Social Security’s new commissioner has giant human capital challenge

Andy Saul knows a thing or two about long term investments. As the brand new commissioner of Social Security, he’s charged with the agency that exemplifies the human longing for a dignified old age. Saul also ran the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board.

Saul also knows about public finance, big work forces and how they mix with hardball politics. I’m inferring this from his having been chairman of the finance committee of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Perhaps Saul will have some ideas for how Congress can avert actuarial financial disaster for Social Security, one of the most enduringly popular programs of the federal government? I’m wishing the man well as the first confirmed commissioner in years. I know I pore over the Personalized Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement that lands annually in my mailbox.

Like other functional agencies, SSA deals annually with always-aging information technology, cybersecurity, less-than-lavish operating budgets, keeping up to date with the service it gives the public, and determining how to deal with its 60,000-person workforce.

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On the workforce front, Saul has walked into an agency with a significant challenge.

Some 45,000 employees and members of a bargaining unit of the American Federation of Government Employees have their noses out of joint over a breakdown in negotiations for a new work agreement. Shortly before Saul’s arrival, agency management invoked the Federal Services Impasses Panel. The Panel — appointees of the Trump administration — mostly ruled in favor of SSA management.

The union refers to the Panel members as “union-busting.” It charges the administration with using individual negotiation tactics to implement personnel reforms it proposed governmentwide but were rejected in court. The union is losing official time to deal with grievances and other union-related business. It’s losing office space. It wanted a short contract to get a sooner bite at the apple. It’s getting a long one.

The net result for Saul is that coming into the job, more than half his workforce is crabby.

The latest deadlock occurs between SSA management and the Association of Administrative Law Judges. The  same issues came up: Official time, office space and duration. SSA wants to eliminate mid-contract negotiations, cut back training and curtail telework.

In my latest interview with Melissa McIntosh, herself an administrative law judge at Social Security and president of the association, she described the broader issue of where in the organization judges should report. ALJs are asking Saul to have them report to an appointed official, and not to a career administrative one. The judges believe this is required legally and for their judicial independence.

They’re also trying to get Congress to pass bipartisan legislation reversing a Trump administration executive order moving ALJs from competitively-hired jobs to “excepted,” appointed ones, citing a Supreme Court decision concerning the Securities and Exchange Commission’s administrative law judges. But that case also confirmed ALJs as inferior officers who must report to a superior officer, that is, an appointee.

While those non-contract-related issues get sorted out — and Saul will have to stride into those issues — the union has asked for a pause in the contract negotiations.

It’s all a swirling brew of human capital issues and possibly the most important near term thing Saul will need to take on. In the most recent rankings of the best places to work in the federal government, Social Security does middling. Its engagement score of 62% is below the median for large agencies. From the public’s point of view, speaking anecdotally, Social Security can be easy to deal with. It has a fast, comprehensive web site.

You’ve no doubt seen that other number: 10,000 baby boomers a day reaching Social Security eligibility age. That statistic has implications in many quarters, none more so than for the Social Security Administration. Saul presumably has the commissioner’s job for six years. He and the workforce somehow have to get rowing together.

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