Federal Manager's Daily Report

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In findings with broader implications as many agencies increasingly drive customer service to remote delivery, GAO has said that steps the SSA took after generally closing its local offices due to the pandemic left some segments of the public less well served.

“The transition to remote services disproportionately affected vulnerable groups, according to those we interviewed, because of their previous reliance on in-person services,” it said. Those groups, “who may face disproportionate barriers, including lack of consistent access to technology,” include “older adults, those with limited English proficiency, those experiencing homelessness, those in rural areas, individuals with low incomes, individuals with disabilities, and those without legal representation,” it said.

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While offices were closed to all but those with certain “critical needs”—a restriction lifted earlier this year—SSA increased its use of telephone, mail, video and online services, GAO said. The SSA also targeted outreach to certain vulnerable populations and expanded use of third parties to help the underserved access benefits and services.

However, not all claimants are able to apply for certain benefits online and applications in Spanish cannot be submitted online, it said, and “as a result, SSA cannot fulfill its mission to ensure that its services are equitable and accessible, and some eligible individuals may not apply for benefits.”

It noted that during the office closing period, claims for several types of benefits declined and “some types of benefits claims declined more for certain populations, such as Spanish speakers.”

“Some SSA offices have assessed specific service delivery changes, but the agency does not have a coordinated process for assessing lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic and taking related corrective actions, which could leave SSA vulnerable to other crises in the future,” it added.

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