Thinking ‘Outside of the Box’ for SSA

The workload at the Social Security Administration is increasing and the agency is struggling to keep up. The author offers a unique suggestion for how the agency could better meet demands.

The Social Security Administration would like to hire more employees to handle increasing workloads, such as retirement claims from baby boomers, but a staff and budget increase are unlikely.

However, one solution is to move staff employees to front-line service employees.

From a Pyramid to a Box

Social Security, like many agencies, was originally staffed like a pyramid. The base of the pyramid represented the thousands of employees providing direct service to the public while the top of the pyramid represented the leadership of Social Security.

If you have tried to call or visit a Social Security office lately, it may have felt like Social Security is now an upside-down pyramid with few service employees and a lot of unreachable employees.

In truth, Social Security’s current structure is more like a box. The 30,000 direct service employees are below another 30,000 employees, a huge percentage of which are staff employees.

Regional Offices

In addition to its Central Office in Baltimore, MD, the agency has numerous Regional Offices.

Although the employees in the Regional Offices are highly paid professional employees, they have many supervisors. In fact, Regional Offices often contain more supervisory employees than non-supervisory employees. This is a mechanism for providing higher pay to many as the pay scale assigned to a position is influenced greatly by the grade level of the employees you supervise.

For example, two or three GS-12 employees in a branch may be lead or supervised by a GS-13 employee who in turn is supervised by a GS-14 Assistant Director. The Assistant Director reports to a GS-15 Director, who reports to the Assistant Regional Commissioner, who reports to the Regional Commissioner.

The Regional Offices thrive on the upside down supervisory pyramid with a small number of workers supporting a larger number of supervisors. All these Regional Office employees have counterparts in each of the other regions.

In the 1980s, the Social Security Administration initiated a consolidation of Regional Offices with the plan to move from ten to seven Regional Offices. For example, the Boston Regional Office was going to merge with the New York Regional Office, however, the consolidation of Social Security Regional Offices never happened.

Recommendation from NCSSMA

The National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA) describes itself as “a professional organization that strives to further the goals of SSA from a management perspective by having an open dialogue with regional and national leaders” and also “the voice of field office (FO) and teleservice center (TSC) management in the Social Security Administration (SSA).”

NCSSMA went a step further beyond the consolidation of Regional Offices; it proposed eliminating all Regional Offices.

Their proposal, in brief, was that the 54 Area Directors would direct the 1,200 field offices. Staff support for field offices would come from the Area Offices and from the Central Office. This proposal, however, was never seriously considered by Social Security.

The Role of Regional Offices

My experience suggests that the role of Regional Commissioners has largely been eliminated by the Central Office and the resources allocated to the Regional Offices should be devoted to direct public service.

The staff support that is needed by Field Offices can be provided directly from Central Office. The rent savings alone from the elimination of the ten regional offices would be millions of dollars and will free up valuable resources, thereby returning to the pyramid structure to improve Social Security’s efficiency and effectiveness.

Robert White retired from the Social Security Administration in 2013 after nearly forty years of service.

Response from NCSSMA

Editor’s note: NCSSMA president Christopher Detzler issued the following statement in response to the article.

We found it of interest that you [Robert White] stated in part that the National Council of Social Security Management Associations (NCSSMA) proposed elimination of Regional Offices.

This is not a position that NCSSMA has taken for at least two decades. In reviewing our archives, we can only assume that you made this statement based on a paper that NCSSMA published in early 1995 titled, “SSA-Model Agency in Crisis”. This paper was published at the time you were involved with the New England Social Security Management Association (NESSMA).

Unfortunately, your article did not reference the fact that this summary of NCSSMA’s position was proposed in a document released over two decades ago. It is important to note that the paper’s position is somewhat different from what was referenced in your recent article. Your article may unfortunately lead readers to believe that this is NCSSMA’s current position. It is in fact not our position. Our organization will clarify this with both SSA leadership and our members nationwide.