Cross-posted from Campaign For America's Future
For months there have been rumors that the Social Security Administration has a "secret plan" to close all of its field offices. Is it true? A little-known report commissioned by the SSA the request of Congress seems to hold the answer. The summary document outlining the plan, which is labeled "for internal use only," is unavailable from the SSA but can be found here.
Does the document, entitled "Long Term Strategic Vision and Vision Elements," really propose shuttering all field offices? The answer, buried beneath a barrage of obfuscatory consultantese, clearly seems to be "yes." Worse, the report also suggests that many of the SSA's critical functions could soon be outsourced to private-sector partners and contractors.
Here are five insights from this austerity-minded outline.
1. This is death by jargon.
The Social Security Administration has contracted with an entity called The National Academy of Public Administration, or NAPA, to "conduct a study and submit a high-level plan proposing a long-range strategic vision." The seven-member panel conducting the study includes current and former employees of government contractors IBM, Cisco, and Grant Thornton, as well as career bureaucrats and the editor of Government Executive magazine.
The panel's four-page overview lays down a nearly impenetrable barrage of consultant-speak. This is a language in which "smaller workforce" means "layoffs" and "reduced physical infrastructure" is a euphemism for "closing field offices." It is a language in which goals, objectives, strategies and tactics are reduced to a pulpy mash of undifferentiated "vision elements." The language is rich in booster-ish phrases like this one: "Stress program integrity in everything we do." (As opposed to, you know, not doing that.)
For most of its four pages the document's runic language artfully dodges the question at hand, preferring instead to inform the public of such need-to-know information as the fact that "we embrace change and reward managed risk." It is not until the final page that the bomb is dropped, surrounded by a cloud of verbal decoys. The key phrase: "Our communication and business practices enable a dispersed workforce that is no longer working in centralized, traditional offices."
"Centralized, traditional offices." Or, as the rest of the world calls them, "offices."
The document suggests that Social Security's administrative functions will be transferred online, allowing for human contact only "in very limited circumstances." Even in those cases it appears that the default options will be telephone calls and online chats, together with rare meetings with personnel who may be housed in the offices of other agencies -- or, conceivably, private corporations.
2. The SSA isn't resisting congress' brutal cuts.
Despite the fact that a Democratic president is running the executive branch, the Social Security Administration appears to be accepting the harsh budget cuts imposed upon it by Congress with an air of surprising passivity. This is puzzling. Social Security is an enormously successful and popular program. Historically, only conservative Republicans have urged cuts to its administrative budget. Those cuts are already frustrating the public and undermining public confidence in the program. (For more on this topic see the Special Senate Subcommittee on Aging, Mark Miller of Reuters, Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, Hiltzik again, and ourselves.)
And yet, these needless and harmful cuts are being accepted as a fait accompli by both the NAPA panel and the Social Security Administration itself. The SSA's "Agency Strategic Plan for 2014-2018," which is published where the "strategic vision" document might logically be found, glosses over current and impending staffing reductions with language like this: "In the coming years, as we prepare for more employee retirements and continued budget constraints, we will develop and implement a strong succession plan to prepare for the new skills, competencies and work styles of a leaner, modern Federal workforce."
English translation: We are downsizing for budget reasons but would rather not say too much about it.
Then there's this: "The size of our workforce has declined by about 11,000 employees since the beginning of FY 2011 and we expect this trend to continue ... we estimate that more than 21,000 of our employees will retire by FY 2022. A shrinking workforce affects our ability to meet the needs and expectations of our customers and stakeholders."
English translation: Our staffing budget keeps getting slashed and our service will continue to decline accordingly.
The fact that neither the SSA, the administration, nor the president himself are publicly fighting these brutal cuts is a betrayal of Social Security's promise. That betrayal is made even more acute by the fact that cuts to Social Security's administrative budgets do not help the deficit in any way, since the SSA is fully funded from Social Security's revenues.