SSA needs better plan for online customer service, IG says

The Social Security Administration needs to be better prepared to deliver the majority of its customer service online during the next 10 years, according to a report from SSA Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll Jr.

Although the SSA has developed several programs to deal with future customer needs — such as its upcoming MySSA personal Web portal to start in fiscal 2012—it needs to have a comprehensive plan to fully respond to President Barack Obama’s executive order that directs agencies to improve customer service, the report said.

The SSA’s Future Systems Technology Advisory Panel advised last year that the SSA prepare to move to an electronic self-service model where 90 percent of its business is online. Additionally, more and more customers are using mobile devices to access the Internet.

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However, the SSA currently has no long-term strategic plan for electronic customer services and it should develop such a plan, O’Carroll wrote in the report issued July 29.

“SSA’s long-term customer-service delivery plan must recognize that a majority of the customers it will serve in 10 years will expect to conduct business electronically, conveniently, and without the intervention of an agency employee,” the report said.

The inspector general recommended that the SSA define and set specific goals for serving the population through the Internet and other electronic means, as well as goals for IT infrastructure, staffing, physical infrastructure and performance metrics.

Although the SSA does not have a long-term strategic plan, it has set of goal of handling 50 percent of its new retirement applications online by fiscal 2012. In fiscal 2010, 37 percent of all new applications for retirement were filed online.

The SSA is developing a personal account portal, known as MySSA, to be deployed in fiscal 2012. The portal would enable customers to access their personal Social Security statements, verify benefits, change an address, and access direct deposit services. SSA expects customers will eventually have access to all its online services through MySSA.

The SSA also is developing a Spanish-language application for retirement, disability or Medicare benefits, and a Nonresident Alien Tax Screening Tool to determine if customers outside the U.S. must withhold taxes from their benefits. Next in line is the SSA’s Nonresident Alien Tax Screening Tool, which will allow customers who live outside the U.S. to determine if SSA should withhold taxes from their benefits.

For its IT infrastructure, the agency needs to decide whether to transition its systems away from Common Business-Oriented Language (COBOL), which it has used for 30 years, the report said. SSA is also examining new computing models, such as cloud computing, and planning for its data centers, that would enable computer resources.

Currently, most of SSA’s service is face-to-face or via telephone. The infrastructure includes the SSA’s Baltimore, Md., headquarters and 10 regional offices; 1,300 field offices; 154 hearing offices; 37 telephone service centers; and six program service centers.

“SSA needs to determine whether it should streamline the physical locations where it provides services, and whether services should be provided in new locations,” the report said.

O’Carroll recommended that the SSA develop a long-term customer service delivery plan, and the SSA agreed with the recommendation.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Tue, Aug 9, 2011 Bob

I won't be needing Social Security's services until far more than 10 years from now. And I can assure Patrick O'Carroll, Jr. that I will most definitely NOT be expecting to conduct my business with the agency electronically. I deal with live people, not inanimate machines. If SSA and other government agencies plan to comply with the President's executive order calling for improved customer service, they can start by hiring people for customers to interact with, instead of going with this all-electronic mentality. SSA has already shown its arrogance and lack of interest in the people it serves by no longer paying benefits by paper check to new enrollees who want them. That arrogance and lack of interest extends to current beneficiaries who presently receive paper checks, but who will no longer be allowed to as of March 1, 2013. Regretably, SSA, like most government agencies, doesn't bother to ask what the people it serves actually want. Instead, they put out press releases telling what they are going to do and "saying" it's what people want.

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