Social Security Administration:

Longstanding Problems in SSA's Letters to the Public Need to Be Fixed

HEHS-00-179: Published: Sep 26, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2000.

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Barbara D. Bovbjerg
(202) 512-3000


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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO assessed the equality of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) letters to the public, focusing on the: (1) problems that make SSA's letters difficult to understand; and (2) status of SSA's actions to fix the problems.

GAO noted that: (1) the majority of letters in each of the four categories GAO reviewed did not clearly communicate at least one of the following key points: (a) SSA's decision (that is, the action SSA was taking on a claim that prompted the agency to send the letter); (b) the basis for SSA's decision; (c) the financial effect of SSA's decision on the person addressed in the letter; or (d) the recourse the person could take in response to SSA's decision; (2) the lack of clarity was caused by one or more problems, such as illogically sequenced information, incomplete or missing explanations, contradictory information, and confusing numerical information; (3) an unclear explanation of the basis for SSA's decision was the most widespread problem among the four categories of letters; (4) for example, it was difficult to understand the basis for SSA's decision in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) award letters because the letters did not explain the relationship between program rules and the amount of the SSI benefit; (5) a subgroup of SSI award letters--those sent to about 13 to 15 percent of SSI awardees who are eligible for previous but not future benefits--were unclear in communicating all four key points; (6) SSA acknowledges that these letters contain the problems GAO identified; however, for many of the problems, the agency has not taken any corrective action; (7) many of the problems GAO identified are not amenable to quick fixes but, rather, will require a comprehensive revision of the language used in the letters and rewriting the agency's software applications that generate them; (8) the agency has repeatedly rescheduled plans to make comprehensive changes for its Social Security benefit adjustment letters because of competing demands for computer systems resources; the agency allocated resources to other priorities, such as making computer system changes that resulted from legislation; (9) however, the agency recently announced plans to make significant changes to this category of letter, but few details are yet available; (10) major improvements to SSI letters were also delayed, but in this case SSA was waiting for resolution of a nationwide court case involving these letters; (11) in September 1999, a federal court ordered SSA to develop and implement a plan to improve its SSI letters, prompting SSA to begin a major, multiyear initiative to improve its SSI letters; (12) this initiative is still in the early phase; and (13) SSA has not placed a high priority on improving its letters to the public.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: As intended, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has begun to address problems with social security benefit adjustment letters and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) award and benefit adjustment letters, which GAO identified as difficult to understand. Following the GAO review, SSA quickly corrected problems that were amenable to quick fixes--two errors that GAO identified with social security and SSI award letters that were previously unknown to the agency--and is making continuous progress in completing the comprehensive changes that GAO stated were being needed. SSA reported that it completely revamped the Social Security benefit adjustment letters in 2002. Regarding SSI letters, in 2002 and 2003, SSA added two worksheets (one showing how the agency computed the award and benefit adjustment amount; the other explaining how the agency computed SSI benefits based on living arrangements and earned income), and scheduled two other improvements for completion in 2005. Moreover, in keeping with GAO's recommendation to track the effectiveness of improvements, in 2003, SSA conducted surveys of customers' comprehension of social security benefit adjustment letters and SSI award letters to establish a baseline for assessing changes.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should direct SSA officials to develop performance measures to hold the agency accountable for making the needed comprehensive changes to its Social Security benefit adjustment letters and SSI award and benefit adjustment letters. These measures should include indicators that clearly articulate the timetables and basis against which progress to complete improvements can be tracked and, as further progress is made, the effectiveness of the improvements.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration


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