Social Security Administration:

Improvements Needed in Facilities Planning and Service Delivery Evaluation

GAO-17-597: Published: Jul 25, 2017. Publicly Released: Aug 24, 2017.

Additional Materials:

Contact:

Barbara Bovbjerg
(202) 512-7215
bovbjergb@gao.gov

 

David J. Wise
(202) 512-2834
(202) 512-2834

 

Office of Public Affairs
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What GAO Found

The Social Security Administration (SSA) has reduced its physical footprint and expanded delivery of services remotely, including online. SSA reduced the total square footage of its facilities by about 1.4 million square feet (or about 5 percent) from fiscal years 2012 to 2016, according to GAO's analysis, by applying new standards for determining the size of offices and consolidating facilities (see figure). SSA has also expanded the services it offers remotely, and online use has increased for certain services such as disability and retirement applications. Despite this increase, in-person contacts at field offices have not changed substantially, with about the same number in fiscal year 2016 as in fiscal year 2007 (approximately 43 million). This may be due to growing demand for services as well as certain services not yet being fully available online.

SSA's Total Square Footage, Fiscal Years 2012-2016

SSA's Total Square Footage, Fiscal Years 2012-2016

SSA's steps to reconfigure its footprint do not fully incorporate changes in service delivery, such as the expansion of remote service delivery. As mentioned above, SSA has been expanding the services it delivers online. While SSA has a strategic goal of re-thinking its footprint as it expands remote service delivery, it lacks a facility plan that links to this goal, as called for by facility planning criteria. Without a plan that considers the increasing use of online services and wide variation in online service use across field offices, SSA may miss opportunities to further reduce its footprint.

SSA is taking steps to make remote services easier to use, for example by adding new features to its website and offering alternate approaches for accessing services, but does not consistently evaluate them, which could limit its ability to shift more services online and further reconfigure its footprint. For example, SSA has added features allowing online customers to interact directly with SSA staff. However, SSA does not track staff follow-ups to deal with any errors in online benefit applications in order to improve them, as called for by federal internal control standards. To enhance access to remote services, SSA has introduced alternate service approaches such as videoconferencing in third-party sites; however, it does not have performance goals for these approaches. GAO has previously identified performance goals as a best practice, which may help agencies improve their customer service.

Why GAO Did This Study

SSA has one of the largest physical footprints of any federal agency. It has about 1,500 facilities nationwide, including field offices where customers can meet with SSA staff to apply for benefits and conduct other business. SSA is re-examining its footprint in light of expanding online and other remote service options and a 2012 government-wide initiative to make more efficient use of physical space. GAO was asked to examine SSA's changing footprint and service delivery.

This report (1) describes the trends in SSA's physical footprint and service delivery, (2) assesses the steps SSA is taking to reconfigure its footprint, and (3) assesses the steps SSA is taking to address any challenges to expanding remote service delivery. GAO reviewed SSA documents and data on facilities and service delivery for fiscal years 2006 to 2016; interviewed officials from SSA and other federal agencies; and visited SSA facilities in four states, chosen for diversity in geographic location, visitor to staff ratio, and proportion of local residents with Internet access, among other factors.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making five recommendations, including that SSA develop a facility plan for reconfiguring its footprint as it expands remote service delivery, track staff follow-ups of online applications, and develop performance goals for alternate service approaches. SSA agreed with GAO's recommendations.

For more information, contact Barbara Bovbjerg at (202) 512-7215 or bovbjergb@gao.gov or David Wise at (202) 512-2834 or wised@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2020, SSA said its Space Acquisition Review Board (SARB) continues to meet periodically and focuses on efficiently using the agency's resources to reduce its real estate footprint and proactively addressing organizational and operational changes. In addition, SSA said its goals, results, and future plans of its real estate strategy are documented in its annual Real Property Efficiency Plan. GAO reviewed SSA's Real Property Efficiency Plan for 2019-2023 (dated September 2018). This plan states that SSA is using two model field offices to test how emerging technologies and service delivery methods could result in reductions to field office space agency-wide. However, it does not include specific plans for adjusting its overall physical footprint in light of expanding remote service delivery. To close this recommendation as implemented, SSA will need to demonstrate that it has developed a long-term facility plan--possibly building on its model field office pilot--that links to its strategic goals for service delivery and includes a plan for adjusting its field offices in light of increasing use of and geographic variation in remote service delivery.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should direct the agency to develop a long-term facility plan that explicitly links to SSA's strategic goals for service delivery, and includes a strategy for consolidating or downsizing field offices in light of increasing use of and geographic variation in remote service delivery.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2020, SSA said it published its consolidated and revised Space Allocation Standards and Space Computation Worksheets in June 2019. It said the revised standards include standardized offices, work stations, and employee personal storage space. To close this recommendation as implemented, GAO will need to see evidence that the revised space allocation standards allow more flexibility for growth in demand and new service delivery methods, or at least that SSA considered incorporating such flexibility.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should direct the agency to reassess and, if needed, revise its field office space standards to ensure they provide sufficient flexibility to accommodate both unexpected growth in the demand for services and new service delivery technologies.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In August 2018, SSA stated that its Division of Furniture Support (DFS) implemented the Space Acquisition Module of RealT in January 2018. This module allows regional offices to upload their space requirements at 36 months from lease expiration. Once these requirements are approved at headquarters, the regions send them to the GSA. According to SSA, this functionality allows the regions to track individual projects through the space acquisition process at the project level, while enabling DFS to manage the agency's real property at the portfolio level. Furthermore, SSA said it completed and implemented an Office Code/Building Code utility in September 2017, which enables the agency to identify and maintain one-to-many relationships (in cases where multiple offices exist in one building) to establish where its offices are located. When combined with other facility data maintained by SSA, this information yields more detailed breakouts by office type and allows for the development of an inventory of buildings by office type.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should direct the agency to ensure the Real Estate and Lease Tracking application has the capacity to accurately track the composition of SSA's office inventory over time.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2020, SSA said it has identified the most common reasons for technician follow-up on the iClaims system, and based on these reasons has developed a list of potential future enhancements to iClaim. SSA said it prioritized the enhancements based on which would provide the most relief, but is still determining if enhancements can be made. To close this recommendation as implemented, GAO will need to see evidence that SSA has in fact implemented changes to the iClaim system based on the data it collected on reasons for technician follow-up.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should direct the agency to develop a cost-effective approach to identifying the most common issues with online benefit claims that require staff follow-up with applicants, and use this information to inform improvements to the online claims process.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  5. Status: Open

    Comments: In February 2020, SSA said it has developed performance goals for its SSA Express Icons: 15,000 new visitors annually and 50 new partner sites annually. It also said it continues to work on a dashboard for behavioral based management information data collection for the Icon project. This effort will allow the agency to collect better data regarding customer usage. For GAO to close this recommendation as implemented, SSA will need to demonstrate that it has implemented performance measures for its full range of alternative service delivery methods and is collecting related performance information.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should direct the agency for its alternative customer services approaches, including desktop icons and video services in third-party sites, to develop performance goals and collect performance data related to these goals.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

 

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