Where Social Security could start, as it tries to improve itself

The Social Security Administration has a decent list of ongoing issues, as identified by the Government Accountability Office.

The Social Security Administration is undergoing a rebuild with former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley as its commissioner. The agency has a decent list of ongoing issues, as identified by the Government Accountability Office. For an assessment,  the Federal Drive with Tom Temin talked with GAO’s education, workforce and income security team director, Elizabeth Curda.

Interview Transcript: 

Eric White  The Social Security Administration is undergoing a rebuild with former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley as commissioner. The agency has a decent list of ongoing issues as identified by the Government Accountability Office. Joining Federal Drive host Tom Temin with an assessment, the GAO’s education, workforce and income security team director, Elizabeth Curda.

Tom Temin  Social Security, you know, is a troubled agency in many ways, although, it’s probably fair to say they never miss getting the funds deposited in people’s accounts week after week, do they?

Elizabeth Curda  I don’t think so.

Tom Temin  Alright, one of the top issues, ensuring program integrity is part of your restatement of their ongoing issues in your latest kind of round up. And what does that mean, exactly? Ensuring program integrity? And what do they need to do? Why is that risky?

Elizabeth Curda  Well, program integrity is really about whether the agency is essentially following its own rules, and that people who are qualified for benefits are getting the correct amount of benefits. It’s when, you know, either people who are qualified are getting an incorrect amount of benefits, or people who are applying for benefits aren’t qualified and are getting benefits inappropriately.

Tom Temin  Right. And that’s been an ongoing issue, because sometimes they miss people, small number, that are deceased, or because they’re simply ineligible, but it’s easy to get that check going.

Elizabeth Curda  Correct.

Tom Temin  All right. And you’ve also listed serving vulnerable populations. And what is the issue there?

Elizabeth Curda  Well, during the pandemic, Social Security closed many of its offices. And so for people who were receiving benefits, or who were claiming benefits who were very vulnerable, very poor, we saw a big drop in those applications. So they didn’t have alternative ways of applying for benefits during the pandemic because of those office closures. So these are people who are poor, aged, blind, who are looking for benefits for their disabilities.

Tom Temin  And people that may be out of the reach of high bandwidth and smartphones and laptop PCs, too. There are some Americans or some citizens deserving Social Security that don’t. And by the way, what’s the status now that you’re aware of with respect to the offices? Are they pretty much fully back?

Elizabeth Curda  They’re fully back and open to the public.

Tom Temin  Okay. And then I wanted to ask you about assessing software licenses, because essentially, the program is delivered by software, Social Security’s giant IT organization. What do you find there with respect to software licenses?

Elizabeth Curda  Well, software licenses are essentially the backbone of the agency’s operations. So in sort of common terms, it’s the Microsofts, it’s the Oracle, Adobe, the kind of things we use to do our work every day. And so, the federal agencies, we’ve done assessments across the government and found that agencies didn’t have a good handle on how many of those licenses they had and what they were paying for them.

Tom Temin  And it’s social security that is a particularly pronounced issue. Do you have any quantities or any estimates of what they might be overspending on licenses?

Elizabeth Curda  No, I think the issue with SSA is they didn’t know. They didn’t know how many licenses they had outstanding that they were actually using, compared to what they had paid for. So they didn’t have a way of knowing if all those licenses that are out there were really needed. And if they were overpaying for licenses that weren’t being used.

Tom Temin  Or I guess it’s potentially you could discover you’re using more licenses than you’re paying for.

Elizabeth Curda  That’s right.

Tom Temin  And then the vendors really come in with guns blazing on true ups for those.

Elizabeth Curda  That’s right.

Tom Temin  We’re speaking with Elizabeth Curda. She is the director of education, workforce and income security at the GAO. When you hear social security people talk and hear Martin O’Malley discuss this, their top concern is customer experience, customer service, improving the speed and accuracy of answers. For example, when people call in to their call centers, this kind of thing. That’s not on your list of top issues. But what’s GAO’s sense of how important this is and where the shortfall might be?

