Web users still call Social Security

The Social Security Administration is conducting an ambitious Web site usability study as it prepares for a sharp spike in its workload when baby boomers retire.

To gain insight into how it could provide services online to millions of retirees, the agency has assembled a team of experts in user surveys, multimedia design and usability research, said Bill Dixon, director of SSA's Customer Insight program. By studying the usability problem systematically, Dixon said, officials hope to avoid making bad assumptions about what the public needs to interact with the government online, and to feel satisfied that their needs were meet.

Speaking Feb. 4 at the Web-Enabled Government conference in Washington, D.C., he said the survey research done so far suggests that the government may not be able to cut back its telephone service centers, even if it moves more of its services online. A surprising number of retirees who use an online service follow up with a phone call to SSA, Dixon said.

Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, said that his survey research backs that finding. For every new Web site user, the agency should not expect one less phone caller, he said.

Rainie said that most citizens like having several channels of access to the government, and that despite such alternatives as the Internet, a phone call is still the preferred means of communicating with government. For that reason, he suggested that "e-government is going to be more taxing than not."

Still, the potential cost savings from delivering more services online makes Web usability research worthwhile, according to Larry Freed, president and chief executive officer of ForeSee Results, which does customer satisfaction research. At any given time, Freed said, a government agency can serve a thousand more citizens over the Internet than it can through office visits or telephone calls. SSA gets 55 million 800-number calls each year. It also issues 136 million Social Security statements, handles 40 million hits on its Web site and processes more than 5 million new claims for benefits each year.

The president's 2005 budget request for SSA includes $153.2 million for telecommunications expenses.

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