Statement by Dr. Shirley Chater,
Commissioner of Social Security,
before the House Committee on Ways and Means
Subcommittee on Social Security
June 13, 1995
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
Thank you for inviting me to discuss the field structure of the Social Security Administration (SSA). SSA faces formidable challenges in striving to improve the way we deliver service, while at the same time facing shrinking resources. I am pleased that this hearing gives me the opportunity to discuss how we can meet these challenges.
In addition to reviewing our field structure, I would like to share with you some information about our planning process so that you may mo e easily understand the role which the field structure plays in meeting our service delivery objectives.
Let me state at the outset that our field structure is - intended to support our service delivery objectives . In all that SSA does, three fundamental objectives remain constant:
- To provide world-class service in an equitable, effective, efficient, and caring manner;
- To rebuild confidence in the Social Security program; and
- To provide a nurturing environment for employees.
Mr. Chairman, the law mandates a reduction in the Federal workforce of 272,900 full-time equivalent employees by 1999. This equates to an overall reduction of about 12 percent of the Federal workforce when compared to the number of people on duty in 1993. To meet its share of this reduction, SSA must reduce its staff from about 66,000 to about 61,000 full time equivalent employees by 1999. This is a reduction of about 7 percent when compared to 1993. In the recent past, SSA has already experienced major downsizing from about 83,000 full-time equivalent positions in Fiscal Year 1984 to a current Fiscal Year 1995 estimate of about 66,000 positions. During this same time, the number of beneficiaries served increased from about 40 million to almost 50 million--a 25 percent increase in beneficiaries served and a 22 percent decrease in full-time equivalent positions.
I believe SSA's plans to make more effective use of its staffing resources, which I will further explain later, will yield savings by 1999 that can be applied to the qovernment-wide reduction. Redirected resources, coupled with our increasing use of technology, will permit us to keep up with growing workloads, implement recent legislative mandates, and provide the public with the level of service it deserves.
To support our technological improvements, our Fiscal Year 1996 budget request includes $357 million to continue our 5-year, $1.1 billion investment in the Intelligent Workstation/Local Area Network project. In conjunction with our process reengineerlng efforts, this investment is a fundamental prerequisite to make our business processes more efficient, streamline administrative operations, and enhance customer service.
SSA' s current systems infrastructure is a highly centralized, mainframe- based architecture that relies on very aged, "dumb" computer terminals used by frontline employees to get information to and from SSA's mainframe computers. SSA is moving towards the establishment of a truly cooperative architecture (an automated systems configuration that uses both centralized and localized processes) that will use intelligent workstations as the basic automation platform. The cooperative architecture will allow SSA to determine the optimal mode of processing for each workload and to take advantage of emerging technology in the delivery of services to the public. It will also improve the availability and timeliness of information to employees and appropriate users and help build a more reliable capability for backup and recovery in the event of a crisis.
We appreciate the support we have received thus far from the Congress for our automation initiatives, and we ask for your continued support in this regard as we seek to make full use of technological advances to help us provide world class service.
Direct Service Delivery Offices
Since there may be various understandings of what constitutes an agency's direct service delivery structure, I want to explain briefly the functions of the SSA offices which are organizationally located outside SSA headquarters. These offices can be grouped in two general categories--those which provide service to members of the public by dealing with them directly or by processing their claims and other requests for service and those which perform activities in support of SSA's mission, generally at a regional level, but which do not involve direct service delivery.
Most of our employees who provide direct service to our customers work in our 1,299 district and branch offices l ocated throughout the country. (Branch offices are smaller field facilities which report to district offices, but which generally offer the same services as district offices.)
SSA has a long tradition of providing tailored public service through a network of accessible, community-based offices. Our field structure has to be viewed in the context of our responsibilities to the public . SSA's field offices provide a wide array of services to our customers, including processing applications for benefits, handling reports of events which affect a beneficiary's payments, processing request for Social security numbers, investigating allegations of unreported earnings and making appropriate corrections, and answering general inquiries. To make you aware of the magnitude of our responsibilities, let me point out as examples of our workloads that, in Fiscal Year 1996, SSA will:
- Pay benefits to about 48 million people;
- Process more than 6 million new benefit claims;
- Process about 16 million requests for Social Security cards;
- Post about 235 million earnings items to workers' earnings records; and
- Handle about 70 million 800-number telephone calls.
District office employees disseminate public information in their communities to heighten awareness of and increase confidence in our programs. They help people file applications for a variety of benefits, investigate allegations of program abuse, respond to general inquiries on almost any subject dealing with government services, refer people to the other assistance programs or agencies, and assist the public in obtaining evidence needed to support applications for benefits.
