CX Exchange 2024: SSA’s Martin O’Malley on creating better experiences for the masses

The Social Security commissioner says reducing phone wait times is among his top three priorities to improve how SSA serves citizens.

Martin O’Malley spent the first month of his term as the commissioner of the Social Security Administration on the road.

During January, he met with employees across all nine SSA regions to learn about their challenges and opportunities to improve customer service. “I went to all of these places, and I sat on the co-pilot headsets with the people in the teleservice centers. I sat down with people for a long stretch who were interviewing customers that came into the field offices,” O’Malley said on Federal News Network’s CX Exchange 2024.

“When I was sitting with a young man in a cubicle up in Boston, his name was David, and he was showing me the very old legacy IT systems that he has to go back and forth through like a trapeze artist in order to process a single [disability] claim. Before I left, he said, ‘Let me just show you one more thing before you leave. This is an actual Supplemental Security Income — SSI — application. Now keep in mind, we’ve already talked to this person who’s in dire need, and we’ve already talked to him as a human being to determine that he qualifies. Because it’s an income-based program, we have to determine that they don’t have any money, and look what they have to do to process the claim.’ He showed me 41 questions that they have to ask.”

O’Malley said people have to answer the same questions over and over, like “Do you have any money?” “Do you have a checking account?” and “Do you have a savings account?”

Often the answer is the same: “No.” But processing each claim requires that the SSA employee records answers to all 41 related questions before the claim can move forward.

“He said, ‘Please, commissioner, my firstborn for a ‘No to all’ button,” O’Malley said. “We came back and with the customer experience team and with our chief information officer, and also the people in operations, we were able to actually do an A/B testing that we sent out there to our frontline workers to say which version of this ‘No to all’ button, do you prefer? We tested that for about a week, maybe 10 days, and then we deployed it within a week after the testing came back.”

Accelerating new SSA capabilities

This simple improvement for employees and SSA customers is just an example of the culture, focus and speed that O’Malley said he’s trying to institutionalize across the agency.

He said typically new systems take seven years to produce, and all too often they are pushed top down from headquarters without ever testing them with the workers in the field.

“It’s the little things like that that are racking up the base hits, if you will. Every now and again, we get a double. And soon, we’ll start hitting triples and maybe even an occasional home run. But those are the things that — taken collectively and together — improve customer service and improve the worker experience,” O’Malley said.

He ticked off the top three service priorities that President Biden asked him to tackle at SSA:

  • The 1-800 number, on which people often wait from 40 minutes to an hour and a half
  • The time it takes for initial disability terminations
  • “The injustice we do to people through overpayments and underpayments and our congressional mandate to recover those overpayments when we discovered that they’ve happened.”

O’Malley has been pushing SSA to find those singles and doubles during his first four-plus months on the job. Another example of a “hit” is a capability first developed in 2011 that reduces processing of a Medicare claim from eight minutes to eight seconds. But SSA never deployed that tool widely because lawyers had some questions, the cyber experts wanted to get the tool certified and the chief information officer had other more pressing priorities, he said.

“That one little thing, which had gone up the flagpole over three or four commissioners and acting commissioners since 2011, never got approved until now. We were able to turn around and get enough of an authority to operate to deploy it. We were able to get those other people to check off,” O’Malley said. “That saved 40 work years across this agency by being able to have that tool. So these are the things we’re working on. We’re not waiting annually to deploy them. We’re deploying them every couple of weeks.”

 Becoming a more agile agency

One reason SSA has been able to address customer service shortcomings and deploy tools and fixes more quickly than before has to do with what O’Malley called the agency’s agile approach to government.

He said every two weeks he meets with a group of agency leaders, deputy commissioners for mission areas, for budget and finance, for technology and the Office of Transformation to determine what area to work on next and to receive updates on current projects.

“It is from Betsy Beaumon’s Office of Transformation that that critically important customer service research is emanating, and while the operations people are talking about workflows, she’s able to talk about the customer journey and ask questions based on the customer journey,” O’Malley said.

“For example, people that are applying for disability claims give us pretty high ratings. Once they get an appointment and get into the office to have the process explained to them. But then in a red light/green light fashion, we see from our research that we totally fall down when it comes to the time they have to wait to have their disability determination rendered by the state Disability Determination Services. That tells us that we need to do a much better job of letting people know, even in the extended process, which has been exacerbated by the low level of staffing, we need to let people know where they stand in the process.”

SSA is making these changes with fewer people and less funding than ever before, O’Malley said. The agency is serving more Americans with a number of employees that is at a 27-year low, he added.

In the fiscal 2024 budget, Congress appropriated $14.2 billion for SSA’s administrative expenses — an increase of $100 million over 2023. Lawmakers said, “These resources will help SSA keep up with rising costs to address service delivery challenges. But tight spending caps significantly limit the ability to provide SSA the funding it needs to provide the service that Americans who have paid into Social Security deserve. Addressing backlogs in key workloads and wait times will require sustained increases to allow SSA to increase staffing and make needed IT improvements.”

Pushing for a budget hearing

O’Malley said with the passage of the 2024 budget SSA can now lift its hiring freeze, particularly in the field offices to better serve citizens.

“We are doing things every day that improve the customer experience that take advantage of modern tools and technology. But however quickly we do that, we cannot cross that goal between the low level of staffing and the high number of customers until Congress starts giving us an annual appropriations and budget hearing again and allows us to return to the traditional 1.2% of benefits that we always operated on before 2017 in order to serve the customers,” he said.

O’Malley said he is meeting with lawmakers to push for SSA to have a budget hearing so that it can better explain why the agency needs more people and funding.

“I have certainly been making the rounds. Sen. Chris Van Hollen from Maryland, who is on Senate Appropriations, I met with him at length the other day. He certainly was asking Shalanda Young, the head of the Office of Management and Budget, questions about Social Security and how can we get them more help? But in order to pull us out of declining levels of staffing, I’m going to continue to make our case,” he said.

“We’re finally able to make our case that the biggest threat to this agency is actually congressional disregard to the fact that we don’t even have the courtesy of a budget or appropriations hearing for what is the most popular and trusted program in the United States of America. People deserve better.”

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