Time to burn the backlogs

Congress has been having federal management-related hearings this week. Members are focusing on longstanding problems, the solutions to which are non-partisan. The agency ailments might differ, but they have a common symptom: backlogs.

To wit:

The Social Security Administration needs visible leadership. It’s an agency under siege. I keep seeing a statistic. A small town’s worth of baby boomers — 10,000 of them — reach retirement age every dayMaking Social Security the program sustainable is certainly a giant political problem. But not so ensuring Social Security the agency can handle the workload threatening to bury it.

As Steff Thomas reports, the least that should happen is the Trump administration appoint and the Senate approve a commissioner. It’s had acting commissioners for years now. It needs a workforce overhaul. It needs systems modernization. And it needs to work off a persistent disability claims backlog.

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A new and thorough research project commissioned by SSA and performed by a National Academies panel came up with an astounding an little-reported finding. A high degree of “utilization” of the health care system does not correlate with severity of illness or whether a person is disabled, by Social Security’s definition. The report seems to suggest Social Security disability people rethink how they look at this national problem.

Then there’s the security clearance backlog. The whole process seems impervious to improvement. Congress didn’t help when it yanked Defense clearances out of the not-so-recently formed National Background Investigations Bureau and sent a big piece of the hairball back to DoD. Now two agencies will be retching while hundreds of thousands wait.

It wasn’t the subject of a hearing, but the Veterans Affairs Department also has a backlog of disability claims appeals. VA seems to go from crisis to crisis, although in reality most of the hospitals do their day-to-day work reasonably well. This week’s tough report, from the VA inspector general, likely will spark a hearing. The Washington D.C. Medical Center has been hobbling along for more than five years with poor logistics, procurement, basic cleanliness, supply and management problems. That it didn’t keep anyone is about the best you can say about the place. Inspector General Michael Missal cites heroic employees who used proverbial rubber bands and chewing gum to keep the place going.

Backlogs are growing at the Merit Systems Protection Board, which needs an actual board in order to fully function. Nicole Ogrysko reports  that at last President Donald Trump has nominated someone to join the lonely Mark Robbins. If confirmed, Andrew Maunz would, along with Robbins, make a quorum. There’s hasn’t been one for 15 months. But Robbins must leave in less than a year because of statutory term limits. Will the agency ever have its full three members?

The IRS expects a backlog of sort when it falls behind in responding to taxpayers with questions. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, in his hearing, asked for more money specifically to implement the most recent tax reform bill.

If backlogs are the fever, the origins vary— too little money, too few people, poor processes. Fix the agencies and the backlogs will shrink.