Apr 29, 2015

The "Vision Thing"

     The Social Security Administration has released Vision 2025, the long-awaited statement of how the agency expects to be operating ten years from now. I don't think I've ever read a more vacuous government document. Here's an excerpt from Acting Commissioner Colvin's message on the report to give readers a feel:
As the public moves confidently into the future, we must also change the way we operate. We are compelled to anticipate the social and technical advancements that offer new ways of navigating an ever-changing society. Our challenge is to embrace technological enhancements to achieve efficiency without sacrificing the personalized service for which we are known. Toward this end, we will build a stronger, ever-capable workforce, adopt engaging and contemporary training methods, expand our information and communication technologies, and modernize our operational capabilities. Of course, we must proceed toward this rapidly changing future, mindful of many present day realities. Our budgets will undoubtedly fluctuate, organized interests may express new agendas, social demographics will vary, and executive orders and congressional mandates will continue to affect the way we do business. Yet if we view such possibilities as opportunities, we can focus on creative solutions for meeting these challenges. Regardless of the complexities we might consider in the future, we must never disregard our customers’ expectations for excellence.
     No, it doesn't get specific at some later point in the document. It just stays at this level of advanced meaningless abstraction.
     Let me hasten to say that despite what I've quoted above, neither the Acting Commissioner nor upper management at Social Security is brain dead. They only produce such drivel because they're forced to. Here are the problems they're trying to address:
  • The Government Accountability Office (GAO), egged on by some Republicans in Congress, keeps demanding that Social Security produce a "vision" for the future but it's not just any vision they want. For years, they have made relentless demands for a "vision" that does away with person to person service at Social Security because person to person service is just so passe in this age of the internet and so much money could be saved if we just got rid of the old fashioned idea that you should be able to actually talk with someone about your case. 
  • The people at GAO have no clue about the complexity of Social Security. As far as they're concerned, it's just retirement benefits. Survivor and disability benefits are nothing more than a footnote. SSI isn't even a footnote as far as they're concerned. Mentally ill people? Let them use their computers! Cognitively impaired people? Surely, someone other than Social Security can help them with their Social Security problems. You can't expect government to do everything!
  • Despite egging GAO on with its insane demands that Social Security plan for the elimination of face to face service, individual Republicans in Congress definitely don't want field offices closed in their districts. They believe, in the abstract, that technology can replace personal service but not when it comes to their districts. It goes without saying Democrats don't want field offices closed.
  • Social Security management is well aware that doing away with face to face service is unthinkable. The programs they operate are far too complex to function without a field office structure. Not only can that not be done by 2025; it won't be possible by 2125.
  • It's impossible to make any meaningful plans for service delivery in 2025 because of budget uncertainty. In fact, it's almost impossible to make meaningful plans for service delivery in 2016 because of budget uncertainty. 
  • Even without budgetary uncertainty, who knows what technology will bring us by 2025. Does anyone think that Steve Jobs ever had a ten year plan for what would happen with the iPhone? Anyone who thinks they have a clear view of what will happen with technology in the future shouldn't be working for Social Security because they're delusional.
  • Few people in upper management at Social Security now expect to be in upper management at the agency in 2025. They're responsible people but they're bureaucrats. They're mostly concerned with getting by from year to year. GAO's demands for a "vision" for 2025 are laughable, so Social Security produces a laughable "vision."


Anonymous said...

Of course we know what technology will be be like in 10 years at SSA, we're using it now in the private sector! SSA is so far behind the times when it comes to utilizing and emplementing new technology, it's a joke. What will we be using in 2025? The stuff everyone else is using today, that's what!

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Anonymous said...

A problem that Social Security faces is that unlike the private sector, SSA must find a way to provide service to all of its constituencies, no matter what level of technology they embrace. While the private sector always has the option to go with a "take it or leave it" approach, SSA mus develop online services for newer generations while maintaining older mailing and face-to-face for those who for whatever reason choose these methods. Even going to electronic payment of benefits has been met with opposition and never attained 100 percent.

If someone has a crystal ball and can foretell 2025, there are probably better ways to put this power to use. It is nice to plan for the future but present problems are not going away anytime soon.

Anonymous said...

No matter what they do, someone has an issue with it. Don't have a plan, get nailed for that. Have a realistic plan (like this one) and get nailed for it being vague (ya think?). Come up with some sort of explicit roadmap and get nailed for it being like a soviet 5 year plan, out of date before it's published.

At least this one lays out the pressures and constraints and acknowledges market forces even if it lacks detail. Detail is in a project plan, a strategic plan works at higher levels, and a vision plan is a roadmap for the development of a closer in strategic plan.

Mr. Hall does lay out a lot of the issues that make a plan like this a balancing act between realism and fiction. Commentators have addressed the differences between the public and private sectors (still looking for a 508 compliant google maps....)

But frankly, the value in this, other than having it as a checkbox artifact is that it did require the agency at a lot of levels to consider the future, consider what was possible and what should be pursued and a sense of strategy for making ongoing decisions. It gives friends and critics alike something tangible to work off of and even if it's just aspirational, what is wrong with taking the time to document that?

Anonymous said...

What 9:11 said. A lot of work and a lot of thought went into preparing this, but it's the only the first step. What happens next is more important, where the elements of the vision are translated into the agency strategic plan, and then into the agency's President's Budget request.

For way too long we've been moving haphazardly in the direction of whatever the latest band-aid fix is. Now we have a chance of reversing that, so that the short-term moves align with and support the long-term vision. That's not a bad thing, Charles, and it should be able to withstand changes in the White House, in Congress, and on the 9th floor.

Anonymous said...

I agree that having a vision is a good thing, in that it can try to anticipate changing needs and propose ideas for meeting them. Now Americans just need to elect a Congress that's more interested in promoting Social Security than in duping the public into thinking cuts are necessary.

Anonymous said...

At the pace the agency moves, the problem that I see is that it took two years to develop the Vision. It will probably take another two years to develop the strategic plan. Another two years to get the detailed project plans in place and finally another two years to funding.

Anonymous said...

6:19--yes and by that time out of date!