Social Security Disability: Process Needed to Review Productivity Expectations for Administrative Law Judges

GAO-21-341 Published: Jun 17, 2021. Publicly Released: Jun 17, 2021.
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Fast Facts

If people disagree with how their Social Security disability benefits claims were decided, they can request a hearing from an administrative law judge. These judges adjudicate hundreds of thousands of cases each year.

In 2007, the Social Security Administration set expectations for their judges to issue between 500-700 decisions or dismissals each year. This expectation has remained the same despite changes that affected judges' workloads, such as the increased size of case files. The pandemic also disrupted judges' work, making it harder to meet expectations.

We recommended creating a process to review expectations for judges' productivity.

Denied social security disability form

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What GAO Found

The Social Security Administration's (SSA) administrative law judges review, process, and adjudicate requests for hearings on disability benefits. In 2007, the agency set an expectation—which SSA reported was based on trend data and some regional managers' input—for judges to issue 500-700 dispositions (decisions and dismissals) each year, and the extent to which they have met this expectation has varied over time. SSA did not document the expectation-setting process in 2007, nor has it formally reviewed the expectation since. Judges in discussion groups held by GAO questioned the basis of the expectation and 87 percent of judges GAO surveyed (47 of 54) said the expectation was too high. The extent to which judges met the annual and related expectations has fluctuated over the years (see figure). Without periodic reviews, SSA cannot be assured that its expectations appropriately allow judges to balance productivity with other expectations, such as quality, given changing conditions over time.

Administrative Law Judges Who Met or Exceeded SSA's Annual Productivity Expectation, Fiscal Years 2014-2020

Administrative Law Judges Who Met or Exceeded SSA's Annual Productivity Expectation, Fiscal Years 2014-2020

Judges in selected hearing offices cited a variety of factors affecting their ability to meet the annual expectation. The top factor cited by judges GAO surveyed was the size of case files, which have increased five-fold on average since the expectation was established, according to SSA data. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced other factors in 2020, resulting in fewer hearings being conducted.

SSA monitors judges' productivity and takes various actions when expectations are not met, ranging from informal conversations to formal discipline. In addition, judges in 11 of 13 discussion groups viewed telework restrictions as a consequence for not meeting expectations. Additionally, judges GAO surveyed reported feeling pressured to meet the expectations. For instance, 87 percent of judges surveyed (47 of 54) said that SSA placed too much emphasis on productivity, and some expressed concerns about their work quality and work-life balance. SSA officials said they do not formally seek feedback from judges on the expectations. However, without feedback or other gauges of pressure, SSA lacks information that could help it appropriately balance timely case processing while maintaining high-quality work and employee morale.

Why GAO Did This Study

SSA's approximately 1,350 judges play a major role in processing and adjudicating requests for hearings to help ensure individuals who do not agree with the determination on their claim for Social Security disability benefits receive due process. SSA receives hundreds of thousands of hearing requests each year and has historically had a large backlog. GAO was asked to review SSA's productivity expectations for its judges.

This report examines (1) how SSA set productivity expectations for judges and the extent to which judges have met them over time, (2) reported factors affecting the ability of judges in selected offices to meet the annual productivity expectation, and (3) SSA's management of judges' productivity. GAO obtained and analyzed SSA data on judges' productivity from fiscal years 2005-2020; surveyed and held 13 virtual discussion groups with judges in six hearing offices selected for geographic location, average productivity, and average case size; reviewed relevant federal laws and agency policies and documents; and interviewed officials from SSA and the association representing judges.

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GAO is making two recommendations, including that SSA establish and implement a process for periodically reviewing productivity expectations for judges and determine whether the expectations are reasonable. SSA generally agreed with both recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Social Security Administration The Commissioner of SSA should develop and implement a process for periodically reviewing the annual productivity expectation, and the supporting expectations as needed, and document those processes so that the bases of the expectations are clear and can be communicated to judges. This process should be informed by reviewing ALJ productivity data, considering any recent changes in policies and procedures, seeking input from ALJs and relevant stakeholders, and assessing the impact of any changes on the backlog of requests for hearings. (Recommendation 1)
SSA engaged an outside contractor to develop a management tool that includes a set of indicators designed to increase transparency and promote organizational insight into ALJ workloads, according to the agency. In fiscal year 2022, the agency conducted focus groups with management ALJs and hearing office managers to seek their input on this tool and its indicators. The agency also reported that it began discussing the tool and the annual productivity expectation with ALJ union leaders and expects to update its expectations for ALJs. While the tool could be useful in developing a process for reviewing and updating, if needed, the productivity expectations, the development of the tool itself does not address the recommendation to develop, implement, and document a process to review the expectations. To fully implement this recommendation, SSA will need to ensure that it: 1) takes steps to review the productivity expectations, 2) establishes a process for periodic review, and 3) documents and clearly communicates this process and the basis for productivity expectations to judges.
Social Security Administration The Commissioner of SSA should take steps to determine whether the current productivity expectations for ALJs are reasonable, such as by seeking formal feedback from ALJs, and examining any other factors affecting the ability of ALJs to maintain a work-life balance and ensure quality decisions on requests for hearings. (Recommendation 2)
According to SSA, in an effort to improve work-life balance, it reached agreement with the ALJ union on telework for ALJs, implemented this agreement in January 2022, and finalized a collective bargaining agreement in October 2022. However, SSA has not yet taken clear steps to determine the reasonableness of its productivity expectations. For instance, SSA stated that it will re-evaluate expectations for ALJs when necessary, but it also noted in March 2023 that its longstanding expectations are reasonable. Additionally, although SSA stated that it discussed productivity expectations with union officials, it is not clear that SSA sought feedback on the expectations from union officials. To fully implement this recommendation, SSA should avoid predetermining that the productivity expectations for ALJs are reasonable and take steps such as the ones we identified in our recommendation to determine this.

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