Social Security Administration: Long-Term Strategy Needed to Address Key Management Challenges

GAO-13-459 Published: May 29, 2013. Publicly Released: May 29, 2013.
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What GAO Found

The Social Security Administration (SSA) will experience management challenges in four key areas over the next decade.

Human capital. SSA has not updated its succession plan since 2006 although the agency faces an ongoing retirement wave and hiring freeze which will make it difficult to respond to growing workload demands.

Disability program issues. SSA faces ongoing challenges incorporating a more modern concept of disability into its programs, while balancing competing needs to reduce backlogs of initial and appealed claims and ensure program integrity.

Information technology (IT). SSA has made strides in modernizing its IT systems to address growing workload demands, but faces challenges with these modernization efforts and correcting internal weaknesses in information security.

Physical infrastructure. SSA is moving toward centralized facilities management, but the agency lacks a proactive approach to evaluating its office structure that will identify potential efficiencies, such as consolidating offices.

SSA has ongoing planning efforts, but they do not address the long-term nature of these management challenges. For example, SSA is finalizing a service delivery plan, but it only includes detailed plans for the next 5 years and focuses on existing initiatives rather than articulating specific long-term strategies for the agency's service delivery model. Its current strategic plan also largely describes the continuation, expansion, or enhancement of ongoing activities, rather than proposing broad changes to address emerging issues. Since 2008, SSA has not had an entity or individual dedicated to strategic planning. Various groups have called on SSA to articulate a longer-term strategy, which it last did in 2000, motivated by many conditions which remain true today--such as increasing workloads, advances in technology, and employee retirements--and which will need to be addressed in the future. Strategic planning literature and experts cite key long-term planning practices such as planning for different scenarios and aligning interim plans with the long-term strategy as necessary for success.

Why GAO Did This Study

SSA is responsible for providing benefits and services that affect the lives of nearly every American. In calendar year 2012, SSA paid over 62 million people more than $826 billion in Social Security retirement and disability benefits and Supplemental Security Income payments. However, SSA faces increased workloads and large numbers of potential employee retirements in the long term. It is expected that a new Commissioner will soon be leading the agency. GAO was asked to describe issues confronting SSA. This report examines (1) key management challenges SSA faces in meeting its mission-related objectives, and (2) the extent to which SSA's planning efforts address these challenges. To do this, GAO reviewed relevant planning documents and reports from SSA and others as well as SSA management information and data on workload and staffing projections, and applicable federal laws and regulations; and interviewed SSA headquarters and regional officials, representatives of employee groups, and other experts.

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To address SSA's key management challenges, the agency should (1) consider having an entity or individual dedicated to strategic planning, (2) develop a long-term strategy for service delivery, (3) take steps to update its succession plan, and (4) explore the utility and feasibility of realigning its headquarters, regional, and field office structure. SSA agreed with our recommendations and outlined plans for implementation.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Social Security Administration The incoming Commissioner of Social Security should elevate the agency's strategic planning efforts by considering having an entity or individual dedicated to ensuring that these activities are coordinated agency-wide.
Closed – Implemented
SSA noted that the agency appointed a Chief Strategic Officer who reports directly to the Commissioner and is responsible for strategic planning in order to bring sustained, focused attention to long-term management challenges. This official will ensure that the agency's strategic planning efforts are coordinated agency-wide and will keep stakeholder input at the core of the agency's efforts.
Social Security Administration
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The incoming Commissioner of Social Security should prepare for wide-ranging management challenges by developing a long-term strategy for service delivery.
Closed – Implemented
SSA has taken key steps toward developing such a long-term service delivery strategy, including articulating a vision of how SSA will serve its customers in the future in Vision 2025 and incorporating service delivery into its strategic goals for fiscal years 2018 through 2022. SSA has indicated that after these goals are finalized, they will develop specific strategies that address service delivery challenges. Continued efforts by SSA to focus on long-term service delivery priorities will help with future management and decision-making.
Social Security Administration The incoming Commissioner of Social Security should mitigate the potential loss of institutional knowledge and expertise and help ensure leadership continuity by directing the Deputy Commissioner of Human Resources to update the agency's succession plan.
Closed – Implemented
SSA published its Fiscal Year 2014-2018 Human Capital Operating Plan in August 2014. The plan describes the agency's human capital challenges, contains an organizational assessment of its workforce, and details specific workforce management and succession planning actions SSA will take across the organization.
Social Security Administration The incoming Commissioner of Social Security should determine if realigning the agency's headquarters, regional, or field office structure could yield increases in the agency's effectiveness and efficiency by launching an exploratory effort to assess the utility and feasibility of such a realignment or consolidation. These efforts could include holding discussions with other federal agencies, such as the Census Bureau and the Internal Revenue Service, to learn about their experiences undergoing similar transformations and studying the likely costs and benefits of consolidation, as well as other potential impacts.
Closed – Implemented
SSA has determined that it will realign its office structure to support expanded online service delivery. In its March 2014 Agency Strategic Plan for Fiscal Years 2014-2018, SSA stated its intent to expand online services and encourage customers to conduct business with SSA online and said that the agency will streamline its field office structure, as well as its administrative office structure, to reduce costs and make the best use of its employees' time and skills. Further, in its April 2015 Vision 2025 document, SSA stated that the agency will align its physical infrastructure to efficiently meet customer and business needs. In support of this vision, the agency has consulted with other federal agencies to learn about their experiences with similar efforts. In addition, according to SSA's September 2018 Real Property Efficiency Plan for fiscal years 2019 through 2023, the agency is exploring potential opportunities to collocate other federal agency offices at SSA office sites. The plan also details a centralized process which is used to manage SSA's real estate portfolio. According to SSA officials, this process allows the agency to consider collocation opportunities and prioritize competing space requests based on business case justifications, cost benefit analyses, and planning needs.

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