The Times Union

A Skeleton Crew Keeps Social Security Afloat

If America's 76 million baby boomers want a fright, they should take a look at two reports issued in February by the nonpartisan Social Security Advisory Board. The board monitors trends at the Social Security Administration, the nation's biggest-spending agency. The reports could give horror novelist Stephen King a run for his money. Only these aren't fiction.

The reports show a near-crumbling agency. The problem isn't the Social Security trust fund—it's growing every day. It may meet disaster, in 30 years or so, when baby boomers exhaust the budget surplus. But the Social Security Administration will meet an earlier doom, aging much faster than its clientele.

Tracks of the coming crisis are apparent. The agency has never been under greater pressure to perform. Beneficiaries grew 10 million in the past decade—to nearly 52 million—and, according to agency projections, will grow 10 million more by 2010; by 2005, the toll-free agency number will get 76 million calls a year, two-thirds needing a live response.

However, much of the Social Security Administration's work force is retiring. Like the rest of the federal government, the agency expects half of its workers to retire over the next decade. The majority of exiting employees are claims representatives who process benefits for new retirees. Coupled with an additional 10,000 exits, due to ordinary attrition in high-stress positions, the agency will need to replace three of every five employees to remain at current strength.

Recent downsizing makes the agency's job even more difficult. Between 1985 and 2000, it cut more than 15,000 jobs, even as it made every effort to meet the lofty service standards. It mostly succeeded, even setting up one of the nation's premier toll-free telephone lines.

Unfortunately, the agency cannot maintain this level of service much longer. Consider these warning signs highlighted by the Social Security Advisory Board:

Despite the agency's excellent toll-free phone services, one-third of callers received a busy signal or hung up in exasperation after long waits.

Social Security field offices are becoming more crowded every day, and waiting times appear to be rising.

As workload rises, the quality of claims decisions appears to be declining.

These problems are worsened by the effects of the Clinton administration's downsizing. Employment caps prevented the agency from growing. The Social Security Administration reacted as any caring agency would: It stopped filling vacancies at the bottom and reclassified supervisors into non-supervisory jobs. Subsequently, the hierarchy changed shape. The classic bureaucratic pyramid with more employees at the bottom morphed into a "federal pentagon" with more middle-level managers.

If the agency is to go from potential horror story to fairy tale, it must act quickly on three fronts. First, it must change shape, putting the lion's share of staffing resources at the bottom. Instead of filling each new middle- or senior-level vacancy, the new agency heads should split these jobs into two or more front-line jobs. The Bush administration could speed this effort by allowing SSA to manage based on payroll, not head count.

Second, the agency must learn how to compete for talent in the current labor market. One of the byproducts of the decade-long drought in hiring is that, like many federal agencies, it has forgotten how to recruit. It won't attract talent merely by offering higher entry-level pay. It must make its case for talent based on its critically important mission honoring the nation's pact with its people.

Most importantly, the Social Security Administration and other federal agencies must make Congress and the Bush administration understand the desperate need for civil service reform. Like the federal government as a whole, the Social Security Administration is cursed with a civil service system mired in the past—best suited to a work force using Model Ts, not on HTML.

Luckily, the agency has 76 million baby boomers on its side. To paraphrase the old commercial, Congress can fix its human capital crisis now or pay the price at the voting booth later. Older Americans vote in big numbers, and they love to take revenge against any politician who threatens their Social Security, whether the threat happens to come from financial crisis or just plain bad service.