SSA forecasts chats, expanded online filing

A month after it began letting customers apply online for retirement benefits,

the Social Security Administration said Thursday that it will expand its

interactive service in 2001 to applications for survivor and spousal benefits

and disability compensation.

In addition, according to a consultant to the agency, SSA could implement

online chat communications between staff members and the public next year — a move that would eliminate thousands of mailings each year.

Officials made the predictions Thursday during a presentation at the General

Services Administration in Washington, D.C., about SSA's pilot e-government

programs.

William Halter, deputy commissioner at SSA, said the agency has received

a great deal of positive response since it launched its online retirement

application process Nov. 2. Between then and Dec. 6, according to SSA figures,

6,235 people filed online for retirement benefits

"We couldn't have paid for the kinds of quotes" people said about the service,

Halter said. People expressed gratitude for saving them the time and hassle

of driving to an SSA office, he said, and some remarked on an efficiency

not typically seen in government.

"'Are you guys really a government agency?'" one customer wrote, according

to Halter.

Even with the online service, some supporting documents, such as birth certificates,

still must be mailed, Halter said, adding that such a step will be unnecessary

over time as more documents can be moved and verified electronically.

SSA will conduct a pilot program next year on the use of digital signatures.

Regarding the online chat service, V. Douglas Hines of KPMG Consulting LLC,

said an SSA staff member would be able to "push" a hyperlink to a customer

for additional information, eliminating thousands of mailings that SSA sends

out each year.

KPMG Consulting has been assessing several pilot e-government projects for

SSA.

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