Why federal field offices and their people endure

Calls for federal workforce reform come from many vectors. A common refrain: The workforce of today is vastly different from that of 1949, when the general schedule came into force.

That’s true. Back then a higher percentage of federal employees were typists, clerks, file managers, cooks, lawn mowers and drivers.

More recently, the digital services movement has sought to upgrade the online capabilities of the government, so people can complete more detailed and complex interactions. This benefits individual citizens and agencies. I recently applied for and received a Medicare card. You start via Social Security. I never spoke to anyone, nor sent anyone snail mail. I doubt if anyone personally reviewed my thoroughly routine application. With the data requested, it could all occur in the machines.

All of this makes a small but significant report from the Social Security Advisory Board all the more interesting. The board states that the agency, to improve service, is expanding “video teleconferencing, online real-time assistance, online Social Security card replacements, benefit verification letters, and My Social Security enhancements.” My Social Security refers to the system for individuals to create accounts for dealing with SSA.

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The board also points out, in-person visits to SSA field offices have remained stubbornly steady since 2007. That year they reached 42.9 million. Last year, 43.2 million.

Calls to SSA’s 1-800 numbers have also been steady since 2007 at between 50 million and 60 million per year.

Might those numbers have been larger — in the absence of online transactions — given the growth in people reaching Social Security / Medicare eligibility age? Online transactions, just a few million when SSA started counting in 2010, reached 184 million last year.

Hard to say, but the juxtaposition of these numbers comes as Social Security examines all of its service delivery channels. This whole topic has drawn report after report from the Government Accountability Office, the Social Security Inspector General and the agency itself.

The GAO noted in 2018, “With one of the largest physical footprints of any federal agency, and in light of rising facility costs, SSA may be able to achieve efficiencies by reducing the size of its footprint and pursuing additional, cost effective service delivery options.”

“Options” is what the public wants. Sometimes people have to call or go in person. They always will.

Last year Commissioner Andrew Saul put it this way: “My plan is to emphasize and restore fundamental public service so that when you call us, we answer timely. When you come to our offices, we serve you timely. When you apply for benefits, you receive a timely answer from us. And if you are approved for benefits, you receive a timely check from us.”

That doesn’t sound like a commissioner committed to shuttering all the field offices, or switching off the call centers. Yet Social Security, over many years, has trimmed its field offices and tried to move them around to respond to geographical trends. What the latest missive from the Advisory Board urges won’t sound new: “The Board believes that it is imperative for SSA to use evidence-based measures to evaluate access to agency services.”

My point isn’t to recommend more or fewer field offices, but to simply say that whatever types of people it needs to staff field offices and call centers, it’ll need for the foreseeable future. The addition of customer-experience-revved digital services doesn’t replace the other modes of service delivery. To the contrary, the modes can complement and enhance one another.

Industries modernize, but not every job goes away. Movies no longer require gigantic mechanical cameras, and the natural lighting look has long supplanted John Wayne-era lighting when characters would have two or three shadows while standing outside in the prairie. Yet film credits will list gaffers, grips and best boys. That’s because natural lighting in a movie is in reality anything but.

Social Security’s programs come with eligibility rules that are, let’s say, complicated. As variables multiply, so do the complexity of decisions. And the range of possible questions. The people in field offices in general aren’t the customer experience designers, data officers, information technology programmers and various flavors of analysts needed at headquarters. Those types of jobs are increasingly at variance with the strictures of the General Schedule system, and for that matter the standard federal hiring system. Just this week the council of federal Chief Information Officers released a manifesto calling for a different (and higher) salary structure and overall hiring and employment system for IT types.

Those on the phone and those behind the counter, though, must know the program rules, possess good human relations, and work in a structured environment at assigned times. They might be more like traditional GS type employees. And they’ll be part of the services delivery backbone for a long time.

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Alazar Moges

When you think of the toughest insitututions to get accepted into, one of te first names that will pop up would probably be Harvard. But what about Walmart? Because of the high volume of applications the company receives as the nation’s top employer, it holds a roughly 2.6% acceptance rate — almost twice as selective as Harvard.

Source: Business Insider