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Social Security Chief: Congress Holds Key to Better Customer Service

O’Malley touts gains on phone waits, overpayments but says more progress hinges on reversing steep staff losses


Video: Social Security Chief Says He's Addressing Urgent Customer Service Needs

Martin O’Malley likes data. Sitting down for an interview with AARP at Social Security headquarters just outside Baltimore, he pulls out oversized flash cards showing how the agency’s workforce has shrunk even as its workload has increased. Afterward, he turns to a monitor to click through color-coded maps used to ferret out customer service trouble spots.

Now in his sixth month as commissioner of the Social Security Administration (SSA), O’Malley comes by this stuff naturally. As mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, he made his name as a number cruncher. He’s carried that approach to the SSA, where he and his top staff meet biweekly to review real-time data on customer service priorities, like reducing hold times for people calling the Social Security helpline and speeding up decisions on disability applications. Much of the data is available to the public on the SSA website.

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“We’ve really snapped out of the sleepy annual review to something much more akin to software development,” O’Malley says. “It’s agile two-week sprints, with all of the components sharing data and information openly and transparently.”

Urgency comes with the territory. O’Malley took office in December with Social Security under unprecedented fire from consumers, Congress and advocacy groups such as AARP over deteriorating service, and his abbreviated term as commissioner expires in January. In this May 31 interview (which has been edited for length and clarity), he outlines steps he’s already taking and pressed his case — in numbers, naturally — that Congress, which controls SSA spending on customer service and hiring, holds the key to long-term success.

spinner image Social Security Administration Commissioner Martin O'Malley
Social Security Administration Commissioner Martin O’Malley spoke with AARP in Woodlawn, Maryland, on May 31, 2024.
Stephen Voss

You’ve identified three key customer service priorities: long wait times for callers on the 800 number, growing wait times for people making disability claims, and collection of overpayments. Tell us one thing that you and the agency have done for each of those priorities.

We’ve installed a callback assist to our 800 number. Really clunky, underperforming system. That was kind of a technological fix. But there’s [also] communicating honestly and clearly with our customers about what their expectations as customers should be on any given line of service, so that they don’t feel like they have to call the 800 number when they were given, say, a two-week time frame within which to expect something, when the reality is it takes 40 days.

Moving on to the overpayments, we implemented sub-regulatory changes right away so that instead of clawing back, cruelly, 100 percent of a retiree’s monthly check if they don’t respond to our notice of an overpayment, we only allow that default to be 10 percent.

Probably the biggest fire-breathing dragon we confront right now is the growing numbers of people applying for disability determinations. Given the fact that Congress has reduced our staff to a 25-year low, there’s a huge backlog with now more people dying — 30,000 [in 2023], according to our actuary — as they await their initial disability determination. We’re doing a couple of things on that front. One is better use of technology to identify early those cases that are very likely going to be allowable cases. The other thing is to expand the use of technology so that the people making those initial disability determinations can more quickly get to the heart of the medical record, instead of flipping through a thousand pages.

Are you seeing results?

We’re seeing some promising results right off the bat. The overpayment changes, it’s almost as if that were ancient history. On the 800 number, at the end of the last calendar year, when I was confirmed, the wait time, average, was 41.2 minutes. We’ve wrestled that bad boy down on a rolling 30-day average to 17.8 minutes. Now, depending on when you call, some people will get longer, some people shorter. But if we can do that again in the next 100 days, that would be something worth cheering about.

On the disability claims, I wish I could tell you we’re seeing objective progress in bringing down that backlog. We’re not there yet.

Changing the clawback procedures on overpayments, that’s a major change of a long-standing policy. A lot of these other things are relatively smaller changes, like putting in callback assist and rolling out video appointments. These are things organizations with large customer bases have been doing for a long time. Why was the SSA so slow to adopt some of these changes?

It’s been a long time since we’ve had a commissioner that was confirmed and served for any length of time. I don’t know why we’ve had so few years of a confirmed commissioner, but now we do, and I’m embracing every day like Michael Phelps in a swim lane. I’m just swimming for the wall.

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But you mentioned something about customer service organizations. The context of everything we struggle with here and now is the truth that we are serving more customers than ever, because of us baby boomers. Because of the inattention of Congress — I don’t think it was intentional, I think it was inattention — we have had our staffing reduced to 25-year lows. So everything with which we struggle, the largest part of that context is the reduction in staffing coupled with the great increase in beneficiaries.

But leadership is also important. I think what you’re seeing now in the agency is intentional, confirmed leadership with a committed new group of people. When we meet here on a two-week rotation on these issues — whether it’s the 800 number, the overpayments or the disability claims — we ask ourselves, what are we doing? Is it working? Is it working any better this week than it was last week?

You’ve lifted the hiring freeze that the SSA was under when you took office. How many people have you been able to hire, and where have you been able to deploy them?

