This career federal-management policy guy, takes over one of the biggest management challenges in government

After more than 20 years at OMB, Dustin Brown recently took the job of chief operating officer and acting chief of staff at the Social Security Administration.

After more than 20 years at the Office of Management and Budget, the man  jumped from the frying pan into the fire. He recently took the job of chief operating officer and acting chief of staff at the Social Security Administration. Among federal agencies, SSA ranks dead last in a recent survey of best places to work. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin talks with Dustin Brown about what he plans to do first.

Interview Transcript:  

Tom Temin The obvious question, 23 years, I think it was at the Office of Management and Budget. What attracted you to Social Security?

Dustin Brown Well, one of the responsibilities we have at OMB is to look across agencies on their customer experience, performance, workforce, as you mentioned. And it was pretty clear Social Security was in a customer service crisis. And I think that’s why the president asked Martin O’Malley to come in as the new commissioner. And Martin O’Malley is actually somebody who I’ve always looked up to as a hero in the performance management community. Obviously, he started the stat movement across all city operations at the city level and at the state level. And I was really interested in joining up with him and helping him address some of those challenges that you mentioned. In fact, actually, as I was starting out in OMB, I attended CitiStat meetings and state stat meetings in Baltimore and Maryland to see it firsthand and actually used kind of what they were doing to help inform our federal performance framework.

Tom Temin And I want to get into some of those details. But briefly, this new job you have, chief operating officer, that’s a brand new position.

Dustin Brown That’s right. Other agencies have that role established, whether that’s CMS or IRS. And it seemed like it was something that would be really helpful for SSA as well, especially given just how operational of an agency it is.

Tom Temin Right. That’s the thing people don’t often understand. It’s not really a policy making agency at all. It’s purely operational in that it carries out what policy is for Social Security benefits.

Dustin Brown Yeah, absolutely. There are 1200 field offices across the country and we’re assisting over 74 million people. Just the magnitude of the number of calls or office visits is really extraordinary across the country. And having a leader like Martin O’Malley come in with that sort of performance management acumen into an agency like this, I think has been a really good fit.

Tom Temin And the rising tide of boomer retirements and golly, it’s going to be the millennial generation right behind the boomers are going to start to retire soon. Is that one of the central challenges of the agency? Just the sheer volume of Americans as the country ages.

Dustin Brown Completely. I think it was like 12,000 a week are turning 65, and we’re seeing more customers that the agency is providing services to than ever in its history. And yet we’re also at a 25 year staffing level. So the combination of those two things has certainly been a central challenge to the agency in terms of engagement levels. Some of the customer service challenges that you mentioned, being the most exhausted workforce across the federal government. That is a fundamental dynamic and one that we’re hoping to address by hopefully increasing our funding for the agency, kind of consistent with what the president’s requested.

Tom Temin Right. You want to be almost like the IRS, which is trying to fix its customer experience problems, but they got favored in one of the big bills for ten years of funding. They won’t get it all, but they’ve gotten some of it already.

Dustin Brown Yeah. We’re doing everything we can to make the case to Congress. Commissioner had a number of hearings, a couple of months ago, that were able to deliver that message to Ways and Means Committee and Senate Finance and others, and his meeting with a number of members in the appropriations committees as well. That’s going to be critical if we’re going to be able to make progress on some of those customer service challenges. That being said, we’re doing everything we can with performance and process improvement efforts to make sure we’re using the funding we do have most effectively and efficiently to address some of those core challenges the commissioner laid out when he first came in.

Tom Temin And what will you focus on first? What are your marching orders? The commissioner called, said Dustin, come on aboard, here’s what you got to do.

Dustin Brown Well, they were pretty clear in the beginning of January, Commissioner sent an email out to all SSA employees laying out three priorities. First, is reducing the customer wait times on our national 800 number. Second, is reducing the average processing time for disability determinations. And third, was addressing the injustices of overpayments and underpayments, which obviously had been in the news quite a bit recently as well. So we had those priorities very clearly established. And the interesting thing about those is no one component of SSA can really address those on their own. You really need policy, general counsel, technology, operations and other parts of the organization to come together to be able to make meaningful progress on those and the security stat effort that the commissioner set up every two weeks, getting all those folks around the table to identify actions we can be taking to make progress on those, I think has been instrumental to seeing some of the early results that we’ve been able to identify.

Tom Temin And who sits in on those security stat meetings.

Dustin Brown So it’s the deputy commissioners and each of the major components of the agency. Obviously, the commissioner runs a meeting and we have eight different topics we rotate through. And the senior officials leading those efforts are kind of in front of the podium going through that latest data that we have. And that is one of the things I’ve been very impressed with. SSA has just extraordinary, even real time data that they’re able to bring up and help identify whether the actions that we’ve identified and started implementing are actually having the result we intended, and we can do that on a pretty frequent cadence. This is not your annual budgeting and annual performance reporting. This is every two weeks looking at steps that we can be taking.