District offices provide the American public with a setting where they can feel confident that personal and confidential issues are handled with the care and privacy that they have a right to expect. Customers often visit SSA offices at some of the most vulnerable times of their lives: when they are disabled, have just lost a loved one, are in need of assistance, or are facing a major transition in their life. For many, there is no substitute for the personal service that SSA offices provide.
District offices have long been the focal point for the integration of various services provided to the American public in communities throughout the United States. Working with other Federal, State, and local government agencies and social services organizations (sheltered workshops, hospitals, community based providers, etc.), local offices have developed alternatives for providing the public access to services without having to go to multiple locations and furnish similar information multiple times. Some of these service arrangements include:
- Establishing entitlement to Medicare benefits;
- Taking food stamp applications; and
- Making Medicaid eligibility determinations in some States.
Local offices are often the first line of defense against program fraud. Employees review evidence and are trained to detect fraudulent documentation. Through personal review of documentation and client observation, employees are often able to make determinations concerning the appropriateness of an application that would not be possible without face-to-face contact. As members of the communities in which they work, district office employees are usually the first to become aware of potential fraudulent situations. Many of the investigations that have uncovered instances of program abuse started because one local office employee alerted investigators to a problem.
A growing number of SSA's walk-in visitors do not have the means or the ability to access government services through other than direct contact. Local offices provide service to many clients who are not able to read, who have difficulty communicating in English, who live in inner-city neighborhoods or remote rural locations where they do not have access to the transportation and communication services that the general public has become accustomed to, or who have severe disabling conditions which restrict their ability to communicate. These clients need the personal service, e.g., face to face interviews, assistance in obtaining documents, and referrals to other agencies for additional services, that are available through the local office. We also consider the following offices to be providers of direct service:
- 38 teleservice centers are staffed with employees who answer general inquiries, schedule appointments for district and branch offices, and process some workloads that do not require face-to-face contact;
- 132 hearing offices are staffed with administrative law judges and support employees who hear and process appeals of decisions;
- 9 processing centers are staffed with employees who perform activities, including telephone calls and correspondence with the public, related to earnings record maintenance, debt collection, and benefit adjustments.
Regional Office Functions
SSA's regional offices (ROs) were established to provide supervision and direct support for other SSA facilities located in their service areas. The Regional Commissioner (RC) is the senior SSA official for the geographic region that comprises the RO service area. Therefore, the RC represents the Commissioner in regional matters and is the primary spokesperson for SSA i n the r egion. The RC has line authority for district offices in the region and provides administrative support for other SSA components and State Agencies that are not directly under the RC's supervision.
The ROs are responsible for ensuring integration of all of SSA's service delivery operations, including the network of district and branch offices, teleservice centers, and processing centers. Be caus e o f t he ir vantage point which promotes the consideration of t he unique economic, geographic, and cultural needs of our diverse public, ROs have the ability to provide world class service tailored to meet regional needs by:
- Ensuring consistency in the national program while also ensuring that any needs unique to the regions are accommodated;
- Ensuring sound working relationships among all SSA components; State disability determination services; large employers; unions; medical associations and organizations; Federal, State and local agencies; regional and local media outlets; and community service organizations throughout the region;
- Interacing with numerous other agencies (Federal, State, local , private) to ensure effective administration of income maintenance and social services activities (e. g., food stamps, Medicaid);
- Working with Members of Congress, governors, and executives from other agencies on a wide-range of regional governmental issues;
- Identifying and responding to regional or local problems (e. g., the unprecedented recovery efforts following Hurricane Andrew and the bombing of the Federal Building in Oklahoma City, issuance of timely emergency procedures in response to local disasters, and responding to fast-breaking issues in the local media);
- Developing and supporting cross-boundary partnerships with State and local governments and institutions to enhance customer service;
- Providing local offices with essential support in core areas such as training, human resources, facilities, management, financial management, program operations, systems/automation support , disability administration, service delivery, security, and program integrity which meets each region's unique demographics and individual characteristics;
- Ensuring that SSA complies with court-ordered actions that require specific remedies by SSA within specific jurisdictions;
- Promoting activities devoted to rebuilding public confidence in Social Security through enhancement of public understanding and awareness of SSA's programs and activities;
- Providing legal advice; and
- Performing audits and investigating fraud.
