Social Security's Notice of Proposed Rule-Making (NPRM)
on the representation of claimants troubles me in many ways. My topic today is the requirement in the proposed regulations that those who represent claimants deal with the agency electronically.
Let me start by saying that my firm is already scanning virtually everything that comes into our office. We regularly upload records using Electronic Records Express (ERE) and we file almost all of our appeals electronically. I am not afraid of technology. My firm is already doing what the proposed regulation would demand of other Social Security attorneys.
My biggest concern with this proposal is that Social Security is not ready for it. The agency has consistently and badly underestimated how long it takes for it to roll out new technology. While there are those at Social Security who would claim that the agency has already rolled out the electronic file, my experience is that Social Security is a long way from finishing working out the bugs in the electronic file. Let me give an example of the problems that Social Security has that are already impacting those who cooperate with the agency. At the moment, there are many complaints in North Carolina from attorneys who are unable to fax records into electronic files because they constantly get a busy signal. My fear is that Social Security will adopt this regulation and then find that its systems are overwhelmed by volume for which it is unprepared. While ERE is working OK for now, my guess is that it is susceptible to being overwhelmed once more people start to use it, just like the fax lines. I have no confidence that the bandwidth is there now or that it will be there any time soon.
Since the beginning of the Bush Administration, the Social Security Administration has been on a crash program to convert to digital. The reason has been simple. Social Security's management can see that its workloads are getting larger and larger every year, yet it has been made clear to agency management, if not to the public, that staffing increases are absolutely out of the question. It does not matter how bad things get at Social Security, the agency is not getting more personnel. Social Security's staff must ratchet downwards regardless. That has been the polar star for Social Security upper management. Agency management has been forced to seek other means for dealing with its workload. The only option was to believe, or at least hope, that a digital conversion would result in massive productivity gains. This has not worked so far. There is scant reason to hope that it will work.
It may take quite some time for high level management to wrap their minds around it, but there is a lot of reason to believe that Social Security will be able to increase its staffing levels considerably in coming years. George W. Bush will be out of the White House in less than four months. Unless there is a political earthquake Democrats will have much more certain control of Congress come January. Even if John McCain is elected President, which now seems unlikely, the political equation for Social Security's operating budget is going to change radically in the very near future.
Productivity gains from going digital are non-existent so far. You might ask how I know that there have been no productivity gains from going digital. There have been no studies released showing the effects of going digital on productivity at Social Security. The fact that Social Security has released no studies showing the effects of electronic files on productivity tells me all I need to know. Social Security would not be shy about telling the world if it had studies showing that the electronic file was helping productivity. No studies being released means that whatever studies have been done have shown results that would embarrass Social Security or that Social Security is afraid to even do studies because they do not want them leaking out.
My message to Social Security is, slow down on this digital conversion. Being overhasty has caused the agency nothing but problems. There is scant evidence that going digital is ever going to solve the Social Security's workload problem. It is too late to stop making the conversion, but there is no more reason to rush it, especially since additional staff is likely to be coming,by the 2010 fiscal year, at the latest.
Social Security ought to get its plan to allow attorneys and representatives to access their clients' files online and working well before it goes ahead with these proposed regulations. To my mind, it is basic fairness for this to be in place before Social Security starts making additional demands on those who represent claimants. If the Social Security Administration wants this degree of cooperation from those who represent claimants, it ought to be offering something in return. As a practical matter, by the time online access to claimants' files is working well, the bandwidth should be there to make ERE work efficiently and the fax machine and other issues with the electronic file should be worked out.
Social Security should get back to implementing new technology in a slow steady way. Knock off the crash plans. They have not worked and they are no longer necessary.