Statement of John Dyer,
Acting Principal Deputy Commissioner, Social Security Administration
before the House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight
Subcommittee on Government Management, Information and Technology

March 10, 1997

Mr . Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:


I am pleased to be here today to discuss how SSA is implementing the Government Performance and Results Act of 1993 (GPRA). I will be discussing how SSA is refining our strategic plan to comply with the statutory deadline of September 30, 1997.

What the Law Requires

Before I do so, I will include a few words about the law itself. The GPRA requires Federal agencies to develop and institutionalize processes to plan for the achievement of mission results and to measure and report their level of achievement. Specifically, the law has several major provisions:

  • Federal agencies must submit to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and Congress, by September 30, 1997, a strategic plan for program activities (covering at least 5 years in the future and to be revised at least every 3 years) that includes:
    • A comprehensive mission statement;
    • General goals and objectives and a description of how they are to be achieved and how they relate to the required performance goals;
    • An identification of key external factors outside agency control that could affect achievement of the goals and objectives;
    • A description of how the agency intends to achieve its goals, including a description of the resources required to do so;
    • A description of the program evaluations used to establish or revise goals and objectives and a schedule for future evaluations.
  • Agencies must consult with their chief stakeholders, including the Congress, in the preparation of their strategic plan.
  • OMB must require each agency to prepare an annual performance plan covering each program activity in the agency's budget. The plan must include quantifiable and measurable performance goals, describe the 2 resources required to meet them, and identify how agencies will measure their results and then validate their measurements.
  • Beginning with a report in March 2000, each agency must prepare and submit to the President and Congress an annual report on program performance for the previous fiscal year.
  • OMB was required to set up performance-planning and reporting pilots for fiscal years (FY) 1994-1996.

SSA Support for the GPRA

Having summarized the provisions of the GPRA, I would like to voice my strong support, which echoes through out SSA, for both the spirit and the letter of the law we are talking about at this hearing. The GPRA itself includes as one of its primary purposes "to improve the confidence of the American people in the capability of the Federal Government . . ." We have been pursuing a strategy to increase confidence in our programs. Confidence in the context of GPRA is society's very real concern about the government's ability to provide the public good service while it manages their tax dollars wisely. SSA is in a prime position to addre ss this concern. As one of only a small handful of Federal agencies whose programs directly and visibly touch the lives of millions of Americans every day. SSA plays a pivotal role in shaping the public's opinion, and we take our responsibility very seriously. I see the GPRA. as a very important--and welcome--tool in our diligent pursuit of creating a government that works better, costs less, and enjoys the unshakable support of the people it was created to serve.


SSA provides services to different populations, but our central purpose is essentially singular. And our core business processes, from issuing social security numbers to recording earnings to taking claims, are focused on our achieving that purpose--to make payments of benefits to people entitled under Titles II and XVI of the Social Security Act.

A much greater advantage, though, is SSA's culture, which values many of the concepts that underlie the GPRA. We have a strong history of doing much of what the GPRA, requires:

  • We have always measured the work we do and the way we do it. We collect information in literally hundreds of data categories, most of them related to inputs, outputs, and various outcomes of our internal processes such as processing times, productivity rates, and numbers of cases pending.
  • We have always been attuned to important societal trends that would affect program implementation. This has been so for a number of reasons. Among them is SSA's need for a strong actuarial capability, so that useful projections of program income and expenditures--heavily dependent on such trends as increasing numbers of women in the work force and changing fertility rates--can be made. Another is our responsibility to maintain one of the largest automated data processing operations in the world.
  • We have always been proud of our service orientation and our concern with the needs of our customer. Thousands of opportunities daily to interact with the people who use our services have provided us with a good perspective on what makes customers happy. A focused process of program integrity review--conducted to ensure high accuracy of benefit decisions and payments-sgives us important data about customer service. And we have been surveying customer satisfaction directly for over 10 years.
  • SSA's first strategic plan was published in 1988, and its second and most recent one was published in 1991. Among the most important elements of the 1991 plan was an explicit set of service-delivery objectives that announced the level of service performance--in real numbers--that SSA intended to achieve over its 15-year strategic horizon. Establishing those objectives and understanding the gaps in performance that we faced led us to pursue many of the operational-improvement strategies that still engage us today. Our critical effort to reengineer the process by which we make initial disability decisions; the vast improvements in access to our 800 number; and the establishment of our Agency-wide client/server architecrure all had their roots in the 1991 strategic plan.
  • SSA already tracks a number of workload and performance measures at the request of our House Appropriations Subcommittee. During the FY 1996 subcommittee hearing, conducted on March 28, 1995, Chairman John Porter listed 14 workload and performance measures for which he requested a committment as to the level of service that could be achieved throughout FYs 1995 and 1996 at two alternative funding levels. During the FY 1997 hearing, conducted on April 30, 1996, Congressman Porter discussed SSA's progress in meeting the performance commitments throughout FY 1995, and asked SSA to commit to performance levels for the same measures for FY 1996 and FY 1997 at three alternative funding levels, SSA reports on its actual performance against these measures in its annual Accountability Report.
  • We report what we do. SSA began publishing audited financial statements several years before the law required us to do so. Those statements have evolved into our Accountability Report, which today links program and financial data to establish how well the Agency's programs and resources are being managed. The report provides a comprehensive picture of the Agency's performance pursuant to stated goals and objectives as set forth in the Agency strategic plan. Performance measures included in the report tie together resources used with outputs and outcomes and provides appropriations committees a comprehensive picture of how SSA uses its budgetary resources. The Accountability Report is seen as a model of integrated reporting on the operational health of a Federal agency.


