Improving Customer Service

Recommendations and Actions

ICS03: Customer Service Performance Standards--Social Security Administration


The scale of the Social Security Administration's (SSA's) contact with the public is huge. It administers Old-Age, Survivors and Disability Insurance; Supplemental Security Income; and the Part B-Black Lung program. It pays over $300 billion annually to 47 million beneficiaries, and it maintains earnings records for 131 million taxpayers.

SSA has 1,300 field offices and gets 60 million 1-800 calls per year, certainly one of the world's largest 1-800 services. The SSA estimates a 26 percent increase in workload by 2005.[Endnote 1] This is due primarily to the population maturing. Disability claims are a trouble spot. The process is slow, and SSA has a backlog of disability claims, hearings, and appeals. SSA acknowledges the need for major improvement in disability insurance administration.[Endnote 2]

A 1993 Health and Human Services Inspector General's (IG's) report on overall SSA services shows declining customer satisfaction for the fourth year in a row. The IG reports longer waiting times in offices. It links dissatisfaction among 1-800 callers to the number of attempts needed to get through.[Endnote 3]

To deal with a growing workload and backlogs, SSA is planning major automation improvements. It also plans on completing a greater percentage of the work at the first point of public contact and enhancing its telephone answering capacity.[Endnote 4]


SSA has a strong customer orientation, but it has some service problems and its already formidable task is growing. The SSA mission statement says it will administer its programs in an equitable, effective, and caring manner. The SSA strategic plan sets out three overall goals that emphasize the public and its employees.[Endnote 5]

--Serve the public with compassion, courtesy, consideration, efficiency, and accuracy.

--Protect trust funds and instill public confidence.

--Maintain a motivated work force.

The plan also details seven Service Delivery Goals and an extensive list of 34 supporting objectives, ranging from issuing a social security number orally within 24 hours to accuracy in trust fund outlays. The goals and objectives are based in large part on the judgment of SSA management, without the benefit of direct customer input. Appropriately, the objectives do seek to cover the full range of SSA tasks.

The strategic plan proposes the objectives to be reached by the year 2005. There are no interim objectives, so measuring progress between now and then will be difficult. On the other hand, some of the objectives are within reach today, and major initiatives are under way to address those problems that would prevent SSA from achieving some of the objectives.

The actions that follow build on the important baseline established by the strategic plan, and go on to address some of the shortcomings of the plan, which are well understood by SSA management.


1. As part of its participation in the National Performance Review, SSA should publish nationally and post in each of its offices the following performance standards for customer service. (1)

--You will be treated with courtesy every time you contact us.

--We will provide you with all the information you need in order to understand SSA programs, including your own potential for benefits.

--We will also provide you with information about other social service programs that may help you.

--When you call our 1-800 service for information or help, you will reach us on the first call.

These objectives from the strategic plan have an impact on the quality of the SSA's direct interaction with the public. Each is within reach today and, thus, can be set as a standard. Doing so, and then publishing and posting them, will immediately communicate to the public, and reinforce with SSA employees, that the quality of customer service is a priority at SSA.

2. In addition, SSA should obtain customer opinions on all the goals and objectives of the strategic plan, using that input to revise the goals and objectives as needed, set priorities, and establish interim objectives. (1)

Obviously, while courtesy and the helpful information services in Action 1 are critical in an overall customer service program, SSA cannot satisfy its customers without doing the job customers expect in the delivery of benefits and other services. Action 2 addresses benefits and other services delivery. It seeks feedback from SSA customers on the basic assumptions of the strategic plan, and most of the plan focuses on the delivery of specific benefits and other services. The goals and objectives of the plan should be broadly publicized. Comment cards on them should be placed in offices. Focus groups should be used to help sort out the right directions to take. Formal surveys could be done, as well.

These tools should be used to address fundamental issues of customer satisfaction. Are these the right objectives for SSA, or have we missed what matters to you? What areas are most important? How do the proposed numerical performance standards measure up to your expectations? How does SSA performance compare to the level set out in the standard? Answers to these and other questions will provide an improved basis for planning and resource allocation.

Both the actions above are consistent with the SSA overall, customer-oriented approach to the future. For example, in the key problem area of disability claims processing, SSA is working on a major reinvention effort. This project will field test several new models for disability claims processing in fiscal year 1995. The long-term goal is to reduce processing times dramatically, consistent with the strategic plan.


1. See U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration (SSA), The Social Security Strategic Plan (Baltimore, MD, September 1991).

2. See U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Social Security Administration, Social Security Administration Annual Financial Statement for Fiscal Year 1992 (Baltimore, MD, February 1992).

3. See U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General, Social Security Client Satisfaction: Fiscal Year 1993 (Washington, D.C., April 1992).

4. See SSA, The Social Security Strategic Plan.

5. Ibid.

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