A special category of SSA employee with regard to customer service is the field office employee who interviews customers regarding their needs. Interviews are undertaken either by claims representatives or service representatives. The challenge involved in this issue lies in the fact that, today, the claims representative may be a generalist, who has a general knowledge of the regulations of SSA, or he or she may be a program specialist in the area of SSA retirement or survivor disability insurance.
In general, a claims representative serves a customer by “completing applications for initial SSA or SSI benefits, by completing request for reconsideration or hearings related to denied initial claims applications and by handling complicated post entitlement actions like continuing disability reviews, SSI redeterminations and overpayment personal conferences” (ILO, 2006, p. 8). Because of the nature of this work, more and more claims representatives are specialists as opposed to generalists.
At present, two thirds of claims representatives in the SSA are specialists, with this trend apparently growing. By contrast, service representatives are usually always generalists, in that they help beneficiaries with such post-entitlement activities as “reporting changes in address, marital and student status, direct deposit changes, explaining notices and other corrections to benefit records” (ILO, p. 8). The trend toward specialization in terms of customer needs also encourages increased training as a prerequisite for good service (ILO, 2006).
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The SSA has also found that the disability programs that it administers continue to have service problems. According to ILO, in order to alleviate these shortcomings, the “SSA devoted considerable time, and energy to the Disability Redesign Plan” (ILO, 2006, p. 8). An important part of the plan was the creation of a new job title, the disability claims manager. This person would be responsible for the “complete processing of an initial disability claim” (ILO, p. 8).
Not only did the DCM position have to be piloted in practice, but a working group was formed in order to advise offices in how to convert claims representatives into full DCM positions. As per best practices, the DCM’s position was made clear through a careful guideline of work flow, and the DCM job was supported by on-the-job training using both formal training and a coaching cadre on the job (ILO, 2006). The results of the reform indicate that the processing of disability claims is smoother, resulting in higher customer satisfaction.
A final aspect of the Social Security Administration is that much of its operations, because they are so critical to national economic life, are watched by other organizations such as the GOA This agency not only evaluates the validity of SSA reform initiatives, but looks into any changes in how the SSA reports results. For example, one GOA report expressed concern that “SSA changed and deleted several customer service indicators essential to documenting progress and performance in this area” (Bovbjerg, 2001, p. 8). Specifically, the “SSA merged to accuracy indicators without sufficient justification” regarding payment outlays (Bovbjerg, p.
8). The GOA feared that this merging of data indicators may “affect SSA’s ability to sufficiently monitor and manage payment accuracy” (Bovbjerg, p. 8). The nature of GOA oversight of SSA reporting then is to express concern at any attempt of the SSA to alter reporting of progress in such a way as to compromise the attainment of real progress in various areas. It also encourages SSA to establish performance goals in areas where it has to finalize these goals. Finally, the GOA also oversees whether or not SSA generates data quick enough for inclusion in performance reports.
In all of these ways, the SSA is burdened or informed by oversight from other agencies that provide a built-in roadmap of how to close gaps between asserted and realized goals. In sum, there is evidence in the literature on the practices of customer service in public agencies that current practice is often not up to best practice. Various ways of closing the gap, from model-oriented redesign of the agency, to simply following concrete rubrics with regard to such basic service problems as waiting, are available in providing an evidence-based way to close service gaps.
Finally, the SSA itself is an organization in a reformist mode, and continually works, and is aware, of gaps between theory and practice. The fact that the GOA oversees even any attempt by the SSA to alter reporting procedures in a manner that, the GOA believes, may inadvertently compromise reporting and thus actual progress to a goal, indicates the degree to which customer service has been enmeshed in the “learning organization” that the SSA is today. It remains to review interventions, which have been studied in the literature, and have been found helpful in helping government agencies improve customer service.
Summary This literature review has examined the means by which the Social Security System has accommodated the new paradigm of customer service in the public sector, and evaluated the current efforts by the Agency to provide good customer service (Auster, 2006; Barnhart, 2007; Bovbjerg, 2003; FOIA, 2006; Liebman, 2005). The SSA has a number of programmatic efforts underway designed to reform the traditional system into one that is more customer-centric, and which provides ease of access and use to all customers.
Among the many changes instrumented by the SSA in order to meet these needs, the 800 line, the establishment of an e-presence and the implementation of a number of service reforms with regard to SSNs, services for the disabled, and timeliness and thoroughness of service are explored.
The review also examined the array of interventions which have been developed in order to convert public agencies into well-managed customer-oriented units (Chance & Green, 2001; Edwards, 2004; Farrell, 2004; Hultberg & Glendinning, 2003; International Labor Office (ILO), 2006; Kelly, 2004; Kernshall & Ross, 2003; Kunstelj & Vintar, 2004; Marianov & Rios, et. al. , 2004; Ray & Muhanna, 2005; Scharitzer & Korunka, 2002); Schieffelbusch, 2005; Spall & McDonald, et. al. , 2005; Suh & Lee, 2005; Tam & Ho, 2003). Under this heading, this review briefly explored a number of interventions based on Total Quality Management, or New Public Management as it is known in the public sector, redesign of the organization, reform of particular processes, the use of technology, especially websites with e-presence, and, finally, what kind of web presence is required if a public sector agency is going to actually improve customer service through the implementation of online sites.
After reviewing what the SSA is currently doing in customer service, this review then explored the fact that at present in some public sector agencies there remains a gap between best practice in customer service and current practice. Efforts to close those gaps, again with regard to the SSA in particular are also explored (Farmer, 2001; Harmon and Scotti, et. al. , 2000; International Labor Office (ILO), 2006; Selen and Schepers, 2001; Van Fleet and Wallace, 2002).
At present, the literature suggests that the state of the art in terms of actually improving service through IT is quite difficult to achieve, and in fact has been achieved by very few government agencies to date. Moreover, the demands of customer satisfaction appear to theoretically mandate the implementation of virtual reality or other forms of telepresence, a finding which most public sector agencies also seem hard-pressed to approach.
At present, therefore, the literature suggests that while the Social Security Administration is doing much to improve customer service, and has done much to close the gap between its current practice and best practice, that it may not yet have reformed itself according to some of the more onerous interventions mandated by TQM and IT in the area of public-sector customer service (Bovbjerg, 2001; Callahan and Gilbert, 2004; Groth and Gilliland, 2006; Heenan, 2004; International Labor Office (ILO, 2006).
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