Tom Temin We were speaking with Dustin Brown. He’s the new chief operating officer and acting chief of staff at Social Security. And speaking of information technology, at one time the agency was strictly a mainframe check production operation, and it was pretty easy to plan what was needed in IT. You knew how many recipients would be coming. The actuaries keep you pretty well informed at Social Security, and then you just plan the capacity needed for the checks that you were going to write. What are the big IT challenges now? Because you need this real time data analytics, and you also need digital services to help that phone service and to help the online service.

Dustin Brown Well, one of the most important steps I think the commissioner took was recruiting a new chief information officer, Marcela Alava Escobar came over from the White House, and has great kind of background in the private sector and in some in government, and is really listening to those folks on the front lines to understand what items they need in order to better assist customers. One of the wonderful things about Social Security is the things that our customers need, and the things that our employees need are largely the same. And so there’s a win-win opportunity in terms of delivering more efficient services. Obviously, we are still working on legacy systems across the board, and there are a tremendous number of kind of workaround solutions that have been identified in the regions or in the headquarters, and really understanding what those needs are and helping us prioritize those things according to what’s going to move the dial on those three priorities I mentioned is where we’re starting.

Tom Temin As I mentioned at the outset, Social Security is at the bottom of the list of best places to work with pretty poor engagement scores, in the low 50s. And what is it that is driving, do you think, the employees feeling that way about the agency based on the fed scores?

Dustin Brown Well, I think I comes back to the just fundamental dynamic of assisting more customers than we ever have in the history and having the lowest staffing levels in 25 years. The combination of those two things, I think has led to a workforce that’s exhausted, and we’ve seen it also, unfortunately, in our attrition levels. Certain areas of SSA, for instance, in our call centers, are seeing attrition rates of over 20%. And that’s just not sustainable. And we need to be able to do a better job I think supporting them, and also giving them the tools they need to be able to assist the customers in the way that we know they want to. One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about the job is being able to get outside of the D.C. or Baltimore area. I’ve traveled around to Philadelphia, New York, Miami, Atlanta, Tennessee to be able to sit and talk with those customer service representatives and others to get their feedback.

Tom Temin Just give us some numbers. How many employees are there altogether? And how many of those are on the front lines of customer service?

Dustin Brown Yeah, we have about 56,000 employees, and I think about 45,000 of them are outside Baltimore.

Tom Temin Yes. So they’re in call centers and they’re in offices because Social Security still has storefronts.

Dustin Brown Yeah, 1200 field offices. Exactly. And then we have call centers as well. And then we have processing centers spread across the country.

Tom Temin So it’s that 46,000 or so that are outside. That’s the frontline people. That’s what’s driving the scores and what’s also the recipient of the workloads.

Dustin Brown Yeah. And the commissioner understood that. One of the things he did within his first three weeks was get out to every single region in the country and not just do town halls, which were, I think, really helpful to hear directly from employers, but listening in on calls with health center representatives and seeing kind of the interactions between customers and employees firsthand. So I think that was really helpful in accelerating the learning curve and giving us just a better understanding of what the most pressing issues are for the front lines to help inform what our agenda is at the headquarters.

Tom Temin It sounds like there’s two problems here or two challenges. Let’s say, one is having enough people, but the other is giving the people you have the right tools and business processes to get more efficient. You’ve got call centers, 800 numbers, and walk in, and online. So you’re an omnichannel, I think is the word they use now in the customer experience lingo. So it sounds like you need to somehow integrate all of that in a way that the records are available no matter what channel someone’s using, and so on.

Dustin Brown Exactly right. We have a chief transformation officer, Betsy Bowman, who is working, for instance, on our customer relations management solution so that all those different channels can come together into one place. And I think solutions like that would tremendously help the productivity and performance of that front line workforce, because we are working across all those channels and we will always work across all those channels.

Tom Temin And how do you get the workforce to participate in this?

Dustin Brown Well, that part hasn’t been hard at all. We have, internal tools like an engage platform, for instance, where we are able to share some of the initiatives working, and then the frontline employees are able to comment directly in with their ideas. We’ve gotten over 5,000 comments from frontline employees on steps we could be taking to improve their capabilities, and then we’ve used that to help inform our initiatives. So I’ve been really pleasantly surprised by just, I think, the excitement that you are seeing from those folks on the front lines in a leadership team that is 100% focused on what we need to provide to them.

Tom Temin Right. So that means you’ve got to deliver pretty quickly before that enthusiasm kind of sours. Well, here we go again.

Dustin Brown Yeah. And we’ve identified a number of quick wins that we’ve already been able to put in place and have those out. Just a few weeks ago, we were able to kind of do a nice list of what the commissioner has been able to achieve in his first 200 days, for instance.

Tom Temin And what about services to the employees as employees, that is to say, when they need something days off, pay questions, that kind of thing. It seems to me a lot of organizations are automating that, not simply for self-service, but for better service and more efficient service, which makes people feel better about working there.

Dustin Brown Well, we definitely need to make sure we’re taking care of our workforce, and we have taken some steps working with our unions, for instance, to provide a little more flexibility around ad hoc telework days or ad hoc leave that people might need to take if something comes up. That was one of the things the commissioner heard when we were doing some of the town halls in the region is just to make sure that we were finding the right balance between meeting those really important performance metrics and targets, but also making sure we’re not burning people out so that they wind up leaving the agency and we lose that institutional knowledge.

