Social Security:

Many Administrative Law Judges Oppose Productivity Initiatives

HRD-90-15: Published: Dec 7, 1989. Publicly Released: Jan 8, 1990.

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Joseph F. Delfico
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the operations of the Social Security Administration's (SSA) Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA), focusing on: (1) the causes of recent conflicts between OHA management and administrative law judges (ALJ) who hear appeals on denied claims for social security benefits; and (2) whether reductions in staff, particularly judges, adversely affected the adjudicative process.

GAO found that: (1) ALJ generally objected to OHA use of monthly case disposition goals and pooling of support staff; (2) about half of surveyed ALJ believed that the increased productivity resulting from the disposition goals negatively affected their work, 34 percent believed that the quality of their decisions had deteriorated, 29 percent believed that their quality of service to the public had worsened, and 9 percent believed that the goals positively affected their work; (3) OHA did not collect, analyze, or otherwise use the results of its routine reviews of ALJ decisions to monitor the general quality of decisions or assess the impact of disposition goals; (4) OHA planned to develop a database of decision deficiencies identified during reviews by fiscal year 1990; (5) two-thirds of surveyed ALJ said that staff pooling negatively affected their work, while most OHA managers reported that pooling provided more flexibility in using staff and allowed a more balanced work load; (6) most of the 68 percent of surveyed ALJ who characterized staff morale as low or very low and 59 percent who characterized ALJ morale as low or very low cited the productivity overemphasis as a primary contributor to low morale; and (7) although OHA has allowed ALJ and support staff to decline through attrition since 1983, when the number of hearings peaked, OHA has not increased staffing levels, although work loads have returned to higher levels.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: OHA performed a study to measure office productivity and has incorporated the Productivity Index (PI) into its monthly reporting system. PI measures productivity of all hearing office staff, including ALJ and gives managers additional data to evaluate when allocating resources and balancing workloads. OHA has analyzed PI data and has established an expected PI level of 83.57 for offices to measure against. This target supplements the disposition-per-ALJ target of 37 per month (1.8 per day) that OHA has traditionally used to measure office performance. OHA plans to analyze the PI and review the data that are being reported to assess the reliability of the PI calculations.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should direct OHA to conduct a study to determine the appropriate number of cases that ALJ should be expected to decide. In its determination, OHA should give proper balance to the quality of decisions. The results of such a study should be used as a basis for establishing reasonable monthly production goals.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration


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