Where can Social Security begin as he tries to improve

The Social Security Administration is undergoing an overhaul with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley as commissioner. The agency has a good list of ongoing issues, as identified by the Government Accountability Office. For an estimate, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with Elizabeth Curda, director of GAO’s education, workforce and income assurance team.

Transcript of the interview:

Eric White The Social Security Administration is undergoing an overhaul with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley as commissioner. The agency has a good list of ongoing issues as identified by the Government Accountability Office. Joining Federal Drive host Tom Temin with an assessment is GAO Education, Workforce and Income Assurance Team Director Elizabeth Curda.

Tom Temin Social Security, you know, is a troubled agency in many ways, although it’s probably fair to say that they don’t miss getting the funds deposited into people’s accounts week after week, right?

Elizabeth Curda I do not think so.

Tom Temin All right, one of the main issues, ensuring the integrity of the program is part of your restatement of their ongoing issues in your final type of summary. And what does that mean, exactly? Ensuring program integrity? And what should they do? Why is it dangerous?

Elizabeth Curda Well, the integrity of the program is about whether the agency is basically following its own rules and that people who are eligible for benefits are getting the right amount of benefits. It’s when, you know, either people who are eligible are getting the wrong amount of benefits, or people who are applying for benefits are not eligible and are receiving benefits inappropriately.

Tom Temin Right. And that’s been an ongoing issue because sometimes they’re missing people, a small number, who have died, or because they just don’t qualify, but it’s easy to do that check.

Elizabeth Curda Correct.

Tom Temin OK. And you also listed serving vulnerable populations. And what is the point there?

Elizabeth Curda Well, during the pandemic, Social Security closed many of its offices. And so for people who were getting benefits, or claiming benefits who were very vulnerable, very poor, we saw a huge drop in those applications. So they had no alternative ways to apply for benefits during the pandemic because of those office closings. So these are poor, elderly, blind people seeking benefits for their disabilities.

Tom Temin And people who may be out of reach of high bandwidth and smart phones and laptop computers too. There are some Americans or some citizens who deserve Social Security who do not. And by the way, what’s the status now that you know about the offices? Are they almost completely back?

Elizabeth Curda They are fully back and open to the public.

Tom Temin Okay, and then I wanted to ask you about the evaluation of the software licenses, because basically, the software is provided by the software, the giant Social Security IT organization. What do you find there about software licenses?

Elizabeth Curda Well, software licenses are essentially the backbone of agency operations. So in layman’s terms, it’s Microsoft, it’s Oracle, it’s Adobe, the kinds of things we use to do our jobs every day. And so the federal agencies, we’ve done assessments across the government and we found that the agencies didn’t have a good handle on how many of those licenses they had and what they were paying for them.

Tom Temin And it is social security that is a particularly prominent issue. Do you have any numbers or an estimate of what the license overheads might be?

Elizabeth Curda No, I think the issue with the SSA is that they didn’t know. They didn’t know how many licenses they had outstanding that they were actually using, compared to what they had paid for. So they had no way of knowing if all those licenses that are out there were really needed. And if they were paying too much for licenses that weren’t being used.

Tom Temin Or I guess you might find you’re using more licenses than you’re paying for.

Elizabeth Curda This is fair.

Tom Temin And then the sellers really come in guns blazing in real oops for them.

Elizabeth Curda This is fair.

Tom Temin We’re talking to Elizabeth Curda. She is director of education, workforce and income assurance at GAO. When you hear Social Security people talk, and you hear Martin O’Malley discuss this, their main concern is customer experience, customer service, improving the speed and accuracy of responses. For example, when people call their call centers, that kind of thing. This is not on your list of top issues. But what is GAO’s understanding of how important this is and where the shortfall might be?