Perhaps our most important advantage is how the current leadership environment of the Agency has coalesced with the impetus of the GPRA to move SSA into the much stronger, and we believe much more productive, position of espousing strategic management as a guiding philosophy for the Agency.

On a practical level, this means that all of the pieces we have had in place, and some new pieces whose importance we have recognized, are now being put together in the Agency to form a system of strategic thinking. We believe that thinking strategically at all levels will help ensure that all activities undertaken at SSA align with our strategic vision and move us toward achieving our strategic goals. The repre sentation of this new thinking is SSA's yearly Business Plan. The Business Plan, published for the first time in FY 1995, is generally known as the "story around the budget." It presents SSA's performance targets for the budget year; the drivers, approach, and enablers of SSA's business strategy; a candid assessment of SSA's business processes and service-delivery interfaces; and a summary of the objectives and time lines of SSA's key initiatives. In doing so, the Business Plan gathers into a single document evidence of the rigor and creativity with which integrated planning now takes place at Social Security.

A number of specific changes have been made since the introduction of the GPRA to improve how we manage strategically. For one, we "officially" recognized customer expectation as a driver of our strategy, and a focal point for customer service was established in the Office of the Commissioner. Over the last several years, SSA has used a variety of new vehicles to obtain direct customer input, and we are institutionalizing a comprehensive program to ensure that the voice of the customer is heard. Examples of vehicles we have used include focus groups, comment cards, and phone surveys. The customer input has been used as we developed customer service standards and to further inform the Agency's performance measures; it is also helping us create new strategies for process improvement.

In direct response to GPRA mandates, we are creating a new performance measures construct to ensure that the measures on which we report performance at the highest level reflect the entire range of program and administrative responsibilities. It also will help guarantee that the yearly targets we establish accurately portray the intended balance among Agency priorities, thereby guiding tactical planning in a meaningful way. SSA's participation in the GPRA pilots for performance planning was a useful exercise in helping us understand the value of interim targets and the need to expand our stable of "service" objectives. The construct we are establishing for use in planning for the FY 1999 budget and beyond is expected to be a natural evolution from the increasingly comprehensive slates of measures we presented in our pilot plans for FYs 1994 - 1996. The performance measures themselves and the targets being set at present will be based on customer input, current performance, resource-management strategies, and the Agency's own vision of its preferred future.

One of SSA's goals for its strategic management program has been to forge a strong link between planning and budgeting activities. We have been largely successful in creating an environment where decisions made in the Executive planning process drive decisions made in the budget process. To further our aims, however, GPRA is forcing us to continue our drive to link performance targets and resource allocations in such a way that differing levels of performance can be associated with differing levels of resources, thereby facilitating the strategic-decision- making process.

The GPRA has also inspired us to use more effective means of identifying where strategic action needs to be taken and to create systems and processes that allow us to evaluate the success those actions have had in closing the performance gaps. In recent years we have established a cost-benefit analysis methodology to be used Agency-wide; we have documented how work is done in our core business processes to help us identify innovation opportunities; and we are working with various automated modeling tools to help us choose the best solutions to operating problems. Our Planning and Budgeting System has been enhanced in a number of ways; for example, we have instituted a formal investment-review process for critical business initiatives, and we now require every tactical plan to include a plan for evaluating project success.


