The Social Security Administration’s recent decision to revoke a 2014 telework program spotlights a very real management conundrum that defines Washington: that policy reversals, which are nearly synonymous with partisan politics, can cost government millions and harm workforce morale.
SSA recently notified employees in its operations offices that a nearly six-year telework program at the agency would be coming to an end in the next few weeks, a sharp transition from previous policy that encouraged telework as part of a modern workplace.
The removal of telework is designed to improve wait times and customer satisfaction with the agency, officials said, but employee groups have argued that it damages the work-life balance of employees that are already able to do the same work from home.
“We need to assess how we do our work, how we use technology, and how we empower our employees at SSA," wrote SSA Commissioner Andrew Saul in a Nov. 4 letter to the public. “All of those things are complicated, but they are necessary to accomplish my plan for SSA.”
A customer service problem
The shift away from telework at SSA represents a larger change in policy and ideology at the agency concerning how to best address the persistent problem of citizen wait times and customer service issues at the agency.
Between 2012 and 2014, the number of visitors to SSA field offices who faced wait times longer than one hour jumped from 2 million in a year to 5.2 million, while average wait times went from 19 minutes in 2010 to the peak 27 minutes in 2016.
According to a February 2018 report by the agency’s inspector general, the increase in wait times is likely attributable to significant staff losses that took place during the hiring freeze imposed from 2010 to 2013. The agency lost “knowledgeable and experienced employees” and were unable to recover the number they had lost by the end of 2017.
March 2014 SSA planning documents obtained by Federal Times detail how the telework program was initially instituted with the goal of both attracting new employees and pushing citizens to interact with the agency via phone and online to reduce in-person wait times.
Such a transition required the agency to make a large investment in IT enhancements — including a $145 million contract with NCS Technologies to provide all employees with laptops and associated accessories — to enable employees work from any location.
Those enhancements also required ensuring that the virtual private network could handle a large bandwidth of employees logging on remotely all at once and that employees were provided with work cellphones to answer calls through the agency’s 800-number service, in addition to other investments.
Laptops are also more expensive than desktop computers and more likely to break or get stolen, creating additional cost.
But the agency planned to offset these costs by reducing its physical footprint and ensuring that the agency would be “always open” virtually, even if physical conditions prevented employees from getting to the office. Specifically, the agency predicted a 40 percent reduction in government-occupied space through working from home and hoteling.
SSA indeed moved forward on this strategy. According to an August 2017 Government Accountability Office report, the agency managed to reduce its physical footprint by about 5 percent, and more offices have closed since the time of the report.
Sherry Jackson, third vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees SSA Council 220, confirmed to Federal Times that employees at SSA field offices currently share space and desks, while one employee or another is out on telework.
But what didn’t change is customer habits. The 2017 GAO report found that in-person contacts with the agency did not go down as more online services became available, potentially due to a “growing demand for services, as well as certain services not yet being fully available online.”
Such trends may also be due in part to the fact that only 62 percent of the Silent Generation — who range in age from their mid-70s to mid-90s — uses the internet, according to a September 2019 Pew Research study. So the age group most likely to need Social Security services is also least likely to be online.
This discrepancy will not always be the case, however. The same Pew Research numbers point to the fact that 85 percent of the Baby Boomer generation, which is substantially larger that the Silent and is partway through retiring and beginning to claim their Social Security benefits, uses the internet, with that number increasing over time.
An argument can be made that the initial telework program was ahead of its time, addressing the needs the agency would have in the future, rather than at that exact moment.
According to Saul’s letter, the telework program “was implemented without necessary controls or data collection to evaluate effectiveness or impact on public service.”
The Inspector General has kept an eye on the program and found that telework’s impact on employee efficiency has been mixed: a July 2017 report found that while the agency’s teleservice centers saw employees able to handle more calls on average while teleworking, the front offices had three to four minute longer wait times and lower telephone answer rates when offering telework.
But correlation does not mean causation, and the report noted that those front offices offering telework generally had longer wait times before the program was implemented.
But while different interpretations of the value of telework persist, the agency itself may end up in a long-term cycle of shifting priorities with each administration that end up costing the agency more money.
As Saul’s letter noted, the agency will still need to invest in IT improvements, while potentially needing the office space it just offloaded to hold all employees. That office space will only get more expensive.
For example, according to General Services Administration documents, a 2015 lease for teleservice center office space in Salinas, California, costs the agency $2.6 million annually. The proposed renewal of that exact lease in 2020 is estimated to cost the agency $3.5 million.
Acting SSA Press Officer Mark Hinkle said that the agency expect all existing Operations offices to be able to accommodate the employees returning to full in-office duty.
The change could also risk throwing the agency back into the same workforce shortage problems it faced in 2010 that caused the spike in wait times. Approximately 20 percent of SSA employees were hired after the telework policy was already in place and could choose to leave for a job that maintains such flexibility.
“By revoking telework and dedicated time to remove the claims backlog, SSA will drive away talented employees, worsen the customer experience and grind our productivity to a halt,” AFGE Council 220 President Ralph DeJuliis said in a statement.
But Hinkle said that the current “service crisis” is not a time for experimentation with telework.
“Faced with significant public service challenges, including customers taking the time to come to an office expecting in-person service only to be handed a phone to talk with an employee working from home, the deputy commissioner for operations ended a telework program that only covered 25 percent of Operations employees and had been in a pilot phase since 2013," said Hinkle.
"Further, that pilot failed to put in place controls to measure the effect on public service or provide management with the ability to evaluate employee performance consistent with the Telework Act, which also provides that some functions require employees to work in the office.”
Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.