For months there have been rumors that the Social Security Administration has a "secret plan" to close all of its field offices. Is it true? A little-known report commissioned by the SSA at the request of Congress seems to hold the answer. The summary document outlining the plan, which is labeled "for internal use only," is unavailable from the SSA but can be found here.
Does the document, titled "Long Term Strategic Vision and Vision Elements," really propose shuttering all field offices? The answer, buried beneath a barrage of obfuscatory consultantese, clearly seems to be "yes." Worse, the report also suggests that many of the SSA's critical functions could soon be outsourced to private-sector partners and contractors.
Here are five insights from this austerity-minded outline.
1. Death by jargon.
The Social Security Administration has contracted with an entity called The National Academy of Public Administration, or NAPA, to "conduct a study and submit a high-level plan proposing a long-range strategic vision." The seven-member panel conducting the study includes current and former employees of government contractors IBM, Cisco, and Grant Thornton, as well as career bureaucrats and the editor of Government Executive magazine.
The panel's four-page overview lays down a nearly impenetrable barrage of consultant-speak. This is a language in which "smaller workforce" means "layoffs" and "reduced physical infrastructure" is a euphemism for "closing field offices." It is a language in which goals, objectives, strategies and tactics are reduced to a pulpy mash of undifferentiated "vision elements." The language is rich in booster-ish phrases like this one: "Stress program integrity in everything we do." (As opposed to, you know, not doing that.)
For most of its four pages the document's runic language artfully dodges the question at hand, preferring instead to inform the public of such need-to-know information as the fact that "we embrace change and reward managed risk." It is not until the final page that the bomb is dropped, surrounded by a cloud of verbal decoys. The key phrase: "Our communication and business practices enable a dispersed workforce that is no longer working in centralized, traditional offices."
"Centralized, traditional offices." Or, as the rest of the world calls them, "offices."
The document suggests that Social Security's administrative functions will be transferred online, allowing for human contact only "in very limited circumstances." Even in those cases it appears that the default options will be telephone calls and online chats, together with rare meetings with personnel who may be housed in the offices of other agencies - or, conceivably, private corporations.
2. The SSA isn't resisting Congress' brutal cuts.
Despite the fact that a Democratic president is running the Executive Branch, the Social Security Administration appears to be accepting the harsh budget cuts imposed upon it by Congress with an air of surprising passivity. This is puzzling. Social Security is an enormously successful and popular program. Historically only conservative Republicans have urged cuts to its administrative budget. Those cuts are already frustrating the public and undermining public confidence in the program. (For more on this topic see the Special Senate Subcommittee on Aging, Mark Miller of Reuters, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, Hiltzik again, and ourselves.)
And yet, these needless and harmful cuts are being accepted as a fait accompli by both the NAPA panel and the Social Security Administration itself. The SSA's "Agency Strategic Plan for 2014-2018," which is published where the "strategic vision" document might logically be found, glosses over current and impending staffing reductions with language like this: "In the coming years, as we prepare for more employee retirements and continued budget constraints, we will develop and implement a strong succession plan to prepare for the new skills, competencies and work styles of a leaner, modern Federal workforce."
English translation: We are downsizing for budget reasons but would rather not say too much about it.
Then there's this:
"the size of our workforce has declined by about 11,000 employees since the beginning of FY 2011 and we expect this trend to continue ... we estimate that more than 21,000 of our employees will retire by FY 2022. A shrinking workforce affects our ability to meet the needs and expectations of our customers and stakeholders."
English translation: Our staffing budget keeps getting slashed and our service will continue to decline accordingly.
The fact that neither the SSA, the Administration, nor the President himself are publicly fighting these brutal cuts is a betrayal of Social Security's promise. That betrayal is made even more acute by the fact that cuts to Social Security's administrative budgets do not help the deficit in any way, since the SSA is fully funded from Social Security's revenues.
3. They intend to do more outsourcing, too.
One of the bitter ironies of the bipartisan austerity craze has been the fact that, while there has been an assault on government jobs, there has been an equal or greater push to transfer government revenues to the private sector using lucrative, cost-inflating "privatization" contracts.
