Social Security Disability:

Additional Performance Measures and Better Cost Estimates Could Help Improve SSA's Efforts to Eliminate Its Hearings Backlog

GAO-09-398: Published: Sep 9, 2009. Publicly Released: Sep 9, 2009.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Daniel Bertoni
(202) 512-5988
contact@gao.gov

 

Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800
youngc1@gao.gov

(SSA) has experienced processing delays and significant backlogs of disability claims at the hearings level. In May 2007, SSA began implementing a plan for eliminating the hearings backlog entitled Summary of Initiatives to Eliminate the SSA Hearings Backlog (the Plan). In response to a congressional request, GAO (1) examined the Plan's potential to eliminate the hearings-level backlog, (2) determined the extent to which the Plan included components of sound planning, and (3) identified potential unintended effects of the Plan on hearings-level operations and other aspects of the disability process. To address these objectives, GAO analyzed SSA data, conducted a risk analysis, assessed the Plan and its update--the May 2009 Draft Appomattox Plan--using planning criteria identified in previous GAO work, interviewed SSA officials, and conducted site visits in three SSA regions.

SSA's Plan should help the agency reduce its hearings-level backlog, but the likelihood that SSA will eliminate the backlog within its projected time-frame depends on the extent to which SSA's assumptions for improved administrative law judge (ALJ) hiring, availability, and productivity are achieved in practice. Both SSA and GAO believe that the agency has about a 78 percent chance of eliminating the backlog, that is, reducing the number of hearings-level pending claims below 466,000 claims, by the end of fiscal year 2013--SSA's target date--if those assumptions are fully realized. However, SSA's assumptions project higher levels of performance achieved than recent experience--from fiscal year 2008 to April 2009. ALJ productivity improvements are especially important to SSA's reaching its goal. The likelihood that SSA will eliminate the backlog by its target date changes under different scenarios for achieving its ALJ hiring, availability, and productivity goals. If SSA achieves its average ALJ productivity, but not its ALJ hiring and availability goals, GAO estimated that SSA's chances are reduced from about 78 percent to about 53 percent. Conversely, if SSA achieves its goals for ALJ hiring and availability, but not for average productivity, its chances are about 34 percent. If SSA is unable to achieve any of its ALJ workforce and performance goals, the likelihood of the agency eliminating the hearings-level backlog by its target date drops to about 14 percent. SSA's Plan includes important elements of the six components of sound planning GAO identified in previous work, but does not provide some key management information that could facilitate effective plan management. SSA did not fully address elements of two components. Specifically, the Plan does not include performance goals and measures for about half of the initiatives and cost estimates for many, which would allow SSA to evaluate the initiatives' effect on the hearings-level backlog and determine resource allocations and return on investment. Although the Plan does not identify implementation risks or strategies to address them, SSA officials said they are developing a system that will aid in creating formal performance goals and measures and risk analysis, several of which SSA plans to release in the fall of 2009. The Plan could have unintended effects on SSA offices involved in the disability process. For example, the Plan's initiatives to increase the number of hearings-level decisions could affect decisional quality and accuracy, and increase workloads in offices that are responsible for reviewing appeals of hearing office decisions, processing payments for claims, and conducting continuing disability reviews to determine whether beneficiaries remain eligible for benefits. Although SSA has developed plans to address increased workloads related to appeals of hearing decisions and monitors other disability workloads, it does not have a systematic approach to identify and address unintended effects caused by Plan initiatives over the course of the Plan.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As of September 2011, SSA reported that since the issuance of this report, the Office of Disability Adjudication and Review has implemented the Disability Adjudication Reporting and Evaluation System (DARES) that contains measures for each initiative. The agency also stated that they established goals for all new initiatives.

    Recommendation: To help SSA monitor progress and evaluate individual Plan initiatives' effect on the hearings-level backlog, inform its decisions about resource allocations for eliminating this backlog, and minimize adverse effects of the Plan's implementation, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should develop performance goals and measures for initiatives that currently do not have them.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: SSA disagreed with GAO's assertion that the agency did not develop cost estimates for the backlog reduction plan, and noted that it conducted a full evaluation of the costs and savings associated with implementing all major aspects of the Plan. In July 2012, SSA stated - and reiterated in May 2013 - that the backlog plan was initiated in 2007 as a moral imperative from Commissioner Astrue to reduce the number of disability cases pending at the hearing level, along with the time it was taking to process them. Cost and risk factors were not incorporated at that time. The agency noted that many initiatives developed and implemented from the plan have now become a part of SSA's normal business process, and that decisions that cost and risk analysis would have informed have already been made, so such analysis at this point is not cost-effective. GAO, however, continues to believe that it is important to develop cost estimates for individual Plan initiatives over the entire course of the Plan through FY13 because it would allow SSA to determine which initiatives provide the best return on investment as it moves forward with Plan implementation. Such information is critical to making informed decisions regarding the most effective use of funds to eliminate the backlog.

    Recommendation: To help SSA monitor progress and evaluate individual Plan initiatives' effect on the hearings-level backlog, inform its decisions about resource allocations for eliminating this backlog, and minimize adverse effects of the Plan's implementation, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should develop cost estimates for the initiatives SSA considers critical to eliminating the hearings-level backlog in addition to the time savings estimates already developed.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA noted that it is being proactive in identifying risks. The agency also reported that it has monitored all initiatives closely, and tried to assess issues that could prevent the success of an initiative and plan mitigation strategies if possible. While the agency may not have done "formal" risk analysis for every initiative, it considered risks that may be encountered and what effect the initiative may have on all of the agency's components, and put strategies in place to deal with these risks. In 2012, SSA reported that through its Disability Adjudication Reporting and Evaluation System, SSA now identifies and addresses potential risks, and formulates possible mitigation strategies for each risk.

    Recommendation: To help SSA monitor progress and evaluate individual Plan initiatives' effect on the hearings-level backlog, inform its decisions about resource allocations for eliminating this backlog, and minimize adverse effects of the Plan's implementation, the Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should move forward with formalizing agency risk assessments associated with the Plan's implementation, including assessing both risks that would hinder the Plan's success and risks that could cause adverse effects or trade-offs related to hearings-level performance and other SSA operations, along with mitigating strategies.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

 

Explore the full database of GAO's Open Recommendations »

Dec 19, 2014

Aug 21, 2014

Jul 16, 2014

May 29, 2014

May 22, 2014

Apr 24, 2014

Apr 9, 2014

Jan 30, 2014

Sep 13, 2013

Looking for more? Browse all our products here