From a former commissioner, advice for the next team at Social Security

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By several measures, Social Security is an agency in some crisis. Its labor relations are strained with ongoing uncertainty over their contracts. And when and how people will return to offices. It has difficulty on the customer service front, prompting tough questions from Capitol Hill, including Democrats. And there’s no Senate-confirmed commissioner. For some perspective, the Federal...

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Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Federal Drive’s daily audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

By several measures, Social Security is an agency in some crisis. Its labor relations are strained with ongoing uncertainty over their contracts. And when and how people will return to offices. It has difficulty on the customer service front, prompting tough questions from Capitol Hill, including Democrats. And there’s no Senate-confirmed commissioner. For some perspective, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to former Commissioner Michael Astrue.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Mr. Astrue, good to have you on.

Michael Astrue: Thank you for having me back.

Tom Temin: And there’s a little bit of a repeat of history here. You were appointed by George W. Bush and then served two years there and two years under the Obama administration. And there wasn’t all this political brouhaha, if I recall correctly.

Michael Astrue: I served four under President Obama. So there are some stresses when you’re reporting to a president who did not appoint you. But I think it’s a credit to both of us that, you know, we managed to work that out. And there was not on my watch significant controversy that came from the fact that President Obama and not appointed me. I mean, I guess my feeling is, if you’re in public service, you’re really serving the public. And your job is to with all the people that you have to deal with, to try to figure out the way to do the best job you possibly can. And there’s always going to be different people with different points of view, even in administrations where you were appointed. It worked out reasonably well, I think, with President Obama.

Tom Temin: And it was in those years, I believe that the first of the baby boomers officially reached retirement and Social Security age. And so it was the beginning of a ramp up, I guess, of recipients in terms of sheer numbers.

Michael Astrue: Yes, and I think from an agency workload point of view, even more difficult was the increase in disability applications. Because you reach what the agency calls the disability-prone years before you get to 62. And disability applications went up quite a bit. And they’re much more labor intensive. And we managed to make retirement applications much more automatic, we didn’t require original birth certificates on my watch, we totally redid the online application to make it much easier and more convenient. And we got some great help from Patty Duke promoting that. And so that saved us a fair amount of workload, but that all got eaten up on the disability side, because you have to go through medical records with great care. Medical records are much larger than they were 40 years ago. When I reviewed my first disability application in 1983, you’d get a 10-, 15-page medical record in most cases, whereas now, you’re typically looking at medical records around 500,000 pages. So it’s a lot more labor intensive. There were a lot more applications. And then when the economy went down the tubes, you know, people are desperate, and then more people apply. And it’s been shown big dips in the economy, disability applications, not just for Social Security, but other kinds of disability increased rather dramatically. We had huge workloads during my time.

Tom Temin: And just fast forwarding to recent history. And looking from the outside, what do you think Andrew Saul was trying to do? What do you think his organizing principle was for the agency? Because he didn’t give interviews very much, or at all, and it was pretty much Andy versus the world from what it looked like, externally.

Michael Astrue: The sense that I generally had was, they were trying to quiet things down. There was no successor between our time and there was an acting, long-term acting who quite frankly, did a brutal job. And pretty much every significant service metric went backwards dramatically. I mean, we spent six years driving down the hearing backlog, which was considered a national scandal and was on CBS Evening News and all that kind of stuff. And we took it down very significantly. And then under Carolyn Colvin, it went back up faster than it went down. And a lot of the other significant measures of service in the public deteriorated very rapidly. So I think my sense of what Andrew was trying to do, was to try to stabilize the agency, at a time when they didn’t have a lot of money, wasn’t getting a lot of attention from the White House or the Congress, and just trying to get some sense of normalcy back to the agency. And that’s kind of my sense of what they were trying to do.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Michael Astrue. He’s former commissioner of Social Security. And they now have labor unions that are pretty crabby, because there has been no change in the labor contract they say was imposed on them during the Trump administration. And now you have Acting Commissioner [Kilolo] Kijakazi, whose term seems to be expired right now as an acting and there’s 210 days since she was appointed on July 9. So what’s your advice at this point for how they need to proceed, the administration and then whoever comes in as commissioner?

