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Social Security must plan long-term for leaner future, IG says

Jan. 7, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By SEAN REILLY   |   Comments
(Erik Snyder / Getty Images)

The Social Security Administration must lay out long-range plans to meet a mounting workload with tighter funding, the agency’s inspector general says in a newly released overview of pressing management challenges.

As the number of applicants for retirement and disability benefits grows by the millions, more than one-fifth of SSA’s workforce was eligible to retire last year and that ratio will rise to almost one-third by fiscal 2017, according to the report released Monday. Although SSA, like other large federal agencies, regularly updates its strategic plans, those are “near-term documents” that don’t address looming challenges 10 or 20 years down the road, the report says.

“Given the expectation of leaner future budgets, SSA needs to plan to meet its mission with fewer resources,” the IG adds. The reports notes that last year’s creation of a chief strategic officer position should help SSA plan for the next decade, “taking into account customer expectations and available resources.” The agency has also had some success in encouraging the public to shift to online services; in the fourth quarter of 2013, more than half of claims were filed electronically.

While SSA leaders had once sought to eliminate a backlog of appeals hearings by last year, the agency instead ended fiscal 2013 with 848,000 pending claims. Plan to reduce the average wait time for a decision to nine months also fizzled. Although waits have dropped markedly since 2008, they still averaged more than a year. After unveiling a plan early last year to improve service delivery to the public, agency leaders have since decided not to proceed with it and instead are developing a new long-range plan due late this year, the report says.

On that last point, Acting Commissioner Carolyn Colvin decided that draft service delivery plan did not meet“her own long-term vision and strategy” and instead decided to work on an alternative with the National Academy of Public Administration and other stakeholders, an SSA spokeswoman said in a Monday email.

As of June, SSA had almost 63,000 employees, down more than 7 percent from two years earlier, according to the most recent available Office of Personnel Management figures. The agency has been without a permanent commissioner since Michael Astrue stepped down last February; President Obama has yet to nominate a replacement. To tamp down expenses, SSA officials have clamped down on hiring, consolidated several dozen field offices and chopped overtime. Agency officials believe that more budget cuts will worsen services to the public and lead to increases in improper payments, the report says.

Among other challenges singled out by the IG:

■ Reducing improper payments.

■ Investing in information technology to meet workload needs.

■ Improving transparency and accountability.

■ Strengthening protection over use of the Social Security number.

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