide that sense to them that you believe in them and that they will get the job done, if they understand what the job is to be, then they'll get the job done. If you're yelling and screaming at them and telling them "You are sure messing that up, or you are not doing that right," then pretty soon they will mess it up and not do it right. But if your expectations are high, or the people that you work with, at your peer level, or those who work for you at a lower level, that they care that much about public service, they are going to do the right thing and work hard to get it done. They'll do it.

So I guess those two things: anything is manageable and trust the people and expect them to do their very best. Meanwhile, try to do your best as well, I guess would be a pretty good statement about my management philosophy.

Interviewer: All right, last question. Just to give you a chance to tell me how you feel about your SSA career and sort of sum it up for me. Was it a rewarding career? A fulfilling career? Are you glad that you did it?

Bynum: Al Kuhle, who was Regional Representative in Chicago, he was Regional Representative for BDOO--I can't remember exactly when Al retired--said when we had a little retirement get-together for him "Short of having entered the Priesthood, I can think of no other calling that would have had the same excitement and meaning for me other than Social Security." And I guess I feel the same way.

When I told my dad back in 1948, I was in school at the University of Alabama, that I had taken a civil service test and they had offered me job with Social Security--he was a small contractor, independent, going to take care of himself and all of that kind of stuff--he said, "Well, I know what you are doing is right for you Bob," but he said, "I don't really think it's the right way for you to go." He didn't think that Social Security was going to be there and besides that, the Government had no business doing some of the kinds of things like, taking your money and taking care of you in later years.

But boy, that didn't turn out to be the case for me at all. The experiences that I had, the opportunities that I had--forget the work for a minute--just to travel and just to meet all kinds of people at State and local levels, at other countries, like taking the delegation to the Soviet Union and their training people that came from there, the connections that I still have anywhere I go. . . Larry, almost anywhere I go, someone will come up to me, even today, and this is after 15 years, and say, "Hey Mr. Bynum, I know that you don't remember me, but I'm so and so." And of course most of the time I don't remember them, but some of the time I do after they have told me who they were and what the connection was. But that is true in every place that I go anywhere in the country today and spend a little bit of time, there will be someone who recognizes me and expresses their, it sounds terribly immodest, but expresses their appreciation to me for what I've done in the years that I was with the Social Security Administration, and the contacts I had with them.

And that's pretty good stuff. That's good stuff.

Interviewer: Thanks.