An added problem in recent years, and a major concern since 9/11 is the confidentiality of Social Security Numbers, and the prevention of identity theft and fraud. As a result of security concerns, the SSA has “a unique role in helping to prevent the proliferation of false identities” (Bovbjerg, 2003, p. 1). Whereas SSNs were formerly issued in a somewhat automatic fashion, all field officers must now first crosscheck any request for a new SSN with the Department of Homeland Security (Bovbjerg, 2001).
The SSA has also established a service to help states verify the SSNs given to them in the process of persons applying for a driver’s license, even though many states have not utilized this service due to “factors such as cost, problems with system reliability, and state priorities…and policies” (Bovbjerg, p. 1). Vulnerabilities have also been found in the process by which the SSA continues to issue new SSNs to children under the age of one, and also in the means by which the SSA prevents SSN fraud.
Indeed, “SSNs are often the identifier of choice among individuals seeking to create false identities,” and so the SSA has become the target of number fraud attempts. The fact that SSNs end up on various and numerous records held by states and localities makes prevention of fraud even more difficult. SSN theft can allow persons to compromise confidential databases, and can also gain them access to public records of all sorts.
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In order to forestall these efforts, the SSA has “increased document verifications by requiring independent verification of the documents” with other agencies, including the Department of State. However, in practice, many field office staff continues to simply verify documents by visual inspection, which is believed by many to no longer be an adequate protection in an era of sophisticated document forgery (Bovbjerg, p. 7).
In order to compensate for some field office weaknesses, the SSA has also experimented with creating specialized centers devoted solely to the verification of documents. In order to further bulwark SSN validity, the SSA in 2002 began to phase in an “Enumeration at Entry” procedure, in which new immigrants under the jurisdiction of the State Department were granted authenticated numbers as they enter the country, thus preventing them from applying for fraudulent numbers once they are beyond State Department control (Bovbjerg, 2003).
Finally, SSA has up to now had fairly lenient policies regarding lost card replacement, with SSA policy allowing a person to replace a card up to 52 times per year. As a result, “of the 18 million cards issued by SSA in fiscal year 2002, 12. 4 million, or 69 percent, were replacement cards” (Bovbjerg, p. 9). These policies are being tightened. Also, weaknesses in the on-line verification process of SSNs have also been addressed, in order to prevent the overloading and thus disabling of the system.
Overall, the SSA “has made substantial progress in protecting the integrity of the SSN” but it remains that “without further system improvements and assurance the field offices will comply fully with the new policies and procedures” this process is still challenging (Bovbjerg, p. 13). A final area where SSA has expanded its services is to disability customers. The SSA oversees the implementation of the Ticket To Work and Work Incentive Improvement Act of 1999, which “was designed to reduce barriers and increase incentives for individuals with disabilities to participate in the workforce” (Barnhart, 2007, p.304).
In terms of workers disabled in work, 7 million of the 48 million Americans SSA serves are disabled workers, and of those less than 1% ever returns to work (Durocher, 2006). Durocher (2006) argues that the primary reason why so many disabled workers remain so is that the SSA “has not yet created a climate where people with disabilities feel that they can simultaneously seek employment and protect their access to health care or financial support” (p. 1). More collaboration between agencies is required in order to truly encourage disabled workers to return to work.
Also, if an individual with disabilities finds a new job, but then it does not work out and thus he or she must return to funding, the fact that this initiative results in a “significant negative impact on an individual’s financial and health status” makes any effort to attempt to seek work problematic (Durocher, p. 3). At present, the programs are too complex, impose too many limits onto customers, and the rules tend to punish initiative to seek work (Durocher, 2006).
Thus, here too, reforms are needed to better serve the customer of the SSA benefits, including redressing the current shortcomings of the Ticket to Work program and modifying the current Title II disability legislation “to eliminate Substantial Gainful Activity as a post-entitlement consideration for continued eligibility” among other changes (Durocher, p. 4). In sum, the Social Security Administration is burdened by numerous challenges as it tries to satisfy the needs of all of its customers.
In the above, most of the challenges are phrased in an anecdotal manner. What is needed is research-based study of what best practices of customer service in a government agency entails, and then a study of whether the SSA measures up or not. In this literature review, reforms and interventions that can be undertaken to improve the customer service orientation of public agencies will be reviewed. The best practices of customer service as they are evolving in the public service will also be reviewed. Finally, current practice will then be compared to best practice.
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