FRAMINGHAM (08/15/2000) - Even a woman who owes Social Security money isn't grumbling as she leaves the Social Security Administration's (SSA) field office in downtown Framingham, Mass. "They're great; they're taking care of me," she says, explaining that a little of the money the agency overpaid her is being taken out of her disability check each month. A younger customer remarks that his visit to the office to get a replacement Social Security card was surprisingly quick. "I was expecting something like the Registry of Motor Vehicles. But it was painless." One after the other, satisfied customers stream out the door of an agency that provides a safety net for disabled workers, retirees and survivors--and whose customers-for-life include every working citizen of the United States. People don't go into details-thisis personal business--but when asked how their experience was, they say good, good, good.
That's what the SSA wants to hear. Faced with an uncertain future, the agency is focusing on using IT to better serve and educate its customers, both current beneficiaries and the public at large. Through automation, SSA hopes its employees can better serve a growing number of beneficiaries, customers can better serve themselves, and the agency can gain public support. "One way people come to trust us is when they do business with us and we do a good job," says Antonia Lenane, senior adviser to the commissioner on customer service integration. "And getting the American public's trust is everything."
Social Security has been a charged issue since its creation in the 1930s, when politicians were divided over whether the government should provide such benefits at all. Today, advocating the elimination of such a popular program would be political suicide; debate focuses instead on how to solve the agency's long-term financial challenges and reform the system.
Andy Landis, author of Social Security: The Inside Story, puts his finger on the implicit promise the agency makes to American workers with every paycheck deduction. "Social meaning we all go into it together, and security meaning it's secure. It's a safety net, not high-flying benefits."
Some fear that this safety net is torn and can't be mended. They have reason to worry. The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) recently reported to Congress that today's longer life expectancy, lower birth rates and the coming retirement of baby boomers means that by 2030 there will be only 2.1 workers for every beneficiary, compared with 3.4 today and 5.1 in 1960. Once SSA's trust funds are depleted in 2037, revenue will cover only 72 percent of promised payments. While politicians and pundits wrangle over whether to mend the net, reweave it or throw it out, SSA seeks to serve a growing pool of beneficiaries with a minimum increase in administrative costs.
Customer service has always been sewn into the agency's culture. But there are new incentives to providing good service to people who have to be customers.
"[The SSA] risks a lot if it alienates clients," says Landis, who worked on Social Security's front lines from 1977 to 1990 before turning his focus to writing and speaking about retirement planning. "It's risking political goodwill--the people saying, 'We're going to get the laws changed so that we don't have to pay anymore.'" Vice President Al Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government (NPR)--created from the National Performance Review in 1993 with the aim of making government work better and cost less--sparked Social Security to redouble its customer service efforts, Lenane says. By many accounts, the efforts have paid off at this behemoth, which last year tallied 26 million customer visits to its 1,300 field offices, 70 million calls to its toll-free number and 10 million visitors to its website.
In the University of Michigan's 1999 American Customer Satisfaction Index Survey, SSA's courtesy and professionalism ratings were comparable to the best private companies. In the 1999 Government Performance Project conducted by Syracuse University and Government Executive Magazine, the agency received the only A (well, an A-) awarded to the federal government, for the use of technology to improve transactions. In the mid-'90s, Boston-based financial services research firm Dalbar ranked the SSA's call center the best in the nation for courteous and efficient service.
Twelve years ago, when the agency established one of the government's first toll-free, nationwide call centers, "Social Security led the charge for showing that you can create customer service solutions using new technology," says Morley Winograd, director of NPR, Gore's interagency task force. "Once again, it's leading the way in trying to think of the things that it can do over the Net."
Social Security Online (www.ssa.gov) is already a big part of the agency's strategy for disseminating information. Visitors can go to a "Top 10" section that reflects what most people do at the site. They can download two dozen forms, sign up for an electronic newsletter, find the hours and location of the nearest field office and calculate estimated retirement benefits. Ultimately, SSA executives want customers to be able to conduct all Social Security-related business online, with full authentication and privacy guarantees. They also want to use the Internet to exchange wage data with employers. Meanwhile, they are installing more sophisticated routing software for the call center, getting field office employees the same automated onscreen answers that call center agents have and making sure that information is available in several languages, with files coded so that notices are sent in the appropriate language.
"We're constantly trying to automate whatever we can," says John Dyer, CIO and executive director to the deputy commissioner. Not only does automation speed things up, but "if the employees have good tools at their disposal, that makes it easier to be courteous."
Fifty million Americans receive Supplemental Security Income and Old Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance payments each month. But the SSA now considers the entire taxpaying public its customers, too, and is reaching out to them in the form of earnings information and benefit estimates sent each year to workers age 25 and older. Commissioner Kenneth Apfel says, "If we can touch each person on a yearly basis, we can help them not only think about what else they need to do to prepare for retirement but also when to retire."
