Federal Times Blogs

Busy signals drop dramatically at Social Security Administration

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People who need to make a call to the Social Security Administration’s 800 number system (there are several 800 numbers offered to members of the public for SSA services) might have noticed that its been easier to get through to a live person.

The average busy signal rate has fallen from 8.1 percent of calls in fiscal 2009 to 2.6 percent of calls in 2011, according to data recently posted to Data.gov by the agency. In all three years the time of the year when you are most likely to get a busy signal includes the months of December and January.

The average time it took to answer a phone call has also fallen. In fiscal 2009 it took the agency an average of 245 seconds to answer a phone call while in fiscal 2011 it was down to 180 seconds.

According to SSA new technology has helped the agency meet its goals to reduce busy signals and wait times but warns that they might not be able to keep up their progress.

“We will continue to strive to improve service.  However, in the future, declining staff due to agency budget resource limitations may impact our performance,” the agency said in a post on its website.

Association of Government Accountants honors agency reporting

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Twenty agencies big and small were recently noted for top-notch financial and performance reporting by the Association of Government Accountants.

The “Certificate of Excellence in Accountability Reporting” (CEAR)  singles out “high-quality Performance and Accountability Reports (PARs) and Annual Financial Reports (AFRs) that effectively illustrate and assess financial and program performance, accomplishments and challenges, cost and accountability,” the accountants association said in a news release. The association also spotlights the teams of dedicated federal professionals who (often unsung) put the reports together.

“Given the fiscal status of the United States government and the public’s perceptions about government fiscal accountability and transparency, the achievement of this year’s CEAR recipients is even more significant,” AGA Executive Director Relmond Van Daniker said in the release. The agencies being honored “truly represent a select group within the government financial management community.”

Here’s a rundown of the winners:

Architect of the Capitol
Federal Aviation Administration
Federal Housing Finance Agency
Federal Trade Commission
Office of Financial Stability (Treasury Department)
Peace Corps
Commodity Futures Trading Commission
Education Department
Housing and Urban Development Department
Interior Department
Labor Department
State Department
Treasury Department
Government Accountability Office
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
Patent and Trademark Office
Securities and Exchange Commission
Small Business Administration
Social Security Administration

Also honored at the May 22 National Press Club ceremony were 10 agencies that showed “specific points of excellence” within their fiscal year 2012 PARs. Known as ‘Best in Class’ awards, the recipients included:

Health and Human Services Department: Best Summary of Management and Performance Challenges by the Inspector General
Labor Department: Most Complete Schedule of Spending
Peace Corps: Most Comprehensive and Candid Presentation of Forward-Looking Information
FTC: Best Agency Head Message
HUD: Best Presentation of a Financial Management Systems Framework
Interior: Best High-Level Discussion of Performance
Capitol Architect: Best Analysis of an Agency’s Financial Statements
FAA: Most Representative of Editorial Excellence
Department of Homeland Security: Best Improper Payment and Recovery Act Reporting
Central Intelligence Agency: Best Introduction


Former Social Security chief happy to reclaim free speech rights from OMB

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In a radio interview last week, former Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue voiced regret at leaving behind a workforce that he described as “very dedicated” and talented.

Astrue, who stepped down earlier this month, was happier at no longer having to run his every statement—even including proposed messages to SSA employees about sequestration—past minders at the Office of Management and Budget.

“I don’t miss having everything I say being cleared by a 28-year-old at OMB,” Astrue told WBUR, a National Public Radio member station in Boston. “And I’m not critical of OMB for that. Don’t get me wrong. I mean, I think the president needs to have some consistency of message. But it does get very frustrating. And particularly when you’re trying to say something important and it’s neutered down to a platitude. I always found it difficult to go out and just voice the platitudes.

“So, you know, getting my First Amendment rights back and being able to say what I think, you know, you don’t miss that until you’ve given it up. And I guess, you know, when you’ve given it up you appreciate it more when you get it back.”

Asked for comment on Astrue’s remarks, OMB spokeswoman Jessica Santillo emailed this response to FedLine: “OMB has always played an important role in coordinating activity and communications across the federal government to help ensure consistency and accuracy.”

Despite expired term, SSA Commissioner Astrue still working

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For anyone who’s wondering, Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue remains on the job, even though his six-year term officially ran out last Saturday.

In an email today, SSA spokeswoman Kia Anderson cited the federal law that allows Astrue to stay until the Senate confirms his successor. Given that President Obama has yet to even nominate a possible replacement, Astrue could continue to lead the agency for some time to come. Also remaining in place is Deputy Commissioner Carolyn Colvin.

Astrue, a Massachusetts lawyer and published poet (how many top-level feds can claim that kind of life experience?), was named Social Security commissioner by former President George W. Bush and has held the job since early 2007. In the email, Anderson noted that Astrue has said repeatedly that he would not seek reappointment to another term.

Because Astrue has not spoken with Obama “about the precise timing of his return to Massachusetts . . . ,” Anderson added, “it would be inappropriate to speculate about that subject.”


AFGE mounting nationwide protests tomorrow

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The American Federation of Government Employees is rallying tomorrow against Social Security Administration cutbacks. The union, which represents some 28,000 employees in SSA field offices and tele-service centers, is using the lunchtime gatherings to protest the continued use of attrition to reduce the workforce and cutting the hours that field offices are open to the public. The rallies will take place at about 80 offices around the country, including the Social Security Administration’s Baltimore headquarters, according to Witold Skwierczynski, president of AFGE’s National Council of SSA Field Operations Locals.

