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.”
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.”
Tags: Michael Astrue
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.)
Tags: Michael Astrue
Remember those annual earnings and benefits statements that fell victim to Social Security Administration cost-cutting earlier this year?
Turns out that agency plans to make the legally required statements available via the Internet–it just doesn’t know when, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Under the Social Security Administration’s game plan, all eligible participants could access their records online, while people aged 60 and older who have not started claiming benefits would also get the mailed statements, GAO Managing Director Babara Bovbjerg told a House Ways and Means subcommittee in prepared testimony this month. At best, SSA officials expect that to happen early next year, but they don’t have an exact timetable, Bovbjerg said.
Given the inevitable privacy concerns, officials are developing an electronic authentication system and a “My SocialSecurity” Web page to let folks view the information securely.
SSA’s decision this March to stop mailing the statements to tens of millions of Americans has so far been one of the more tangible effects of the federal budget squeeze. While the move is supposed to save $30 million this fiscal year, “total costs for resuming provision of the statement are unknown,” Bovbjerg said.
The Social Security Administration doesn’t know whether the Social Security Administration will keep paying benefits if the government defaults on its debt. That, anyway, is what management is telling employees to say when asked by the public.
In newly posted instructions on the agency’s web side, employees are told to respond, “We’re sorry, but we don’t know,” when people inquire about the status of their Social Security or Supplemental Security Income checks should Congress fail to raise the federal debt ceiling.
Well, chances are they wouldn’t want to know anyway.