Social Security Department Cited for Service Lapses

February 9, 2009 ( - As the need for its services is about to go skyward with the approaching Baby Boomer retirement wave, the U.S. Social Security Administration (SSA) needs to do a better job of marshaling its resources to provide the highest quality of customer interaction.

That was the key conclusion of a new report by the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO), which contends the SSA needs to produce a single document outlining how it would do a better job offering its services in years to come.

“Although customers expect to be served in a reasonable amount of time and have their phone calls answered, field offices are deferring certain work, customers are waiting longer to be served, and staff feel stressed,” GAO investigators wrote. “Projected increases in claims for benefits from the nation’s approximately 80 million baby boomers and a large retirement wave among SSA’s most experienced staff will place even more pressure on field offices and could make these problems more severe.”

According to the report,   “Social Security Administration: Service Delivery Plan Needed to Address Baby Boom Retirement Challenges,” the SSA’s 1,300 field offices served 44 million people during FY 2008 and about 44% of the agency’s 63,000 employees are assigned to the offices around the country.

The GAO said the agency’s goal of an online filing rate of 50% of retirement applications “will surely relieve some service-demand growth at field offices.”

GAO investigators said the SAA needed to develop a single service plan demonstrating how it will cope with its workload only being given "constrained resources." One issue needing particular attention in such a document: whether the SSA's current field office structure needs to be altered.

"This plan should identify the extent that new business processes will allow SSA to accommodate growing demand or whether additional resources are needed to achieve its strategic goals," the GAO said. "Further, this plan should establish standards for field office customer waiting times."

In response to the GAO report, the SSA contends it was already working on such a consolidated service plan that will include networks for expanding electronic services for customers; increasing the centralization of receiving phone calls and working claims from customers while maintaining the network of local field offices; enhancing phone and video services in field offices; and piloting self-service personal computers in the reception areas of those offices.

The GAO report is available at .