Social Security Administration:

Strategic Workforce Planning Needed to Address Human Capital Challenges Facing the Disability Determination Services

GAO-04-121: Published: Jan 27, 2004. Publicly Released: Jan 27, 2004.

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SSA oversees and fully funds primarily state-operated DDSs that determine whether applicants are eligible for disability benefits. The disability examiners employed by the DDSs play a key role in determining benefit eligibility. This report examines (1) the challenges the DDSs face today in retaining and recruiting examiners and enhancing their expertise; (2) the extent to which the DDSs engage in workforce planning and encounter obstacles in doing so; and (3) the extent to which SSA is addressing present and future human capital challenges in the DDSs.

GAO found--through its survey of 52 of the 54 Disability Determination Service (DDS) directors and interviews with SSA officials and DDS staff--that the DDSs face three key challenges in retaining examiners and enhancing their expertise. High turnover: Over half of all DDS directors surveyed said that examiner turnover was too high in their offices. We found that examiner turnover was about twice that of federal employees performing similar work. Nearly twothirds of all directors reported that turnover has increased SSA's hiring and training costs and claims-processing times. And two-thirds of all directors cited stressful workloads and noncompetitive salaries as major factors that contributed to turnover. Recruiting and hiring difficulties: More than three-quarters of all DDS directors said they had difficulties over a three-year period in recruiting and hiring examiners. Of these, more than three-quarters said these difficulties contributed to increases in claims-processing times, examiner caseload levels, backlogs, and turnover. More than half of all directors reported that state-imposed compensation limits contributed to hiring difficulties. Gaps in key skills: Nearly one-half of all DDS directors said that at least a quarter of their examiners needed additional training in areas critical to disability decision-making. Over half of all directors cited factors related to high workload levels as obstacles to examiners' receiving additional training. Despite the workforce challenges facing them, a majority of DDSs do not conduct long-term, comprehensive workforce planning. In prior reports, GAO found that such planning should include key strategies for recruiting, retaining, training, and otherwise developing a workforce capable of meeting long-term agency goals. However, of the DDSs that engage in longer-term workforce planning, a majority have plans that lack such key workforce planning strategies. Directors cited numerous obstacles to long-term workforce planning, such as lengthy state processes to approve DDS human capital changes. SSA's workforce efforts have not sufficiently addressed current and future DDS human capital challenges. Federal law requires agencies to include in their annual performance plans a description of the human capital strategies needed to meet their strategic goals. However, GAO's review of key SSA planning documents shows they do not include a strategic human capital plan that addresses current and future DDS human capital needs. Thus, SSA does not link its strategic objectives to a workforce plan that covers the very people who are essential to accomplishing those objectives. GAO also found that SSA has not provided human capital assistance in a consistent manner across the DDSs and that SSA's effectiveness in helping the DDSs negotiate human capital changes with the states can be limited by such factors as state budget problems and personnel rules. Finally, SSA has not used its authority to establish uniform human capital standards, such as minimum qualifications for examiners, which would address, on a nationwide basis, some of the DDS challenges.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of SSA should develop a nationwide strategic workforce plan that addresses present and future human capital challenges in the DDSs. This plan should enable SSA to identify the key actions needed to deal with immediate DDS problems with recruiting and hiring, training, retention, and succession planning in support of SSA's strategic plan. It should additionally enable SSA to anticipate and plan for the future workforce that will be needed as SSA modernizes and fundamentally transforms its approach to disability decision-making. To develop and implement this comprehensive workforce plan, SSA should work in partnership with the DDSs and their parent agencies. As part of the planning process, SSA should (a) identify a small number of key DDS indicators of human capital performance, including recruiting and hiring measures, level of stress in the workplace, training needs, and turnover. SSA should establish standards for acceptable performance on these indicators, routinely collect and analyze the data to identify trends, and use this information to guide decisions regarding future DDS workforce needs and the strategies to meet them; (b) provide necessary tools and technical assistance to the DDSs to enable them to conduct long-term workforce planning. SSA should ensure that SSA staff responsible for providing this assistance are well trained in the tenets of workforce planning; (c) require each DDS to develop its own long-term workforce plan that is linked to the nationwide long-term DDS workforce plan. SSA should work in partnership with the DDSs and their parent agencies to develop these plans; (d) establish an ongoing program of outreach from SSA's leadership to state governors and national associations of state government officials to discuss the benefits and challenges of the federal-state relationship and encourage them to address human capital challenges identified by DDS directors, such as salary limits and hiring freezes; and (e) link performance expectations of appropriate SSA executives to their efforts in accomplishing goals and objectives of the workforce plan.