Document Name: Beneficiaries (3 of 23)
Date: 09/01/94
Owner: National Performance Review
Title: Standards for Our Customers: Beneficiaries (3 of 23)

Author: Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review

Date: September, 1994


Standards for Our Customers



CUSTOMER GROUP: Beneficiaries


You worked hard and paid into Social Security for years to become

eligible for benefits. The Social Security Administration believes

you shouldn't have to work hard get those benefits.

The same goes for other retirement programs and for the wide variety

of assistance that Americans in need are entitled to under law. Your

application for benefits shouldn't disappear into a bureaucratic maze

for months. You shouldn't get shuttled from office to office, each

time having to explain your problem from the beginning. You shouldn't

repeatedly get a busy signal or be put on hold when you call. You

want and deserve better service from your government. We're

determined that you will get it.

Each year the Treasury makes 660 million benefit payments directly to

American citizens. For many Americans, these payments are the

difference between a retirement of hard-earned, well-deserved

security and an old age filled with worry, between a home and

homelessness, between food and hunger. This chapter describes what

the federal agencies in direct contact with these Americans are doing

to improve service.

The Promise of Social Security


The federal agency that directly touches the lives of more Americans

than any other is the Social Security Administration. Each year,

Social Security employees handle payments going to nearly 50 million

clients. They answer 60 million telephone calls and serve more than

24 million visitors to Social Security offices across the United


Not long ago, Jackie Collins-Miller, the branch manager of

Baltimore's Social Security office, got a call from a woman who had

received someone else's check in the envelope along with her own.

Collins-Miller jumped in her car, picked up the check, mailed it to

the rightful owner, and called a few days later to make sure it had


That simple story illustrates both the basic obstacle and the great

hope for improving service to customers of the government. Many of

our systems, like the one that misrouted the check, need to be

redesigned to please customers. On the other hand, most federal

workers, like Collins-Miller, are just as dedicated to providing good

service as employees of Nordstrom or any other of America's best

companies. This is the foundation we're building on.

The Social Security Administration has started redesigning its

systems to make them as customer-oriented as its employees themselves

are. First, they surveyed 40,000 customers and found lots of

complaints about the long and bewildering process of applying for

disability benefits. A person filing a disability claim is faced with

a Model-T kind of assembly line. A claim trundles along for over five

months and is handled by about 26 workers just to get to an initial

decision. If the claim is initially disapproved and appealed -- and

many are -- it is handled by 43 workers, and the total waiting time

could be two and a half years. No wonder the customers complained.

The agency has designed a new disability system, with far fewer steps

and fewer handlers. This new system, which was created with the

customer in mind, promises to cut the total waiting time by nearly 20

months. Social Security Commissioner Shirley Chater has announced

that the agency is beginning to implement the reengineered disability

process. The new system will eventually save hundreds of millions of

dollars and will let the customer meet the worker who decides the


Commissioner Chater and the Social Security Administration's managers

and employees made a commitment to give their customers not just good

service or first-class service, but "world-class" service. Last year,

they posted signs with their customer service standards in their

offices across the country. They pledged to provide courteous and

prompt service and full information on Social Security and other

programs. This year, they've added some new standards and clarified



Highlights from Customer Service Standards:

Social Security Administration

--- If you request a new or replacement Social Security card from one

of our offices, we will mail it to you within five work days of

receiving all information we need. If you have an urgent need for the

Social Security number, we will tell you the number within one work


--- When you make an appointment, we'll serve you within 10 minutes

of the scheduled time.

--- We'll provide you with our best estimate of the time we need to

complete your request, and we'll fully explain any delays.

--- We'll clearly explain our decisions so you can understand why and

how we made them and what to do if you disagree.


SSA knows that you expect world-class service in all your dealings

with us. Today we are unable to meet your expectations in all areas,

but we are working to change that. When we redesign our processes,

you can expect that when you call our 800 number, you will get

through to it within five minutes of your first try.

Today we often are not able to meet this pledge. During our busiest

days, you will get a busy signal much of the time.

Pensions -- Guaranteed


Sometimes the hardest part of pleasing customers is finding them.