We’re now going to be able to hire, approximately, another 1,200 people. We are going to be deploying them to a few primary areas. One is the 800 number, so people get their calls answered in a more timely fashion. The second is the field offices, so they get their appointments and their applications in. The third is the actual processing of those applications, but the fourth is the state-run but federally funded Disability Determination offices. That is where our largest backlog is right now. That time period [for decisions on disability claims] used to be 120 days, when Congress allowed us to operate on our 1.2 percent overhead. That 120 days has now ballooned to 228 days. In some states, it’s even larger. That’s unacceptable, and that’s our biggest challenge right now.

When you say 1.2 percent, you’re talking about the amount the SSA spends on customer service versus the amount that goes out in benefit payments.

That’s right. Social Security can be thought of as a big insurance company. We insure people so that no senior has to live in poverty or under a bridge when they’re no longer able to work. If you look at the effectiveness of this insurance company and compare it to the private sector, you will see that we traditionally — until Congress started reducing our staffing — provided the customer service at a pretty high level, with just 1.2 percent overhead for the amount of benefits we paid out every year. If you compare that to other private corporations, Allstate operates on 19 percent overhead. Liberty Mutual operates on 23 percent overhead. So it is a very cost-effective program that all of us have already paid for.

How much can you do without getting buy-in from Congress to increase your operational budget? The president has requested $15.4 billion for operations for the SSA in the next fiscal year. That would be an 8 percent increase.

The president’s budget would be a very solid step in the right direction. [It] would allow us to hire another 6,000 customer service representatives, people in the field offices. We haven’t yet hit the wall in terms of what we can improve, and whether I’m here 10 more days or 10 more years, I doubt we’ll ever walk out of this room and say, “You know what? We’ve done as much as we can to improve efficiency and effectiveness.” We’re making a lot of progress. We can continue to make a lot of progress. But the big challenge that we cannot overcome, unless we get help from Congress, is the declining number of staff as a ratio to the greatly increasing number of customers. 

I want to pivot to the other Social Security issue that’s on everybody’s mind. Absent action by Congress, in a decade or so, the Social Security trust funds are going to run short of their reserves and benefits are going to be cut by 17 percent. That’s a circumstance nobody wants, but Congress hasn’t done anything to address it yet. What is your view of some of the proposals that are on the table, like raising the retirement age or raising taxes on people earning $400,000 a year or more?

As the administrator of Social Security, my job is not to propose policy but to give members of Congress and the president the numbers accurately that the actuary produces for Social Security, so they can make the right call. Now, back when I ran for president [in 2016], I cannot deny — and any of your readers could Google the fact — that my proposal to strengthen Social Security for the foreseeable future was to ask people who earned a lot more to pay, again, into Social Security. President Biden has proposed asking those that make more than $400,000 a year to start paying into FICA, into Social Security, again, once they reach that $400,000. [Editor’s note: In 2024, FICA taxes are collected only on wage income up to $168,600. The president and some members of Congress have proposed also applying the payroll tax to income above $400,000.]

Other members of Congress propose other things. There are some who say that you should raise the age, but there are others who push back on that and say, wait a minute: People that work harder, more physically demanding jobs have a much lower life expectancy and might not even reach the age where they could claim benefits. I just came back from South Dakota. I was on the Pine Ridge Reservation there. You know what the average life expectancy is in Pine Ridge? Forty-eight years for men, 52 years for women.

There will be a lot of policies out there. The good news is that in the past, whenever we faced events like this, Congress came together and figured out what they thought was their best fix for the foreseeable 75 years, which is a long time. When I was a younger man in college, we used to always say, “I wonder if Social Security will even be there for me when I’m 62.” Hey, guess what? Next year I’m 62, and it’s still here. As long as Americans work, Social Security will continue to pay benefits. That’s the elegant simplicity of this system.

You are the first, I believe, Social Security commissioner to come out of a background of elective office.

Second! I’ll show you the wax figure down the hall.

OK, it’s a rarity. In what ways have you found that background has helped you adjust to this job? In what ways has it hindered you?

On the hindrance side, this is a subject matter that has a lot of complexities to it. Learning those complexities of policy and law has been a steep learning curve. Fortunately, I have a whole lot of people that have done it their whole life, so they teach me. And the more I learn, the better I’m able to do for them in terms of the decisions I make that affect people on the front lines, that affect customer service.

Having been the mayor of a city that suffered the degree of attrition we did, and also a governor during a recession, there are some days when I shake my head and wonder if both of those experiences were just God’s way of preparing me for this moment at Social Security [laughs]. Some of it is very reminiscent. The lack of belief in ourselves and in our colleagues, the despondency, the defeatism, the culture of excuses and failure that gripped our own city and sometimes our state, are things that we have had to exorcise from this place. But we’re doing much better. I’m so proud of the senior executive service of this agency. They’ve risen to the moment. They don’t have rose-colored glasses about the challenges ahead of us. But in true Baltimore fashion, and this place is headquartered in Baltimore, sometimes we do best when our back’s up against the wall.

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