Social Security Administration:

More Cost-Effective Approaches Exist to Further Improve 800-Number Service

HEHS-97-79: Published: Jun 11, 1997. Publicly Released: Jun 11, 1997.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Social Security Administration's (SSA) 800 number service, focusing on: (1) how well SSA's 800 number provides service to the public; and (2) what steps SSA needs to take to ensure that improvements to the 800 number are cost-effective.

GAO noted that: (1) although SSA's 800 number has consistently provided accurate and courteous service to the public, callers have had difficulty getting through; (2) to address this problem, in early 1996 SSA increased the number of representatives answering calls and implemented a new nationwide automated menu; (3) these efforts brought SSA closer to its goal of having 85 percent of callers get through to the 800 number within 5 minutes of their first attempt; (4) not all callers who got through actually spoke to a representative, however, or successfully used one of the automated service options; (5) moreover, SSA came close to accomplishing its goal largely by diverting SSA staff from work responsibilities unrelated to the 800 number; (6) SSA's plans include further increasing the percentage of callers who get through to the 800 number within 5 minutes and expanding the limited range of transactions that callers may complete using the 800-number service; (7) as 800-number and other workloads continue to grow, expanding services while maintaining access levels will challenge SSA; (8) SSA's plans do not sufficiently reflect lessons learned from the private and public sectors on cost-effectively improving 800-number service; (9) for example, SSA could save a significant amount of money by automating more of its routine transactions and by finding ways to verify callers' identities using automated features; (10) for those transactions deemed complex enough to require personal assistance, private-sector leaders in 800-number service save money and enhance service by locating their call agents at a few large centers; (11) in contrast, SSA maintains a large number of teleservice centers and has not developed a specific plan and timetable for reducing the number of these centers; (12) because SSA continues to offer customer service through its field offices, it needs to carefully consider how changes, such as expanding the range of transactions that callers may conduct or complete using the 800 number, fit into and affect SSA's overall service delivery strategy; (13) for example, SSA needs to compare the cost of conducting additional transactions using the 800 number with other service delivery methods to identify the most cost-effective approach; (14) SSA also needs to collect data for more fully assessing how quickly and completely the 800 number serves customers; and (15) by adopting the kind of 800-number initiatives used by some private- and public-sector organizations, SSA could provide effective service while controlling costs.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • 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: To serve the public's growing demand for SSA's 800-number services with limited resources, SSA needs to take additional steps toward improving the 800 number in a cost-effective manner. These steps should include developing a plan for expanding automated services that both systematically identifies additional transactions for automation and, for sensitive transactions, protects against fraud and inappropriate disclosure of private information and ensures program integrity and customer privacy.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: While SSA does not have one formal plan for expanding automated 800-number services, it has taken numerous actions in this direction, and considers this something it now does in the course of business. Recent and ongoing actions include: (1) forming a work group in the summer of 1999, that came up with recommendations and an action plan to improve the 800-number; (2) working with a new vendor (MCI) to streamline the automated service menu; (3) studying "mainframe access" to allow more sensitive automated transactions; and (4) exploring natural speech language software that would remove menu restrictions. In addition, SSA routinely identifies the top 25 reasons why customers call the 800-number to evaluate their potential for automated message service. Finally, SSA's new 2010 Vision for customer service emphasizes the Agency's commitment to expanding automated services over the 800-number, and its strategic plan spells out specific automation goals.

    Recommendation: To serve the public's growing demand for SSA's 800-number services with limited resources, SSA needs to take additional steps toward improving the 800 number in a cost-effective manner. These steps should include developing and implementing a plan for reducing the number of call centers to save money and enhance service provided by SSA representatives.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: SSA has no plan to reduce the number of call centers. Instead, SSA might reduce the number of automated call distributors (ACDs) as it replaces older ACDs, which can reduce costs by electronically consolidating calls, rather than consolidating telephone service centers (TSCs). SSA also plans to use new software ("Intelligent Network Routing") with its new ACD platform, to create one virtual queue, and thus improve service to callers. SSA expects to award a contract to replace its ACDs at the end of fiscal year (FY) 2000, and to make replacements over a 6 to 18 month period starting the first quarter of FY2001. It is not yet clear how much would be saved by this action, and whether it would compare favorably to the option of closing TSCs.

    Recommendation: To serve the public's growing demand for SSA's 800-number services with limited resources, SSA needs to take additional steps toward improving the 800 number in a cost-effective manner. These steps should include comparing the cost-effectiveness of expanding the 800-number service with that of other service delivery methods, such as face-to-face service.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA agreed with this recommendation. One key SSA official said that cost-effectiveness of initiating new toll-free services would always be taken into account. Furthermore, he said decisions would not always be made in favor of the least costly approach--the fact that a new way of delivering a service improves overall customer service can take precedence. For example, the Deputy Commissioner of Operations recently conducted a pilot to evaluate the feasibility of taking claims over the toll free number, but did not produce a formal cost-effectiveness study. Roll out of this initiative began February 2000, and should be completed by September 25, 2000, on the basis of its customer service merits.

    Recommendation: To serve the public's growing demand for SSA's 800-number services with limited resources, SSA needs to take additional steps toward improving the 800 number in a cost-effective manner. These steps should include establishing additional performance measures to more fully assess the consequences of expanding 800-number services, including measures for the promptness and completeness of 800-number customer service.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In accordance with GAO's recommendation to more fully measure promptness of 800-number service, the agency recently developed two new performance measures for the 800-number, one of which tracks the average speed of answer, including time spent on hold. The agency is currently establishing targets for these two measures, and plans to formally adopt them in its fiscal year 2005 performance plan. In the meantime, SSA will be tracking its performance against these measures prior to their official adoption.

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