Social Security’s Shrinking Footprint

The Social Security Administration is shrinking—though, as more and more baby boomers arrive at the age of SSA entitlements, the demands on it are growing.

A report issued late in August by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) documents that the Social Security Administration (SSA) has reduced its physical footprint—that is, the total square footage of its facilities—by about 5 percent, or 1.4 million square feet, in the fiscal years from 2012 to 2016. This reduction is in keeping with several ongoing mandates that the federal government reduce its physical holdings generally, among them the Freeze the Footprint (2012) and Reduce the Footprint (2015) policies.

However, these reductions may come at some cost to efficiency: The GAO report adds that in-person contacts by clients for services remain about the same as they were 10 years ago, about 43 million per year, and in any event the SSA has not developed a coherent overall plan that gives the agency tools to measure demand for services and evaluate how best to accommodate it, including by shifting some of its services online. Lacking such measurements and a stated set of program performance goals, the SSA may be missing out on opportunities both to improve services and to reduce its footprint even further.

The SSA is significant for many reasons, not least the fact that it is one of the largest civilian federal agencies and has one of the government’s largest footprints overall, with more than 1,550 facilities operational nationwide. Drawing on data and documents over a 10-year span, from 2006 to 2016, the GAO report describes trends in the agency’s footprint and service delivery model and evaluates the steps it has taken and should further take in order to lessen its footprint and improve its online presence.

SSA has three major benefit programs: Old Age and Survivors Insurance, Disability Insurance, and Supplemental Security Income. Applicants for these programs often come in person to an SSA field office to discuss with staff matters such as eligibility requirements and to review benefits. Some of this in-person work has been relieved by telephone calls, and almost all of the agency’s key services, from applying for retirement benefits to obtaining a replacement Social Security card, are now available online, if not always easily for those constituents who are uncomfortable with computer technology and digital interfaces.

Current federal policies require that the SSA reduce its leased and owned space, although about half of that space was determined, on review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and General Services Administration (GSA), to be “public-facing,” that is, serving public needs in person, and therefore exempt from those reduction-targeting requirements; the target for FY 2016 was therefore reduced from 260,000 to 120,000 square feet. Overall, the report suggests, the agency has more than met its goals, reducing the size of offices, disposing of or vacating more than 80 properties, moving from leased office and warehouse facilities into ones owned by the federal government, and, in some pilot programs, co-locating with other agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service. Even so, agency physical plant costs remained about the same until last year, when, for instance, the cost of leasing space fell by 3 percent over 2012.

Even as online services provided by the agency grow, the number of in-person office visits has not declined during this period. The GAO report offers an explanation: the raw number may not have fallen, but given that the overall U.S. population has grown by 7 percent and the demand for SSA services by more than 20 percent since 2009, that the number of those visits has not grown suggests that the online presence has been a relief valve of sorts. What remains for the SSA, the report adds, is to develop better means to consistently evaluate these services and develop performance goals.

The GAO report makes five recommendations for executive action, including developing a long-term facility plan that sets explicit, measurable goals for service delivery; setting a plan for field office physical space that reflects the fact that demand for SSA services will grow, not shrink, in the near future; and make better use of technology for “alternative customer services approaches”—including ways to encourage technology-shy or technophobic older citizens to make fuller use of online services. The report suggests that beneficial effects will follow: For example, greater use of online forms means less physical space required for filing cabinets in which to store documents, once a major consideration in space planning and office design.

SSA has endorsed each of the GAO’s five recommendations. The question is when and how it will act on them. Those actions will impact the federal leasing market substantially, especially as more GSA leases are devoted to Social Security than any other agency.

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