The Social Security Administration has been under a partial hiring freeze since July 2010. In the last year alone, the agency lost 1,600 employees, according to a recent inspector general’s report. While agency managers have told employees “to market Internet self-service aggressively,  . . . workers know that many clients, especially those who are elderly or disabled, or speak limited English, need personalized service,” the union said in a flyer.  Agency officials have attributed the cutbacks to tight budgets.

For the union, an added worry is the potential impact of across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in less than a month unless Congress and the Obama administration cut a deal to head them off. By AFGE’s count, those cuts–officially known as sequestration–could cost the Social Security Administration up to $1 billion out of its administrative budget.  The union is instead asking Congress to “take their hands off SSA, Medicare and Medicaid and concentrate on raising taxes for the undertaxed two percent,” Skwiercyznski said in an email.


Mailings of Social Security benefits statements suspended (again)

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Tight money has again led the Social Security Administration to halt the mailing of all paper statements of earnings and benefits to millions of Americans. These are the handy documents that give you an idea of what to expect in terms of Social Security retirement or disability income.

The latest suspension, which took effect Oct. 1, results from the “overall budget situation,” including a stop-gap continuing resolution that will leave the agency at last year’s funding levels through March, spokeswoman Kia Anderson said.

SSA officials had originally suspended mailing paper statements in April 2011 to save $70 million annually. This February, however, they had resumed mailings to people aged 60 or older and in July, to participants in the year they turned 25.

An end to the latest suspension hinges on the agency’s final funding level for this fiscal year, Anderson said. The agency also introduced an online statement in May available for people with access to the Internet.

SSA’s CIO overhaul lacked adequate planning, GAO says

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The Social Security Administration did not fully assess the impact of a major internal overhaul last June, which eliminated the chief information office and reassigned its functions, according to testimony from a Government Accountability Office official.
At the time, most of the responsibilities for managing information technology and the IT budget were reassigned to SSA’s Office of Systems. Two months later, then CIO Frank Baitman resigned. Kelly Croft, deputy commissioner for systems, assumed the CIO duties and oversight of those IT workers.
SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue said the effort would increase efficiency, but SSA did not develop a management plan that describes the challenges associated with the realignment or how to resolve them, time frames, resources, performance measures and accountability structures, according to written testimony from Valerie Melvin, GAO’s director of information management and technology resources issues. Melvin spoke on the issue at a House subcommittee hearing last week.
SSA also failed to analyze what roles and responsibilities were needed to support the new changes, Melvin said in her testimony.
She said the new structure should provide effective oversight and management of SSA’s systems and modernization if implemented properly, but it “cannot be determined whether the reassignment of staff that occurred as a result of the realignment represents an optimal allocation of resources.”

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Social Security payments will go out on time

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Social Security payments scheduled for Wednesday will be disbursed on time, Social Security Administration Commissioner Michael Astrue announced Tuesday.

Up until late last week, it wasn’t clear if lawmakers would strike a deal to increase the debt limit, causing concern for recipients of Social Security and VA benefits who probably would not have received payments.

Payments set for Aug. 10, 17th and 24th will also go out on time.  

“I am happy to announce there will be no delay in the payment of August Social Security benefits,” said Astrue, “which should be a relief to those people who were concerned about their benefits.  I’m pleased the President and Congress were able to come together in a bipartisan fashion to avoid an interruption in payments.”



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Social Security Administration trimming public office hours

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Another cost-cutting move is in the works at the Social Security Administration, where almost 1,300 field offices will soon begin closing to the public one half hour earlier each business day. The change, which takes effect Aug. 15, means that an office that has been open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., will close to the public at 3:30, according to a news release.

Although Social Security employees will keep working their normal schedules, the “shorter public window” will help the agency avoid paying overtime, SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue said in the release. Because Congress provided the Social Security Administration with nearly $1 billion less than the amount requested by President Obama for fiscal 2011, Astrue added, that shortfall “makes it impossible for us to provide the amount of overtime needed to handle service to the public as we have in the past.” The amount of expected savings was not immediately available.

Last July, Astrue imposed a partial hiring freeze on the agency and in March stopped mailing earnings and benefits statements to the public.

Of course, not all Social Security services take an office visit, the release notes, but you’ll need a phone or an Internet-connected computer. Anyone wanting to apply for benefits, replace a Medicare card, sign up for direct deposit, obtain a proof of income letter, or provide a change of address or phone number, can do so by going to http://www.socialsecurity.gov or calling the agency’s toll-free number, 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778.­)



SSA CIO announces resignation

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Frank Baitman, chief information officer at the Social Security Office will resign Aug. 19, the agency confirmed Monday.
SSA would not say why Baitman is leaving, but his resignation comes three weeks after SSA Commissioner Michael Astrue announced several organizational changes, including moving the Offices of Innovation and Investment Management from the CIO office to the Office of Systems. Astrue said the changes will maximize efficiency “during these lean budget times.”
Kelly Croft, Deputy Commissioner for Systems, will take on the CIO duties, and workers from the CIO office and the Office of Information Security will move to the Office of Systems.