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA agreed with the recommendation. In December 2006, SSA's Office of Disability Determination (ODD) collaborated with state DDS representatives on a project to identify skills sets needed in the DDS electronic environment, as well as issues, barriers and recommendations for effective staffing, recruitment and retention with in the state DDSs. The DDS Recruitment & Retention Workgroup identified ten short-, mid- and long-range opportunities that require further collaboration and dedicated resources, including training investment, equitable salaries, succession planning, and disability examiner certification. The workgroup also refined the recommendations packages, presented the final recommendations to SSA executives, and worked with SSA leadership to develop an implementation strategy over a multi-year timeline. In September 2008, SSA reported that in December 2007, the Workgroup presented a final report regarding current and future recruitment and retention impediments for the DDSs. The workgroup identified 147 issues affecting recruitment and retention which were then consolidated into nine topic categories. The overarching topics include items such as training, compensation initiatives, DE certification, succession planning, executive marketing packages, etc. The Recruitment and Retention Workgroup Final Report was vetted within the Office of Operations. Workgroups comprised of DDS representatives, regional office staff and central office component representatives are currently being formed to implement actions and/or initiate research to bring solutions to the 147 items.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of SSA should issue regulations that establish uniform minimum qualifications for new disability examiners. The minimum qualifications should be based on an analysis of the position that identifies the examiner's responsibilities and the minimum knowledge, skills, and competencies necessary to adequately perform them. The minimum qualifications for the examiner's position should take into account any changes in the complexity of the tasks required for this position stemming from the Commissioner's new long-term strategy.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: SSA agreed with this recommendation. The DDS Recruitment and Retention Workgroup is evaluating skill sets that DDS case examiners should have in the new electronic environment, as well as need for more consistent job descriptions and evaluating certification of case examiners. The Workgroup committee anticipates a final product that will identify best practices, necessary changes in the law, and what actions that SSA and DDSs can respectively take to address issues of recruitment and retention of case examiners. The Workgroup has issued a draft Executive Summary and plans to present final recommendations to SSA executives and work with SSA leadership on developing a multi-year implementation strategy. In September 2008, SSA reported that the Workgroup report contains a number of actions related to the recruiting, hiring and retaining highly qualified staff including setting minimum qualifications for Disability Examiners; implementing a national Disability Examiner position description; and creating a national Disability Examiner certification program. The Implementation Workgroup is working with SSA leadership to develop multi-year implementation strategies.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of SSA should work with DDSs to close the gaps between current examiner skills and required job skills. To do so, SSA should work with the DDSs to (a) analyze examiner training needs, using as a foundation the analysis of job responsibilities and related minimum knowledge, skills, and competencies recommended above; (b) improve training content and delivery to meet these needs, basing such efforts on analyses of training content and appropriateness of training delivery methods; and (c) develop performance measures to track effectiveness of these improvements to training.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA agreed with this recommendation. On an ongoing basis, SSA's Office of Disability Program's Disability Training Team is responsible for (1) conducting teleconferences with the Disability Training Steering Committee, which provides input on DDS-related training needs, (2) maintaining a Disability Training Cadre that prepares and presents disability-related training via interactive video teleconference (IVT), (3) providing training on new listings of impairments, and (4) updating the Disability Examiner Basic Training Program, which is the entry-level course for new examiners. The DDS Recruitment and Retention Workgroup (a) identified training investment as one of ten top issues, (b) presented final recommendations on this and other issues to SSA executives and (c) worked with SSA leadership to develop a multi-year implementation strategy.

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