The SSA faced challenges with the 2011 budget, according to Commissioner Michael Astrue; reductions in funding resulted in a hiring freeze, which meant the loss of about 3,500 positions, the agency has also cancelled plans for the creation of eight centers to address backlog issues, a tele-service center was closed and field services in remote sites have also been cancelled for security and feasibility reasons.
But reduction in funding meant finding better ways to provide service, and Astrue said the SSA has improved its tele-service program.They’re managing call flows better, have reduced the number of visitors to field offices, and improved online services and information so there are a reduced number of calls to tele-service centers.
“That’s really been the saving grace during this very difficult time, because disability and retirement applications go up in a recession, and this is a very severe recession,” Astrue said. “We’ve got a lot more business, but we’re managing it much better than we did before, and that had allowed us to survive even in a time of budget cutbacks and higher workloads.”
Among the changes in what Astrue called a “renovation” of online services is an increase in services. SSA recently added the option to process its Medicare applications online, and now, approximately 44 percent of Medicare applications are processed online.
The SSA now also offers its online calculator and estimator in Spanish, and will soon offer all services online in Spanish, making it one of the first agencies to do so.
What spurred management to streamline and upgrade resources? According to Astrue, it was “sheer panic.”
“When you see the magnitude of what’s coming at you, it does force urgency and creativity,” Astrue said. “We’ve seen that out of the senior management.”