That seems to be what somebody has in mind for Social Security's future, too. One of the 29 "vision elements" in the Vision 2025 document states that service delivery should be "integrated across SSA programs and with external partners ..." It goes on to state that all support functions for SSA should be "provided through a shared services model (e.g., within SSA, across government, and by contract)." (Emphases ours.)
No descriptions are offered for those "external partners" or the recipients of those "shared services" contracts, but the message seems clear: they're closing the field offices, laying off employees, and shifting the work to other agencies as well as profit-driven (and therefore ultimately costlier) private enterprises.
The choice of private partners thus far isn't encouraging. The user portal informs people signing up for online access that they may be subject to an eligibility verification by Experian. That's the credit-rating firm which is currently the subject of a multi-state investigation, as well a a lawsuit on behalf of the people of Mississippi. The complaint, which is unrelated to Social Security, alleges that Experian knowingly made "sweeping errors" on consumers' credit records and repeatedly violated consumer protection laws.
4. They expect people to do everything on the Internet - and their website is terrible.
The "vision" document states it plainly: "We ... use online, self-service delivery as our primary service channel." They also expect to "automate processes to maximize operational efficiency." "Direct service options (e.g. in person, phone, online chat, video conference)" will only be available "in very limited circumstances."
That's a bad idea. Seniors use the Internet far less than other people. Only 57 percent of people over sixty-five are online, as opposed to a nationwide average of 87 percent, according to a recent Pew study. Disabled people, Social Security's other major user group, can also experience difficulties accessing the Internet. Minorities and low income people, many of whom depend on the SSA's assistance, are also less likely to be web-connected.
This idea gets even worse when one attempts to use the SSA's website, as we did recently. We will document that tragicomic misadventure in greater detail shortly, but the short version is this: although I have led very large-scale information technology projects, it took me several days to successfully enroll in the SSA website. The delays were caused by a combination of downtime and poor web design.
The website is confusing, even for tech-savvy and (relatively) youthful users. Imagine how daunting it must be those who aren't comfortable with computers, those whose cognitive skills may be in decline, and those who have lost the full use of one or more senses. To make matters worse, the SSA site explicitly forbids would-be users from allowing others to navigate the process on their behalf.
On the other hand, converting more of Social Security's functions to website technology could be result in a very lucrative payday for government contractors like... well, like IBM and Cisco.
5. They're downsizing just as demand grows.
The "Vision 2025" agenda has a number of other problems. For example, it calls for ending the practice of retaining employees with specialized knowledge of specific programs. They are to be replaced with "generalists," even though applicants and beneficiaries are more likely to obtain useful information from employees with more specific knowledge. And yet, the "vision" calls for "empowering" employees even as it proposes to deprive them of the specialized knowledge they need to use that power wisely.
But the most important takeaway is this: They're closing field offices, downsizing their workforce, and trying to force everyone through an inadequate Internet portal in an effort to reduce their services at a time when the need is about to grow dramatically.
The scare rhetoric about the cost of baby boomers' benefits is just that: scare rhetoric. Any long-term imbalances are easily rectified through one or two simple and equitable adjustments (like lifting the payroll tax cap). But there is no question that the number of Social Security applicants and recipients is going to increase dramatically, and with them will come a greater administrative workload. The SSA's own website lays out the numbers: "By 2033, the number of older Americans will increase from 46.6 million today to over 77 million."
The SSA is perfectly willing to cite that figure as part of an overly fearmongering set of statistics meant to raise false alarms about solvency. But when it comes time to craft an appropriate plan for the program's administrative future, statistics like that are nowhere to be found. Instead, the SSA continues to close offices and plans even more dramatic cuts to its workforce during a period when the need for them will grow dramatically.
It has become increasingly clear that plans are underway at the SSA to impose more needless cuts on SSA's budgets and render the program's benefits increasingly inaccessible to Americans who have earned them. The AFGE, which represents government employees, is currently on a campaign which encourages people to register their objections to this troubling plan.