Social Security Facing Customer-Service, Insolvency and Backlog Crises — What Will ‘Data-Driven’ Approach to Solution Entail?

Senior woman with phone looking frustrated.
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President Joe Biden’s nominee as the next Social Security Administration commissioner did not mince words when describing the challenges ahead, telling U.S. senators on Thursday that the agency is in “crisis.” The nominee, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, intends to take a data-driven approach to fixing the SSA’s problems should he be confirmed for the job.

During his nomination hearing in front of the Senate Finance Committee, O’Malley said the SSA serves 50% more customers and beneficiaries today than it did more than a quarter-century ago — but with the same amount of staff. He specifically mentioned long telephone wait times and delays in approval of disability-benefit claims among the agency’s biggest customer service problems, MarketWatch reported.

“We must acknowledge that Social Security faces a customer service crisis,” O’Malley said at the hearing. “A senior citizen who calls the 800 number of the Social Security Administration will face an average hold time of 37 long minutes. [Those seeking disability benefits] will wait 220 days for an initial decision, and perhaps as long as two years for an appeal. This is not the greatness of America. This is not acceptable.”

Those comments mirrored statements made by Linda Kerr-Davis, the SSA’s acting deputy commissioner of operations, during recent testimony in front of the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee.

“Pending levels and wait times for determinations on initial disability claims and disability reconsiderations are at all-time highs,” Kerr-Davis said. “For the first time since the programs began, pending initial disability claims have exceeded 1 million. Applicants are waiting on average seven months for a decision. This is simply not acceptable — to the public, to you, or to us.”

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She added that the delays are due to “several issues,” but are “ultimately tied to funding challenges.” Field offices have seen record high employee attrition, and the SSA has faced difficulty hiring replacements. There is also reduced access to medical evidence, which began during the COVID-19 pandemic and was “compounded” by a shortage of consultative examination providers.

The SSA hit a 25-year staffing low in 2022 even as it was tasked with serving a steady increase in beneficiaries, the Government Executive website reported. Meanwhile, employee morale at the SSA has “plummeted.” Over the past decade, it has dropped from the second-best large federal government agency to work for to “dead last,” according to the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

The SSA also faces a looming financial crisis because its Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) Trust Fund, which currently funds about one-quarter of benefits, is due to run out of money in about a decade.

If confirmed, O’Malley said he would take a similar approach to the SSA that he did as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland — which mainly means holding data-focused meetings on a biweekly basis, Government Executive noted.

“What Social Security has need of is a common operating platform that allows everyone to see what’s happening in the organization,” O’Malley said. “Right now, if you look at the [organization] chart, it is massive and extremely siloed. The key to collaboration and improving service and efficiency, as well as staying on budget, is to break ourselves out of 240 years of tradition that says, ‘That’s my data, that’s my budget’ or that information is to be hoarded, and instead realize you need to share information openly and transparently.”

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His solution is to “measure performance, understand what’s happening where, whether we’re on track or not, and who’s doing it well and who is not.”

This will require a change in how SSA leaders analyze data. For example, O’Malley would shift from a focus on “lagging indicators” like average wait times at call centers and instead analyze how changes to agency practices can affect performance.

“There are lagging indicators that are pretty clear that we have to meet,” O’Malley said. “What is not as clear are the measurements on the tactics, strategies and actions that drive you to the lagging indicators. People can gather at the table every month and stare at the hold times or the backlog and shake their heads and wag their fingers, but that won’t improve it. You have to actually measure the leading actions.”

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