By J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE).
Like most federal agencies, the Social Security Administration has faced deep, across-the-board cuts in recent years. These cuts have seriously degraded the administration’s ability to service a rapidly growing customer base and forced the agency to make tough choices about its future.
SSA turned to the National Academy of Public Administration to devise a strategic plan to reform its customer service model to better reflect this austere fiscal climate. The result was the Vision 2025 plan, released in July, which calls for a drastic reduction in the number of community field offices and a transition to an Internet-centric customer service model.
In an austerity mind-set, this approach would make sense: Fewer resources should naturally result in fewer services. But this experiment has already failed before it even begins. Over the past several years, SSA has closed nearly 80 offices, 500 contact stations and shed 11,000 trained staff members. Americans who go to the remaining offices will find shorter operating hours and longer lines. If they look for alternative methods of service, they’ll find a phone service plagued by long wait times and an overly cumbersome MySSA website.
To date these cuts have only exaggerated the program’s customer service problems — not improved them. Millions of baby boomers are becoming eligible for retirement, but SSA continues to cut services, offices and staff. The number of recent hires pales in comparison to the number of staff lost, and the workforce still faces an overwhelming workload.
Doubling down on a complex, error-prone MySSA website will do nothing to make up for the rapidly growing service gap. According to a 2013 survey by the Pew Research Center, more than 40 percent of Americans over the age of 65 do not even use the Internet. Nearly 60 percent lack a broadband connection. But the problems don’t end there. Even for those who do use the Internet, those who file for benefits online often mistakenly leave out important information that could result in a loss of benefits.
Even if these concerns are addressed, the fact of the matter is that Internet solutions will never replace the comprehensive, professional and personalized service that is offered at community offices. That has been proved by the 43 million people who come to community offices every year. They don’t come because they lack an alternative, but because they get good answers to difficult, unique and deeply personal questions. Wouldn’t you want to talk with a live professional when making financial decisions that will impact the rest of your life?
When charting its next 10 years, Social Security must not lose sight of the fact that it is a paid-for benefit with paid-for services earned by millions of Americans through a lifetime of hard work. Any process to reform the program must be customer-driven, not just budget-driven.
Social Security needs to provide its growing customer base with an array of services fit to meet the needs of all customers, not just the most easily automated cases. It should maintain regular business hours, fight for additional staff resources and develop its online service as a supplement to, not a replacement for, face-to-face service.
What we need is an “all of the above” strategy to service a growing customer base, and we should not be afraid to fight for the resources needed to build it.
By proposing a plan that decimates the field office structure and relies almost exclusively on technology, Social Security is effectively taking the “social” out of America’s most beloved public program. Social Security needs to rethink its plan and envision a future that benefits everyone.
AFGE represents more than 670,000 federal and D.C. government employees nationwide, including 25,000 at the Social Security Administration.