In an earlier post I mentioned my fear that Andrew Saul would attempt to spend the increased appropriations likely to come Social Security's way next year on contractors rather than on increasing the federal workforce in order to reduce backlogs. Let me go through two episodes from Social Security history that will explain my concern.
When Jo Anne Barnhart became Commissioner of Social Security in November 2001 Social Security was suffering from bad backlogs at the hearing level which were a matter of great Congressional concern. The obvious thing to do about the backlogs would have been to hire additional employees. However, Barnhart, a highly skilled snake oil salesperson, put forward two plans to avoid doing anything of the sort. First, she wanted to streamline the process. If you were around for that fiasco, you'll remember that Barnhard delayed and delayed in producing a plan to streamline the process. She only came up with one as her term as Commissioner was coming to an end. Once people saw her plan, just about everyone's response was "Are you kidding me? In what way is this any better?" She made sure that none of her plan was to be implemented until after she left office. Once she was gone, her plan was quickly abandoned as unworkable. Second, Barnhart, knowing that Congress wanted to spend money on solving the backlog, proposed spending huge sums of money making a switch from paper files for disability claims to electronic files. Doing this wasn't a bad thing. However, there has to be some kind of balance. In Barnhart's case, there was no balance. She lavished money on contractors developing an electronic file system while refusing to hire additional employees to actually get the work done in the meantime. The result was that backlogs soared to previously unimaginable levels. It was taking about a year to get a hearing when Barnhart took office, which was already way too long. By the time she left office it was up to insane levels -- about two years on average and worse in some areas of the country! Even after the electronic files came into effect, there was never any proof that they improved productivity, even though I'm sure that Social Security would have loudly trumpeted that proof had it existed.
At least, Barnhart's spending on electronic files had long term benefit even if done in a way that caused disaster for six or seven years. Michael Astrue was responsible for a plan that spent a lot of money on contractors but which produced little if any long term benefit for Social Security. The Social Security Administration is heavily dependent on computers. By the time Astrue took office, Social Security's National Computer Center building, where the heavy duty computing was done, was antiquated. Social Security also lacked any offsite backup in case of disaster. Astrue proposed and got Congress to fund not one but two hugely expensive computer centers, with the second one near me, somewhere near Durham (the address is apparently a secret, not that I have any interest in visiting it), as a backup. These may seem like necessary expenses but have you heard of cloud computing? By the time Social Security was constructing these big, expensive computer centers (around a billion dollars if I remember correctly), other government agencies were rapidly dumping their computers centers in favor of cloud computing. Don't take my word for it that Social Security's data centers were unnecessary. The guy who was in charge of building the National Computer Center became a whistleblower because he felt the project was oversold and wasteful. Another guy that Social Security hired to develop a computing strategy vision for the agency was fired because he kept saying Social Security was wasting money on the computer centers.
It's not that I think that Barnhart wanted to create a disaster or that Astrue wanted to waste money. It's that I think they and other Republicans have two simple, unshakeable convictions:
- Federal employees = Bad
- Federal contractors = Good
My opinion is that while federal contractors have their place, federal employees are the ones who actually get the work done. To cope with backlogs, we first need an adequate workforce at Social Security. We should spend money on federal contractors to the extent they help federal employees get the work done. Don't put the cart before the horse by insisting that additional funding has to be spent on contractors rather than on workforce.
I fear that with additional appropriations coming Andrew Saul will be very receptive to federal contractors trying to sell him on grand, expensive schemes and very unreceptive to any plans coming up through the bureaucracy for increasing Social Security's workforce.
You may not have seen the actual appropriations language the Congress uses when it gives money for Social Security's operations but I have. The legislative language typically imposes few limits or restrictions on how Social Security Commissioners spend the agency's operating funds. I don't trust Andrew Saul. There's no reason Democrats in Congress should trust Andrew Saul. The next appropriations bill should force Saul to use additional funding to hire an adequate workforce. Saul should be prevented from making significant new commitments for contractors without specific outside approval.