Michael Astrue: Well, I think what’s disappointing is just this sense of neglect. You know, it’s been 14, 15 months now that they’ve had the time to decide what they wanted to do at Social Security. And they haven’t made a decision. And I think that demoralizing for the agency, it tends to freeze decision making. I think it’s hard to justify. You look at sort of how positions are filled in other agencies, and you say, well, how come not at Social Security, is it just not as important? It’s frustrating. And I agree with you, I believe that the acting commissioner is up any day. And there’s been no announcement on that. The concern is that they’re just going to do nothing. And although violation of the vacancy act often doesn’t bring the agency to its knees, it’s demoralizing for employees, it invalidates certain types of actions, or keeps the commissioner from doing certain types of things, and creates enormous uncertainty. And the last thing that the agency needs, with underfunding and everything else that’s going on is uncertainty. So it would be a very helpful thing for improving service delivery for the White House to decide what direction doesn’t want to go at Social Security and try to find the very best person that they can to run the agency.

Tom Temin: Yes, because Social Security law hasn’t changed that much. So the mission of the agency is not really in question. It’s a matter, then, you’re saying of finding the right leadership to carry out the mission, and then focusing on the customer service metrics that still aren’t very good right now by most of the surveys and measures, and then funding it adequately to make sure it can do the mission efficiently.

Michael Astrue: That’s right. And I think that Presidents of both parties, but particularly Democratic presidents make the mistake of thinking that the primary qualification for this job is a policy background. And I would challenge that. Major policy decisions just don’t happen at Social Security. And Congress has decided it’s the third rail of American politics. The last time they really did anything significant, in terms of major policy was 1983. And I don’t think there’s any likelihood they’re going to do anything substantial soon. So it’s an incredibly complicated management job. And unfortunately, there’s a history and yet again, both parties, but particularly with the Democrats of nominating candidates, without any management experience whatsoever, and to get it into an agency where you have 60,000 to 70,000 employees to manage, and you’ve got enormous budgetary issues, you’ve got workloads going through the roof, you have antiquated technology, you have lots and lots of problems. It is really almost unfair to throw someone in who’s managing people for the first time and whose background is policy because they don’t get to do policy. But they got to do a lot of management of a very complex organization. And it’s a tough one to learn on the job.

Tom Temin: And how did you find dealing with the major unions, there, the AFGE councils?

Michael Astrue: Impossible. I mean, they’ve been confrontational since the ’60s, and not really, in my opinion, interested in improving service to the public. They’re interested in expanding the number of employees and that type of thing. And I found them excessively confrontational, dishonest, really, in reporting what was being said and done in the agency, and really very determined not to cooperate in a Republican administration. Now in Democratic administrations, they have what’s called partnership, and at Social Security, White Houses have pretty much interpreted that almost as co-management, which makes it very difficult to make change, and very difficult to improve service, which is why, under Carolyn Colvin, for instance, service went backwards in every conceivable way, because I don’t think she had division but she also had her hands tied by the union. And you worry in this administration, that it’s going to be back to the same thing where you can’t make the changes that you need to improve the quality of work unless the union approves them.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so a lot to think about and the next Commissioner, then will have the challenge of the labor front, and as you say, the operational issues and let Congress worry about the policy.

Michael Astrue: Yeah, I think that’s right. And I think it’s gonna be hard to find someone with the right background that’s gonna take this on. I mean I think it’s a very difficult job, you take a lot of unfair criticism, you’re going to face a lot of frustration, and you can kind of see that. There’s the turnover in the civil service, particularly the Senior Executive Service, as I understand it is really increasing at a substantial rate. So that frustration is not restricted just to the political people at the top but the whole 150 or so senior executive service people, the top layer of Civil Service Management, I think are very frustrated. And I know that they’re losing a lot of the most capable and experienced ones long before you would expect them to retire.

Tom Temin: Michael Astrue is former commissioner of Social Security. Thanks so much for joining me.

Michael Astrue: All right, thanks.

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