The heart of the dispute: Should expansions of online services be planned out well in advance, or left flexible?
Faced with rapid changes in media and technology, Social Security Administration officials are clashing with federal auditors about how far ahead agencies should plan for expansions of online services.
SSA Inspector General Patrick O’Carroll Jr., in a recent audit report on the SSA’s 22 Web-based services to the public -- including popular features such as the online Retirement Estimator -- recommend that SSA needs to plan the expansion of such services farther in advance. In a relatively rare kind of response, SSA officials disagreed sharply with the recommendation.
O’Carroll’s report gave a mixed picture overall of the SSA’s moves into electronic services.
On the one hand, the agency has set a goal of 50 percent retirees filing online by the end of fiscal 2012; about 37 percent were filing online in the most recent report. The SSA has created the 22 online applications, which generally score well in customer satisfaction, and has plans for several more, including offering individuals a single sign-on authentication and an online personalized statement of benefits and payments.
On the other hand, as of fiscal 2010, only 1 percent of the public interacted with the SSA online, with the majority interacting by phone, followed by office visits, the audit showed.
Furthermore, while the agency has made forays into social media such as Facebook and Twitter to publicize its online services, it has not measured whether those efforts have brought it closer to meeting its goal for increased rates of retiree electronic filings, O’Carroll wrote.
The inspector general recommended that SSA develop a strategic plan for its electronic services to carry out the SSA’s customer service goals.
However, SSA officials disagreed, stating that they needed flexibility more than a comprehensive plan.
“We do not believe it is wise to commit to specific expansions or refinements of agency electronic services in future years given the constantly evolving needs of the agency and our customers,” Dean Landis, deputy chief of staff for the SSA, wrote in an appendix to the report. “We continuously evaluate the satisfaction of our customers and our available resources, and adjust our electronic service plans accordingly.”
O’Carroll called that response “unusual,” noting that the agency’s Future Systems Technology Advisory Panel had previously recommended that the agency set a long-term goal of 90 percent of transactions online.
“Overall, we have stated in prior reviews the Agency lacks strategic planning for customer service and information technology processing need,” O’Carroll wrote. “As SSA implements solutions to address its customer service and IT processing requirements, it needs to have a more strategic and integrated approach to its planning efforts.”
While that dispute appears to be unresolved, SSA officials also disagreed with the auditor’s second recommendation to develop a metric for online customer service. The rest of the recommendations were uncontroversial.