Restructuring Field Offices
I would now like to discuss SSA's plans to restructure our field offices and the strategic reasons for restructuring. In view of our growing workloads and decreasing staff, we need to concentrate as many of our resources as possible where the public is directly served, either in person or on the telephone. Therefore, our restructuring will focus on how we will be able to provide the public with the service it deserves while faced with shrinking resources. SSA has in place a formalized process, known as Service Delivery Assessment (SDA), for assessing the need for and the location of its field offices. SSA's Regional Commissioners are required to evaluate each field office service area at least once every 5 years. In considering site locations, SSA looks at six factors: demographics, workloads , accessibility, special needs, unique service criteria, and resource considerations. The process also includes consultations with interested Members of Congress, key community leaders, and advocacy groups before final decisions are made on any proposed changes. The National Performance Review (NPR) has cited SSA as an Agency which has successfully trimmed staff while enhancing service. This was achieved through our ongoing SDA process. We plan to continue using this process to adjust and fine-tune our service delivery network.
We have decided to consolidate our 10 regional offices into 5 offices, thereby reducing administrative staff while maintaining staff who process claims or answer telephones. In addition to consolidating regional offices, we will delegate increased authority from headquarters to the regions. Putting more responsibility in the hands of those who work in close proximity to our customers will result in improved public service. As a result, Regional Commissioners will have greater responsibility for public affairs and personnel administration. Headquarters components will provide support, guidance, and technical assistance.
During the past 5 years, overall staffing in SSA's field office components, and the number of such offices, have remained relatively stable. Rather than reduce the numbers of our direct service staff, SSA has reduced staff in its regional offices by more than 15 percent since October 1993, in order to make sufficient resources available for direct service to the public. Siimilar reductions have been made, and will continue to be made, in headquarters staff.
In our field office structure, we will eliminate at least one level of management between the local field office manager and the Regional Commissioner. Depending on the office size and its service area responsibilities, field office managers will report directly to an area director, who in turn will report to the Regional Commissioner, instead of to an Assistant Regional Commissioner. We have also reduced the number of area direct or offices by approximately 20 percent in the past year, in keeping with Agency streamlining objectives.
We are also setting specific year-by-year targets for meeting the goal of expanding the span of supervision so that the supervisor-employee ratio will increase from one-to-seven to one-to-fifteen by the end of 1999. In our smaller field offices, there will be only one level of supervision. Where there are compelling service delivery demands, there may be more than one level of supervision in the field office, such as in some large urban offices.
Most importantly, SSA has a firm commitment to provide optimum support to the offices and employees engaged in direct service to the public. To help us meet this commitment, we have implemented a Redeployment Program, which has the potential to allow about 300 eligible employees to voluntarily move from headquarters, regional office, and management positions to direct service positions throughout the country. The program provides a unique opportunity for eligible employees to make a career change to the location of their choice while helping us meet our goal of redi rec t i ng l imi t ed staf f resources to where they are most needed.
SSA's Strategic Management Process
I would now like to describe our overall planning process. SSA has instituted a process of strategic management that drives decisionmaking and action. This process was created to ensure that SSA takes into account such critical strategic drivers as customer expectations and shrinking resources as it describes and works to achieve its vision of the SSA of the future. Even before the Government Performance and Results Act required Federal agencies to develqp strategic plans, SSA had published a plan and established it as the central feature of a comprehensive, coordinated process by which the Agency could identify its goals and objectives for the future and chart a course of action for achieving them.
The 1991 Agency Strategic Plan (ASP) included important objectives a round service delivery that led us to focus on critical service issues. It committed SSA to a number of principles, some of them specific commitments to the public in such matters as using public input to help us design service delivery systems and balancing the use of technological solutions with the need for the "human touch. " Our assessment at that time of the customers ' desires resulted in an operational vision of the future, a cornerstone of which was our intention o permit people to choose the method of contacting SSA that best fit their needs.
Recent efforts to obtain information directly from the public concerning their preference for service delivery confirm that convenience is important. For them, a major aspect of convenience is the ability to choose from among a variety of options for dealing with SSA, and our customer service pledge, "Putting Customers First," commits us to continuing to offer traditional access methods while working to give the public other , newer options such as facsimile machine or personal computer.
The most recent component of the strategic management system, SSA's General Business Plan, describes our overall business strategy for Fiscal Years 1996 through 1999. It explicitly describes the current state of the six service delivery interfaces now available in some measure. These six include face-to-face service in a field office, face-to-face service using third parties, telephone service through a field office, telephone service over our national 800 number, automated selfhelp, and service by mail. The assessment in the Business Plan makes clear that providing the full range of service-delivery interfaces is an integral part of SSA' s vision of world-class service. But it also highliqhts the fact that, despite the availability of other modes of service delivery, an estimated 24 million people visited SSA field offices in Fiscal Year 1994.