Elizabeth Curda  Yes, it’s very important. And that’s something we looked at during the pandemic. We looked at service delivery by the Social Security and did see issues with their ability to answer the phones during the pandemic. But you know, they do have plans in place to modernize their telephone systems. And so we didn’t find that they were not trying to address this issue. And so, that has not sort of risen to the top on our list, but it is an ongoing issue and one that they are working very hard to address.

Tom Temin  And related to assessing software licenses is the much bigger fundamental issue of technology modernization, and this is a mainframe COBOL computing shop. And I guess the common wisdom is you’ve got to get away from that and modernize and cloud, etc. What’s your sense of their pathway toward modernizing their infrastructure that consists of all these licenses?

Elizabeth Curda  Well, that’s been a longstanding issue as well and they are, you know, working away at modernizing their systems. Getting away from those COBOL systems and you know, like a lot of federal agencies seeking to take advantage of, you know, cloud based computing. They’re on the path. I know that is a continuing issue and one that GAO looks at.

Tom Temin  All right. So let’s add this all up, then what are your top recommendations at this point that are still open? Some of these dates back 10 years.

Elizabeth Curda  Yes. Well, the the recommendations that the Comptroller General has deemed ones that are most in need of the top leadership’s attention, or by highlighting them to the top leadership, they hope to move the needle on these high priority recommendations. And so, the first one has to do as we mentioned, we were discussing program integrity. SSA has a problem with overpaying people benefits. And in the case of this recommendation, what happens is federal employees who have been injured on the job and are receiving Federal Employees Compensation Act or FECA benefits, they may also apply for disability benefits, because they may be perhaps are having difficulty working. And SSA has no way of knowing if they’re already receiving these FECA benefits. And so the recommendation has to do with setting up a way of doing computer matching between the Department of Labor, which manages the FECA benefits, and SSA, which manages the disability benefits. And with this matching, they can then find out, oh, someone’s already getting benefits from a federal agency, I need to offset the benefits that would get from SSA. So they’re not getting, kind of, double dipping.

Tom Temin  Sure. Okay. That’s one recommendation. There’s one from 2022 with respect to protecting sensitive information, you know, security of information.

Elizabeth Curda  Yes. And as you can imagine, the Social Security has a lot of sensitive information at their disposal. They’re the ones who generate the social security numbers, they know your birthdate. They know a lot about all of us. So it’s incredibly important to protect that sensitive information. This was part of a government wide review, which GAO looked at all the major federal agencies and compared their privacy practices to key practices for having a good privacy program, and did find a few issues with SSA. But the one that we really wanted to highlight was making sure that they have fully defined the role of the senior official who’s responsible for the privacy program, the idea being that that person that would then provide leadership on all the, you know, other privacy issues as being kind of like the critical, most critical thing to kind of really focus on from a leadership perspective.

Tom Temin  And as someone who has looked at agencies from an auditing standpoint for a long time, do you get the sense now that with Martin O’Malley, a confirmed Commissioner, that was several years without a confirmed Commissioner, there was a short period of time during the Trump administration when there was one confirmed, and before that a long period of acting. Maybe that’s an issue that seems to be settled down now, do you think?

Elizabeth Curda  Well, it could be. Time will tell. He’s got his position through next, I believe, December, and then  we’ll be up for renomination. But I think having a fully nominated confirmed Commissioner does make a difference in terms of an agency’s ability to move forward on sort of policy changes and big program implementation issues.

Tom Temin  Because that’s really the one of the ironies of the Social Security commissioner is Social Security Policy is almost like tax policy to make a parallel with the IRS. The IRS doesn’t set the tax rates and the general tax policy of the nation any more than SSA sets the rates. They have to be true to them, but they don’t decide them. And so what you really need is more managerial competence, perhaps, then. What should the government pay people that retire type of expertise?

Elizabeth Curda  Yeah, well, it’s a little bit of both but he has many experts on the policy side of things.

Eric White  That’s Elizabeth Curda, director of education, workforce and income security at the Government Accountability Office. Speaking with Federal Drive host Tom Temin. We’ll post this interview along with the link to the Social Security report at federalnewsnetwork.com/federaldrive. You can subscribe to The Federal Drive wherever you get your podcasts.

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