Tom Temin Right. So telework is a big question for a lot of agencies. And call centers are virtual now. No one needs to be in a bullpen with 10,000 telephones anymore. In fact, very few people are. What is your telework policy as it stands now? How do you envision where people work in the future?

Dustin Brown Well, one of the things I think we did that was pretty smart is it was based on the job and the the role that individuals had across the agency. So, for instance, the telework individuals you mentioned are four days telework, one day in the office, because they can do that just as efficiently from their workstation. Whereas in headquarters where three days in the office and two days telework. So it really does vary. But we are making sure that folks in the field office are there and able to assess people in person and have been doing that for quite some time now.

Tom Temin How is the physical plant, the offices, the condition of the field offices, because that has a big effect both on the public if they go to a field office and on employees, if the headquarters or the regional offices are rundown.

Dustin Brown Well, that is another good example of the type of thing that we need to be able to fund. And it does make a difference, you can tell. I’ve been to a number of them just in my short time there, and you do see differences across the field offices and the quality of the waiting rooms and things like that. I think overall, the team does a great job making sure that those are done in a way that feels welcoming, and that we’re able to efficiently serve people. But there’s always deferred maintenance and things like that need to be addressed. And the another good example of why the funding is going to be so critical.

Tom Temin Deferred maintenance mean ceilings leak or bathrooms aren’t nice or that kind of thing. And it can be, I think, demoralizing to again, those line employees that have to put up with it.

Dustin Brown Yeah, absolutely.

Tom Temin All right. And what else do we need to know about what’s going on there.

Dustin Brown Definitely keep an eye on our security staff website. One of the things that the commissioner did was not just kind of rely on annual kind of reporting of our performance, but we have updated our website to be able to allow the public to track progress on a number of different priorities on a monthly basis. So you can go on the website now and see every month what our call wait times, for instance, are. And that’s a good example of one where we’re really pleased at the progress we’re seeing. We were up at over 40 minutes in the fall, and we’re down to 24.5 minutes on average for our call wait time, and I would expect that to continue to come down in the month of May based on the data we’re seeing. So that’s a good example. We also have a number of maps that show you some of the variations that exist across the country, on things like the initial disability determination. Depending on what state you’re in, you may be looking at very different timelines. And that hadn’t been something we had previously reported. And now we’re sharing that. And we’re also using that data to set expectations for our customers to also help reduce some of the incoming call volumes, for instance, on the 800 number, so that we’re honest and transparent with them about what kind of wait times they should be expecting now, which has helped to reduce some of the call volume on the 800 number. So all these things kind of come together in that way.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Dustin Brown. He’s the new chief operating officer and acting chief of staff at Social Security. And there’s not just call wait time, but also resolution rates.

Dustin Brown Right. And we tracked that first call resolution as well. And the team there just has an extraordinary amount of data they’re able to bring into these kind of staff meetings, for instance. And that’s been very helpful to identify leading actions we can take to continue to make improvements.

Tom Temin Right. And resolutions depend on the data available to the call center person that has available to them from all of the systems that might impinge on that particular customer.

Dustin Brown Having sat in on a number of calls, it really is extraordinary the proficiency that these teleservice representatives have accessing multiple different systems, understanding the different types of programs that SSA operates and being able to resolve those issues. Our customer satisfaction rates among people who are able to get through and get that really, really high. And it is due entirely to the extraordinary workforce we have there. It’s amazing what they do. And,  they are not highly paid individuals for the work they do.

Tom Temin And when they become good at accessing multiple systems, that kind of gives rise to the perhaps need to abstract all of those different systems with a dashboard approach so that they can handle more cases instead of dialing into all the systems they have to have now, all the silos.

Dustin Brown Exactly. And that is a good example of the type of technology solutions we have prioritized, and we want to continue to build on. And our new CIO will be helping to assist and kind of further developing that.

Tom Temin And on disability determinations. That’s a judgment process. Is the issue there that you simply need more administrative judges to decide it?

Dustin Brown Well, the first step is then the field office and our timelines there are pretty good. And then moving them to the next stage is actually in the state DDS is who make the determination. And that’s where right now we’re seeing the biggest backlog, over a million individuals waiting kind of in that stage. And then after that, they can appeal up to the hearings office. And there we’ve seen really great progress there, actually, what used to be over a million. And now they’re down under 300,000. They’ve never been at that level. So they really have made extraordinary progress in bringing that hearing number down to the lowest levels ever.

Tom Temin Sure. And just with respect to the budget, the 2025 requests are in. Lord knows when they’ll be acted on by Congress. Does your 2025 request that’s now the one on the deck. Does that reflect some of those priorities and increases you hope for, or is that going to be more in the ’26 request?

Dustin Brown The ’25 request is really important. I think it’s about an 8% increase that the president’s budget asked for SSA, and that would do a number of things to help the agency on exactly those priorities.

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