In truth, retirement is the least of SSA's concerns. Benefits are straightforward--a set amount based on lifetime earnings and retirement age--so those systems have been pretty easy to automate, administrators say.
Disability, however, is another beast, one that the GAO makes clear is hurting the agency. Although most payments go to retirees, a disproportionate amount of administration is spent on disability. Situations are harder to evaluate, medical conditions change and sometimes beneficiaries are dishonest. Claims can spend many months backlogged, tied up in paperwork or under appeal. The agency is working on software that will streamline the process of determining who qualifies for how much disability and making sure that every single check SSA writes is the right amount for the right person.
In this, CIO Dyer emphasizes "matching": agreements with sources such as prisons, funeral homes, newspapers and other government agencies. Comparing its databases helps SSA find beneficiaries who can be taken off the rosters. Dyer says 18 to 20 new contacts are added each year to the 5,000 independent organizations already involved in the program. "Private companies focus on selling, marketing, improving the customer interface and collecting the bills.
We try to make sure that customers are in the situation they told us they are," Dyer says. "You don't classically think of that as customer service, but we think of it as broader service to taxpayers."
At any government office, serving customers is more complicated than just doing what makes them happy. "We are the stewards of the taxpayers' money. Whenever we look at an initiative to improve customer service, we have to ask whether there are risks," says Lenane--to avoid bad publicity like the uproar when benefits information was put online. "Then we have to figure out how we make it happen with the resources we have."
Even a model government agency with a stack of customer service awards has a long way to go. Author Landis says younger people especially mistrust the agency--fueled by opponents of government-sponsored social services and by investment houses that stand to make a profit if the system is privatized.
Landis says, "In our early years, we think, 'It's just a ripoff.' As we near retirement, we think, 'Oh, it's a valuable benefit, and we'd better see it preserved.'" He adds, "Every generation has thought, 'It won't be there for me,' and it turns out to be there. [Social Security] could run dry, but only if it doesn't make changes."
Last September in its annual report, the Social Security Advisory Board noted that "although the agency's difficulties will grow in the next decade, it has a number of service delivery problems that need attention now." Never mind getting worse--things are bad enough already, the report seems to say, citing problems with telephone hold times, crowded field offices and heavy employee workloads. A February testimony from the GAO stressed the extent and seriousness of Social Security's challenges, reporting that the agency had "mixed success" in implementing IT initiatives--such as a failed seven-year effort to automate disability claims. (Because of software development and performance problems, they had to start over.) At headquarters in Baltimore, administrators are undaunted. "We're happy but not satisfied with the results," is how Deputy Commissioner William Halter sums up the agency's service efforts. Social Security will keep finding new ways to listen to customers and to serve them more efficiently. SSA already has a searchable database on its intranet, where employees can read the results of surveys, focus groups and interviews with customers. One outside source called these market measurement systems the most accurate of any she's seen. SSA is also developing a uniform, automated system for tracking the resolution of both individual complaints and larger, systemic problems.
Commissioner Apfel says the answers to Social Security's service challenges must come from IT. "The Internet has to be our way to provide service to millions and millions in the future," he says. "I think the Social Security Administration will always be part of the fabric of this country, but we could be hurt if we don't stay up with the technology."
Staff Writer Sarah D. Scalet hopes Social Security hangs in there for several more decades. How about you? E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Commissioner Kenneth Apfel
CIO John Dyer
For Your Eyes Only: Social Security Learns from Its MistakesA well-intentioned effort to put individual retirement estimates online caused a hullabaloo in 1997, when public opinion resoundingly nixed a feature allowing anyone with a few details--birthday, mother's maiden name and the like--to access an individual's complete earnings records. But bad publicity over the failed online Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statements hasn't deterred the Social Security Administration from serving the public though its website.
If anything, the incident has sharpened the agency's focus on keeping private the earnings records of 125 million American workers.
"Do we want to have an online statement? Of course we do," says Commissioner Kenneth Apfel. "Will we? Of course. But not until the adequate safety and security systems are put in place." Right now, public key infrastructure is not an affordable way for Social Security to deal with individual customers, he says, so the statements will not be available online until costs come down and the public demands that statements are delivered that way.
In the meantime, the agency found a creative way to make estimates available at its website (www.ssa.gov). Workers can choose from three calculators for estimating retirement benefits, none of which link to Social Security databases. The quickest one gives a rough estimate based on current age and income, and the standard calculator has entry fields for annual income since 1951. The most detailed calculator is a small program that a user must download and run separately from the browser. Not only do the calculators bypass many security concerns, individuals can see how estimates change when they fiddle with numbers such as planned retirement age.