One of SSA's critical business strategies cited in the Business Plan is that we will use business-process reengineering to enable us to deliver dramatically better customer service at a lower cost. The first reengineering effort focused on a redesign of the process by which initial disability determinations are made. In undertaking this largest process-improvement initiative ever at SSA, we rethought all of our original assumptions about bow best to provide these program services. Having done so, we created an ultimate redesign that is intended to shave months off the time that claimants must wait for a disability decision. And I emphasize that such an impressive redesign calls for an expanded role for community-based field offices in the processing of disability claims for some claimants while strengthening other available interfaces depending upon the needs and desires of the disability claimant. This result supports the validity of our belief that providing personal service to certain members of the public, based upon either their preference or program need, remains of vital importance.
The reengineering strategy is now being applied to the entire SSA enterprise. The early stages of this larger effort are expected to identify significant process changes that can be implemented relatively quickly. They will also target those of our processes that require the more dramatic improvement expected from a reengineerinq effort, and we will be moving forward on those as they are identified. The effort should have a positive impact on bot h the effectiveness and efficiency of how we deliver service. Some of these impacts certainly may change the organizational particulars of our service-delivery mechanisms, though at this time we do not expect a remarkable change in the overal l character of our field structure to result from the reenqineering efforts.
As part of our strategic management process, we will of course continue to revalidate and ultimately refresh the vision of the future that is contained in the ASP and translated into action in our Business Plan. In doing so, we must be open to environmental circumstances, such as changing customer expectations, that argue for a changed operational scenario. Our current projection of the future SSA includes a strong community presence. We expect our field structure to accommodate increased demand for direct customer service.
For over a year now, we have been working hard to change the way we do business in support of the principles and direction of the first phase of the NPR; that is, to make the Federal Government work better and cost less. During the first phase, we developed initiatives that emphasized putting customers first, cutting red tape, and empowering employees.
We sought input from the public and our employees about providing world-class service. We established and published "Customer Service Standards" and began the process of streamlining SSA, which will lead to decentralized decisionmaking and give employees more say over the way they do their jobs. As a result, same aspects of the reengineered disability claims process will soon be implemented, procurement rules have been simplified, and all non-legislative rules are being reduced by 50 percent.
On December 19, 1994, President Clinton and Vice President Gore announced the second phase of the NPR. The emphasis of this Reinventing Government initiative will focus on what vovernment ahould do , rather than how government should work.
I am pleased to tell you about some of the Reinventing Government initiatives that involve SSA:
- SSA wi l l establish a controlled third party claims taking environment where large employers will be able to assist retiring employees in filing their Social Security claims electronically. This will result in improved service in that it will provide retirees with total benefit/health insurance considerations at one time and place.
- We wil l also increase the use of direct deposit. Since direct deposit is a more reliable and vastly more cost-effective method to disburse payments than checks, SSA will increase the number of recipients who are paid by direct deposit in three phases over the next four years. The first phase, already underway, is directed to all new beneziciaries who have bank accounts. The second phase will focus on all beneficiaries who have bank accounts and do not use direct deposit. The final phase will require that all beneficiaries without bank accounts select one of the electronic benefit transfer services that will be available to receive their monthly benefit payments.
- We plan to pay future beneficiaries on one of three additional dates staggered throughout the month, rather than on the third of the month, when monthly benefit payments are currently paid to Social Security beneficiaries. This will improve service to all beneficiaries by beginning to reduce the current crush of telephone calls and workload spikes that occur at the beginning of the month when payments are made.
Finally, we are looking at several telecommunications initiatives which will enhance the delivery of services to members of the public who prefer to conduct their business with SSA by telephone. For example, we are purchasing additional software which will improve 800-number response times. Although we believe that we need to continue to improve telephone service, I am happy to report that, based on its 800-number, SSA was recently rated the #1 telephone answering organization in both the public and private sectors in an independent survey conducted by Dalbar Financial Services, Inc. We are pleased to be recognized for the hard work and committment of our employees. I will be glad to make a copy of Dalbar's report available for the record .
To summarize, Mr. Chairman, we believe that our current field structure delivers services to the public in a way that is responsive to their needs. Our streamlining and technology improvement plans will allow us to deliver service with even greater efficiency, despite increasing workloads. Of course, we will evaluate our field structure on a continuing basis to ensure that we continue to meet our objective of providing world class service as the public's demand for service evolves.