Elizabeth Curda Yes, it is very important. And that’s something we looked at during the pandemic. We looked at Social Security’s service delivery and saw problems with their ability to answer phones during the pandemic. But you know, they have plans to modernize their phone systems. And so we didn’t find that they weren’t trying to address the issue. And so, that’s not elevated to the top of our list, but it’s an ongoing issue and one that they’re working hard to address.

Tom Temin And related to evaluating software licenses is the much larger fundamental issue of technology modernization, and that is a COBOL mainframe computer shop. And I think the conventional wisdom is that you have to get away from that and modernize and renew and so on. What is your understanding of their path to modernizing their infrastructure that consists of all these licenses?

Elizabeth Curda Well, this has also been a long issue and they are, you know, working away on modernizing their systems. Moving away from those COBOL systems and you know, like a lot of federal agencies looking to take advantage of, you know, cloud-based computing. They are on the way. I know it’s an ongoing issue and that the GAO is looking at it.

Tom Temin OK. So let’s add all of that up, so what are your top recommendations at this point that are still open? Some of them date back 10 years.

Elizabeth Curda Yes. Well, the recommendations that the Comptroller General has deemed most in need of senior leadership attention, or by highlighting them to senior leadership, they hope to move the needle on these high priority recommendations. And so, the first one should do as we mentioned, we were discussing the integrity of the program. The SSA has a problem with overpaying people’s benefits. And in the case of this recommendation, what happens is federal employees who are injured on the job and are receiving Federal Workers’ Compensation Act or FECA benefits, they can also apply for disability benefits because they may have difficulty on the job . And the SSA has no way of knowing if they are already receiving these FECA benefits. And so the recommendation is about establishing a way to do computer matching between the Department of Labor, which administers FECA benefits, and the SSA, which administers disability benefits. And with that matching, they can then find out, oh, somebody’s already getting benefits from a federal agency, I have to offset the benefits that I would get from the SSA. So they are not double dipping.

Tom Temin Of course. OK This is a recommendation. There’s one from 2022 about protecting sensitive information, you know, information security.

Elizabeth Curda Yes. And as you can imagine, Social Security has a lot of sensitive information at its disposal. They are the ones who generate social security numbers, they know your date of birth. They know a lot about all of us. So it is extremely important to protect that sensitive information. This was part of a broad government review, which GAO looked at all major federal agencies and compared their privacy practices to the best practices for having a good privacy program, and found several problems with the SSA. But what we really wanted to emphasize was to make sure that they have fully defined the role of the senior official who is responsible for the privacy program, the idea is that that person who will then provide leadership to the whole, you know, other privacy. issues as something like the critical, most critical thing to really focus on from a leadership perspective.

Tom Temin And as someone who has looked at agencies from an audit perspective for a long time, so you understand now that with Martin O’Malley, a confirmed Commissioner, that was several years without a confirmed Commissioner, there was a period of short time. during the Trump administration, when there was one confirmed, and before that a long period of acting. Maybe this is an issue that seems to be resolved now, do you think?

Elizabeth Curda Well, it could be. Time will tell. He has taken his position until next December, I believe, and then we will be ready for renaming. But I think having a fully appointed confirmed Commissioner makes a difference in terms of an agency’s ability to move forward on some policy changes and big program implementation issues.

Tom Temin Because that’s really one of the ironies of the social security commissioner is that Social Security Policy is almost like tax policy to draw a parallel with the IRS. The IRS does not set the tax rates and general tax policy of the country any more than the SSA sets the rates. They should be honest with them, but do not decide them. And so what you really need is more managerial competence, maybe then. What should the government pay people who retire from expertise?

Elizabeth Curda Yeah, well, it’s a little bit of both, but he has a lot of expertise on the political side of things.

Eric White This is Elizabeth Curda, director of education, workforce and income security in the Government Accountability Office. Speaking with Federal Drive host Tom Temin. We will post this interview along with a link to the Social Security report at federalnewsnetwork.com/federaldrive. You can subscribe to The Federal Drive wherever you get your podcasts.

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