3. They intend to do more outsourcing, too.
One of the bitter ironies of the bipartisan austerity craze has been the fact that, while there has been an assault on government jobs, there has been an equal or greater push to transfer government revenues to the private sector using lucrative, cost-inflating "privatization" contracts.
That seems to be what somebody has in mind for Social Security's future, too. One of the 29 "vision elements" in the Vision 2025 document states that service delivery should be "integrated across SSA programs and with external partners..." It goes on to state that all support functions for SSA should be "provided through a shared services model (e.g., within SSA, across government, and by contract)." (Emphases ours.)
No descriptions are offered for those "external partners" or the recipients of those "shared services" contracts, but the message seems clear: they're closing the field offices, laying off employees, and shifting the work to other agencies as well as profit-driven (and therefore ultimately costlier) private enterprises.
The choice of private partners thus far isn't encouraging. The user portal informs people signing up for online access that they may be subject to an eligibility verification by Experian. That's the credit-rating firm that is currently the subject of a multi-state investigation, as well a a lawsuit on behalf of the people of Mississippi. The complaint, which is unrelated to Social Security, alleges that Experian knowingly made "sweeping errors" on consumers' credit records and repeatedly violated consumer protection laws.
4. They expect people to do everything on the Internet -- and their website is terrible.
The "vision" document states it plainly: "We ... use online, self-service delivery as our primary service channel." They also expect to "automate processes to maximize operational efficiency." "Direct service options (e.g. in person, phone, online chat, video conference)" will only be available "in very limited circumstances."
That's a bad idea. Seniors use the Internet far less than other people. Only 57 percent of people over 65 are online, as opposed to a nationwide average of 87 percent, according to a recent Pew study. Disabled people, Social Security's other major user group, can also experience difficulties accessing the Internet. Minorities and low-income people, many of whom depend on the SSA's assistance, are also less likely to be web-connected.
This idea gets even worse when one attempts to use the SSA's website, as we did recently. We will document that tragicomic misadventure in greater detail shortly, but the short version is this: although I have led very large-scale information technology projects, it took me several days to successfully enroll in the SSA website. The delays were caused by a combination of downtime and poor web design.
The website is confusing, even for tech-savvy and (relatively) youthful users. Imagine how daunting it must be those who aren't comfortable with computers, those whose cognitive skills may be in decline, and those who have lost the full use of one or more senses. To make matters worse, the SSA site explicitly forbids would-be users from allowing others to navigate the process on their behalf.
On the other hand, converting more of Social Security's functions to website technology could result in a very lucrative payday for government contractors like... well, like IBM and Cisco.
5. They're downsizing just as demand grows.
The "Vision 2025" agenda has a number of other problems. For example, it calls for ending the practice of retaining employees with specialized knowledge of specific programs. They are to be replaced with "generalists," even though applicants and beneficiaries are more likely to obtain useful information from employees with more specific knowledge. And yet, the "vision" calls for "empowering" employees even as it proposes to deprive them of the specialized knowledge they need to use that power wisely.
But the most important takeaway is this: They're closing field offices, downsizing their workforce, and trying to force everyone through an inadequate Internet portal. That's all in an effort to reduce Social Security services at a time when the need is about to grow dramatically.
The scare rhetoric about the cost of baby boomers' benefits is just that: scare rhetoric. Any long-term imbalances are easily rectified through one or two simple and equitable adjustments (like lifting the payroll tax cap). But there is no question that the number of Social Security applicants and recipients is going to increase dramatically, and with them will come a greater administrative workload. The SSA's own website lays out the numbers: "By 2033, the number of older Americans will increase from 46.6 million today to over 77 million."
The SSA is perfectly willing to cite that figure as part of an overly fearmongering set of statistics meant to raise false alarms about solvency. But when it comes time to craft an appropriate plan for the program's administrative future, statistics like that are nowhere to be found. Instead, the SSA continues to close offices and plans even more dramatic cuts to its workforce.