Social Security Administration: Improvements Needed in Facilities Planning and Service Delivery Evaluation

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

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.

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Recommendations

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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Social Security Administration 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.
Open
SSA agreed with this recommendation. In September 2022, SSA reported that it was conducting a reentry evaluation, following changes in service delivery during the Covid pandemic. The agency said it was examining the continued effectiveness of expanded telework and its ability to deliver quality service to its customers. SSA plans to analyze outcomes of the evaluation and then establish agency policies that would directly inform its long-term facility planning. The agency said it anticipates an overall reduction in its real property portfolio and will outline specific plans for such a reduction in its response to OMB Memorandum M-22-14, Agency-wide Capital Planning to Support the Future of Work. To close this recommendation as implemented, SSA will need to demonstrate that its response to the OMB Memorandum represents a long-term facility plan 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.
Social Security Administration 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.
Closed – Implemented
SSA published its consolidated and revised Space Allocation Standards and Space Computation in June 2019. The revised standards include standardized offices, work stations, and employee personal storage, and consideration of future workload projections. In November 2020 SSA updated its Field Office Technical Guide to incorporate space allocation and design for self-help computer stations. In July 2020, SSA also established an Agency Real Property Council, which is intended to provide input of office needs from a service delivery and facilities perspective.
Social Security Administration 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.
Closed – Implemented
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.
Social Security Administration 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.
Closed – Implemented
As of June 2021, SSA identified the most common reasons for technician follow-up on the iClaims system, SSA's online claims process. SSA is currently using the information to inform improvements to iClaims. SSA said it prioritized the enhancements based on which would provide the most relief.
Social Security Administration 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.
Closed – Implemented
As of March 2021, SSA had developed performance goals for its alternative customer service delivery approaches and was collecting relevant performance data to track its progress towards each goal. Specifically, SSA developed performance goals for its SSA Express Icons: 15,000 new visitors annually and 50 new partner sites annually. In March 2021, SSA also provided monthly reports to track these goals at the regional level. Similarly, SSA reported that it had adopted goals for its Video Service Delivery sites: adding 3 to 4 available sites per fiscal year; and provided data it collects to monitor progress towards this goal using its customer intake system.

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