The job of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is to make sure

everybody who's owed a pension gets one. With that kind of clear

result in mind, the agency started a campaign to find Americans who

had a pension coming but didn't know it. These include people who had

worked for companies that later went bankrupt. The company records of

former employees were lost. Many of these people didn't know the

government guarantees their pensions; they just figured they were out

of luck. And until last year, they were. But a dedicated team from

the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation managed to find thousands of

them and restore their pensions.

Making Faster, Safer Payments


Whether your benefits come from Social Security, the Veterans

Administration, or some other federal agency, the Treasury Department

writes the checks and makes the electronic deposits. Treasury's

Financial Management Service is improving service in two important

ways: first, by replacing lost checks faster, and second, by offering

a quicker and safer way to get benefits via plastic ATM cards.

Suppose the social security check that you need to pay your rent

doesn't come the day you expect it. As things stand now, you call the

Social Security Administration and set in motion one of those systems

that was designed to please somebody other than the customer. First,

the agency notifies Treasury to stop payment on the first check. You

begin waiting. Meanwhile, Treasury searches its records to see

whether the check has been cashed. You keep waiting. If you're lucky,

and it has not been cashed, Treasury mails you another check. Total

waiting time for you and your landlord: two to three weeks. If you're

unlucky, and the missing check has been cashed, you'll wait an

additional six weeks.

Treasury is redesigning the system with customers in mind. It has cut

four days off the time to reissue an uncashed check. In cases where

checks have been cashed, Treasury is working to get the added six

weeks pared down to one week.

Ultimately, the best way for customers to avoid all the problems

associated with paper checks is to get benefit payments

electronically; it's much faster and more secure. Treasury already

makes payments electronically to many individuals' bank accounts. But

10 million federal benefit recipients don't have bank accounts. So

the government has begun issuing plastic cards to these beneficiaries

so they can enjoy the same convenience and security. The cards let

people get their benefits directly from bank machines or terminals in

grocery stores. More than 10,000 recipients of Social Security,

Veterans, and Civil Service Retirement benefits have government

benefit cards already in a pilot program. More people will soon be

using the cards to get food stamps, Aid to Families with Dependent

Children, and other federal benefits.


Highlights from Customer Service Standards:

Department of Agriculture Food Stamp Program

Whether you get paper food stamps or use the new electronic benefits

card system, you can expect the same high standards from the


--- We promise to let you know if you're eligible for food stamps as

soon as possible but no later than 30 days after you file your

application. You'll need to fill out your application as soon as

possible, but you can start counting the days as soon as you contact

the food stamp office and give us your name, address, and signature.

--- If you qualify for immediate assistance, we promise to give you

your food stamp benefits within five work days.

--- We promise to let you know at least one month before your food

stamp benefits are due to stop. If you apply to continue your food

stamps by the 15th of your last month -- and you still qualify --

we'll make sure your benefits are not interrupted.

--- If we say you don't qualify and you don't agree with our

decision, just ask and we promise to give you a fair hearing. We also

promise to let you know the results of your appeaL within 60 days.

--- We promise to treat you fairly and equally regardless of your

age, race, color, sex, handicap, religion, national origin, or

political beliefs.


"Partnerships" -- Cooperating to Improve Customer Service


In addition to all the payments the government makes directly to

beneficiaries, there are lots of other benefits paid for by the

federal government that don't go directly from the feds into

individual mailboxes or bank accounts. Many people get federal

benefits, grants, loans, or aid through state or local governments or

other partners of the federal government. Federal agencies are

setting standards for service that our partners can expect from us.

These standards are described in the section on "States, Localities,

and Other Partners."



The Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies exist

specifically to serve veterans, and their standards are described in

the section on "Veterans."


Your Standards

These agencies and offices are publishing customer service standards

for beneficiaries. The standards appear in the "Beneficiaries"

section of Appendix B.

Department of Agriculture

Food and Nutrition Service

Department of Defense

Defense Logistics Agency

Department of Health and Human Services

Health Care Financing Administration

Public Health Service

Social Security Administration

Department of Housing and Urban Development

Office of Housing/Federal Housing Authority

Department of Labor

Pension Welfare Benefits Administration

Department of the Treasury

Financial Management Service

Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation

Railroad Retirement Board

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