The changes being wrought in the new environment have not just been procedural, of course; real results are being seen. Let me remind you of some of the things happening at SSA that show what that can mean. First, in 1991, one of our service objectives was to ensure that individuals would be able access our 800 number system, i.e., avoid a busy signal, within 24 hours of their first attempt to call. That objective drove plans for certain changes to 800-number processing, including the use of new technology and expansion of the units in our processing centers (called "SPIKE" units) who are specially trained so that they can answer the phone on peak days. However, the input we got directly from our customers made us realize that the standard we were using was not responsive to caller expectations. We changed the access goal from 24 hours to 5 minutes for 95 percent of our callers in FY 1997, a dramatic change and a truly s-t-r-e-t-c-h goal. In addition, our new recognition of the value of setting interim targets led us to plan around incremental achievement, which in turn communicated to staff the expectation of an aggressive approach to improvement.

Continuing executive attention to the strategic issues inspired creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. For example, the mission of two of our three Data Operations Centers, whose work was disappearing due to accomplishments in our earnings processing operation, was changed so that the talents of the personnel there could be diverted to the work of answering the 800 number. In addition, new technology solutions were negotiated with and then developed by our supplier. The bottom line is that, during the last three quarters of FY 1996, individual callers reached SSA's automated response system or entered the queue to speak with a live agent within 5 minutes of their first attempt, with no degradation in service accuracy, courtesy, or responsiveness to other customer expectations.

My second example is the disability redesign project that is currently in its implementation stage. The purpose of the project is to reduce dramatically the time SSA takes to process an initial disability claim (from filing through final Agency adjudication) and to improve the costeffectiveness of the process we use to do so. That project resulted directly from our new emphasis on evaluation of project benefits based on performance measurement. The need for strategic intervention in the disability claims process was recognized and called for in the 1991 strategic plan (again, based on analysis of the performance gap between then-current case-processing times and the processing times we set as our objective). Programs for improving the disability and appeals processes were identified in the plan as two of SSA's strategic priorities.

However, plans to achieve the performance goals were created based on an intuitive, albeit knowledgeable, understanding of the impact they would have on processing times. Later analysis, prompted by a strong desire to succeed and supported by the spirit of GPRA and the current leadership, showed us that the plans so carefully laid out would not get us where we needed to be in the time frames we required So, in late 1993 a very difficult decision was reached: to reengineer the disability process. SSA consciously decided, that the object of reengineering was not to change the disability program through changes in the law, but rather to improve our administrative process in a way that would make it easier for individuals to file for and, if eligible, receive disability benefits promptly and efficiently, and minimize the need for appeals. The decision was difficult because reengineering--in which one must take a "tear-it-down-and-start-over" attitude toward what is regarded as a "broken" process-is a radical approach, and it was at that time completely new to SSA. It was also a difficult decision because we knew that such a major initiative would require many staff hours and much management energy that would normally be devoted to other activity.


The 1991 strategic plan and 1997 business plan that SSA has already prepared present a cohesive vision of SSAs current strategies for the future. They also describe the major initiatives we have planned or that are under way to take us to achieve that vision and tell the story of how SSA intends to fill gaps in performance we have identified as critical to accomplishing our mission. Together, these pre-GPRA documents meet almost all of the basic elements that GPRA requires.

Still, it is important for us to regularly revalidate what our vision and strategies are, and we are using the legislated due date for a GPRA strategic plan as the imperus to refine SSAs plans. We are increasing participation of our customers and stakeholders in ensuring that the mission, goals, values, and activities that exist today are the ones we still wish to embrace for the future. To this end, we are looking forward to establishing an active dialogue with Members of Congress about the future they expect to help build for our Agency, as we continue our mission to administer arguably the most important domestic social program of modern history. We will also be finalizing the performance measures construct for the future and identifying levels of performance we intend to provide. The new construct will have a stronger focus on outcomes and better reflect a customer perspective.

We have just held the first of what we expect will be a series of executive discussions to identify and make decisions around the key issues facing SSA today and into the future. The results of these efforts will be Agency agreement on our highest priorities, alignment of our performance measures and targets with those priorities and mission requirements, identification of new approaches to integrate the strategic plan with implementation activities such as operational planning and budgeting, and, as required, a refined strategic plan and annual performance plan for FY 1999.

We have just received our copy of the study of customer-driven strategic planning, sponsored by the National Performance Review, in which SSA and 15 other agencies participated. We will be looking in it for best practices that will help us equal, and perhaps exceed, the standards set by the best in business for understanding, anticipating, and fulfilling the needs of their customers through an active process of strategic management. We intend to adapt and adopt in our strategic management process whatever practices promise us that outcome.


Implementing the full letter and intent of the GPRA is a challenge we welcome at SSA. We are confident in our ability to implement it. More important, because we believe in the principles of management it encompasses, because we adhere to the principles of public trust it upholds, and because we believe that SSA truly personifies "the government" to millions of Americans, we pledge our commitment to making it work. We look forward to working with you to address what may be one of the biggest challenges of the GPRA: changing the definition of "success" from "what can be counted" to "what really counts."