GAO has reported that SSA faces a growing burden in years ahead to process retirement and disability applications from the baby boom generation as it hits retirement eligibility age. Meanwhile, the agency is facing a retirement wave of its own. Following is the summary of the report.

The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) approximately 1,300 field offices are a vital component for providing service to the public, and in fiscal year 2008 served about 44 million customers who visited the offices. With almost 44 percent of the agency’s approximate 63,000 employees, field offices serve as SSA’s primary points for face-to-face contact with the public. People visit their local field offices to apply for Social Security cards and for Social Security benefits, to request replacement benefit checks, and to obtain a host of other services.

Constrained budgets and staffing and increases in retirement and disability filings by the aging baby boomer population are increasingly challenging field offices’ ability to meet the demand for services. In our May 2008 testimony, we reported our initial observations on the adverse effects that have resulted from a reduced staff level in SSA field offices and the future challenges field offices face as the nation’s 80 million baby boomers retire. As requested, this report conveys the final results of our evaluation. To better understand the challenges SSA field offices face in delivering quality service to customers, we reviewed (1) the effect that staffing reductions are having on field office operations and (2) the challenges SSA faces in meeting service delivery needs in the future and the agency’s plans for addressing them.

To review the effect staffing reductions have had on field office operations, we obtained various automated data on field office staffing, work productivity, and customer wait times for fiscal years 2004 through 2008 and interviewed SSA headquarters officials responsible for overseeing field office operations. We interviewed managers and staff in 21 field offices, two Social Security Card Centers, two regional offices, and three area offices to gain their perspectives on the effect of staffing reductions and strategies used to manage work. We selected the field offices based on the populations they served, their geographic location, number of staff, and customer wait times. As we describe in appendix I, we tested the reliability of SSA’s work productivity and staffing data, the national average field office customer wait time for fiscal years 2002 to 2006, and national and field office wait time data for fiscal years 2007 and 2008 from SSA’s Visitor Intake Process, and found that they were sufficiently reliable for the purposes of our review. To review the challenges that SSA faces in meeting service delivery needs in the future, we interviewed SSA headquarters officials responsible for operations, budget, and strategic human capital planning, and obtained relevant documentation. This documentation included data on the projected growth in the number of claims, beneficiaries, and staff retirements, and SSA’s fiscal year 2008 to 2013 strategic plan.

We conducted our work between July 2007 and January 2009 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards. Those standards require that we plan and perform the audit to obtain sufficient, appropriate evidence to provide a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives. We believe the evidence obtained provides a reasonable basis for our findings and conclusions based on our audit objectives.

Staffing constraints are having adverse effects on service. The number of staff in field offices dropped 4.4 percent between 2005 and 2008. As a result of greater efficiencies, field office work produced fell only 1.3 percent during the same period. To manage the reduced staffing, SSA deferred work that the agency deemed as a lower priority, such as conducting reviews of beneficiaries’ continuing eligibility. However, deferring these reviews means that beneficiaries who no longer qualify for benefits may still receive payments erroneously. Busy field offices also shared work with less busy offices and redirected staff from their usual responsibilities to meet critical needs. Reduced staffing also may have contributed to the buildup of work in field offices, longer customer wait times, and poor phone service. In fiscal year 2008, more than 3 million customers waited for over 1 hour to be served. Further, SSA’s 2007 Field Office Caller Survey found that 51 percent of customers calling selected field offices had at least one earlier call that had gone unanswered. Because SSA based its results only on customers who were ultimately able to get through to the field offices, the actual percentage of customers that had unanswered calls was likely even higher. These factors may have contributed to a 3 percent drop in SSA’s overall customer satisfaction rating, from 84 percent in fiscal year 2005 to 81 percent in fiscal year 2008. SSA currently has no quantitative standards for customer waiting times and field office telephone service, limiting the agency’s ability to measure the quality of these services.

Increases in retirement and disability filings and a significant retirement wave of SSA’s most experienced staff pose difficult challenges for SSA but SSA does not currently have a detailed plan to address future service delivery needs. SSA estimates that retirement and disability filings will increase the agency’s work by about 1 million annual claims by 2017. Further, SSA will experience a retirement wave agency-wide in the coming years—the agency projects that 44 percent of its staff will retire by 2016. SSA also published its new strategic plan in September 2008, which calls for SSA to eliminate the backlog of disability hearings and increase online filings of retirement applications to a rate of 50 percent. While discussing the strategic plan with us, SSA officials noted that it is not intended to be a service delivery plan detailing how the agency will address the service needs of the retiring baby boom generation. While the plan includes the goal of significantly expanding the use of electronic services, it is not clear how this will mitigate SSA’s increasing workload. As early as 1993 and most recently in 2000, we recommended that SSA develop a service delivery plan to address its resource constraints and other challenges. However, SSA officials told us they use their strategic plan to provide a broad vision and goals, and use the annual budget process to request resources for incremental changes.

We are recommending that SSA develop a service delivery plan that describes how it will deliver quality service in the future while managing growing work demands and constrained resources. Further, this plan should establish standards for field office waiting times and phone service to help identify and improve offices with poor service.

In responding to a draft of our report, SSA disagreed with our statement that it does not have a detailed plan to address future service delivery needs. Rather, it commented that it continually plans for the future and has been long aware that the Baby Boom generation would have a dramatic impact on internal staffing losses, as well as escalating disability and retirement claims workloads. However, in response to continuing concerns about a lack of a consolidated plan to address the disability and retirement wave of the Baby Boom generation, SSA now is developing a single document that describes the many planning efforts that it has in place. We welcome SSA’s decision to develop a consolidated planning document. While SSA has a variety of planning efforts to improve its operations, it is still not clear how SSA plans to minimize the deferral of its workloads and its decline in customer service, and we continue to recommend that SSA make clear to what extent additional resources or an altered field office structure might be needed to accommodate the growing workload.

SSA did not agree with our recommendation to establish standards for field office customer wait times and phone service, stating that such standards would create problems by diverting an already thin staff away from processing claims and postentitlement work. While we understand that SSA field offices face many pressures, we believe that clear standards establishing a minimum level of quality customer service are an essential first step for organizations to measure success.