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3 SERVING THE PUBLIC SERVICE OBJECTIVES, METRICS, AND OPERATIONAL PLANNING Managing Services to the Public The Social Security Administration (SSA) should, as a fundamental management process, manage its resources to achieve a set of well-defined, measurable service objectives. The SSA is unquestionably a service agency. It is charged by the Congress and the president with managing a series of critical federal programs. The committee believes that the SSA could strengthen its management processes by setting service-level objectives for its most important services and then guiding the agency's operations to achieve those objectives. These service-level objectives would then become the focal point for planning discussions, operational decisions, and investment choices. The SSA does not today have well-defined targets for levels of service to the public, nor does it convey the view that its operating decisions are governed by such targets. For example, SSA's recent report for the Senate Appropriations Committee (Social Security Administration, 1990) discusses the primary systems objective--~maintaining current levels of service"--in terms of hardware, software, and telecommunications capabilities. Target service levels should instead reflect the quality and responsiveness of service to the public. Closed-Loop Management System The process of managing to achieve end-service objectives is straightforward. The points suggested below are discussed in detail in subsequent sections. 27
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28 . . . . . . . The SSA should select a few (less than 10, including 4 to 5 major) quantitative and measurable service levels as objectives for the quality and responsiveness of the service it provides. The SSA should put in place mechanisms to objectively measure the service levels actually achieved over time. Based on actual versus target service levels, the SSA should manage its staffing, procedures, automated data-processing (ADP) support, and telecommunications resources to achieve the target service objectives, with target objectives for each of these internal units set to enable the agency as a whole to meet service targets to its "clients." The SSA should acquire new management tools to help relate resource levels to service levels. The SSA should not view as permanent the target service levels it sets. They may include interim objectives that are less ambitious at first. Also, from time to time, they wall likely have to be modified or extended to accommodate new objectives that are driven by the wishes of the public (and the Congress). They may even need to accommodate unrealistic objectives that cannot be attained with available resources and budgets. The SSA should announce its service objectives publicly to gain support from the Congress, the agency's oversight and budget authorities, and the public. These service objectives also need to be communicated effectively within the SSA. ~ J The SSA's budget request should reflect the funds needed to achieve service , . ~ .. ~ · . ~ ~ . . ~ ~ . · . . targets, usefully focusing the budget debate on what service levels are desired and how they are best attained. The process of managing to achieve sentence levels. called a closed-~n management , ~ ~ ~ , ~ - ---or ~~~~~~~~~°~~~~~~~~ system, Is much like sailing a ship or piloting an airplane to a destination. Movements of the tiller cause the rudder to move, changing the course of the vessel. Of course, in very complex systems such as the Social Security system, the connection between the tiller and rudder involves many linkages and delays. Consequently, the ship changes course slowly and can achieve its course and destination only over time. Managing to achieve specified service levels does not necessarily mean that greater resources will be absorbed in Social Security operations. Establishing a rational basis for allocating resources could result in a more efficient system. Morenver; improved service carries with it its own effiri~.nctie.~ thrr,,7s~h fe.we.r inn,~iri~c marl mnrP ~~f~,r~t~ claims faster own efficiencies, through fewer inquiries and more accurate processing. Thus a major potential benefit from a service-level approach is that response times or other measures taken to improve service may actually reduce costs, l
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29 because to achieve such improvements may require optimization and streamlining, which could result in an overall improvement. Also, if client inquiries decrease as a result of SSA prodding more accurate and timely service, costs will be reduced. Setting Service-Leve! Targets The SSA should analyze the services it provides and select a few key service-level objectives as agency targets. These objectives should satisfy the following criteria: They should adequately specify service for critical agency programs. They should be quantitative (as opposed to qualitative), and they should be measurable. Serv~ce-leve} objectives should focus on delivery of service to the public and only secondarily on internal objectives that organizations such as ADP need to meet to achieve external service objectives. The objectives should concentrate on the value of the service delivered (e.g., timeliness, accuracy, responsiveness) rather than on quantity of service (i.e., number of claims adjudicated, checks processed, queries answered). Potential serv~ce-level targets for the SSA include the timeliness and accuracy of claims adjudication, blocking rates on 800-number calls, percent accuracy of responses to inquiries by the public, and timeliness of registration. The public does not usually expect instantaneous service and responses from a public agency with heavy workloads, but it does expect reasonable service. Measures of levels of service delivered should capture the pain and irritation occasioned by lengthy and unreasonable delays. For example, an objective should specify "no more than x percent of responses will take longer than y days," as opposed to 'ta mean response time will be y days." In adopting service-level objectives in agencies with programs as complex as the SSA's, managers must counter the tendency to provide objectives for every facet of service delivery. A laundry list of objectives may work against making choices and allocating resources. As soon as service levels drive resource allocations, internal and external pressures will expand or alter the list of objectives. The committee recognizes that omitting some programs, no matter how small, may be seen incorrectly as reflecting a lack of interest in certain classes of beneficiaries or, at the worst, as a decision to deny service to certain programs and beneficiaries. The agency's commissioner and its top administrators will have to select service objectives that will ensure that the right measures are selected and, more
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30 importantly, that the needs of all programs are important and will be satisfied. Measuring Service Levels Concurrent with establishing serv~ce-level objectives, the SSA should implement a plan to collect the data essential for estimating and measuring the levels of service provided. In some cases the SSA's management information systems can make these measurements or the capability can be designed into new information systems as they are built. In other cases, particularly for assessment of accuracy, the measures are the output of an internal or external auditing process whose effectiveness will depend on high-quality sampling design and measurement, inasmuch as it will be impossible to verify the accuracy of all transactions. The SSA will need to rely on internal audits and quality assurance staff, the inspector general of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), contract auditors' the General Accounting Office (GAO), and other government bodies to provide data that SSA's managers will then use to assess the larger significance of the service levels achieved. Some measures may require the development and implementation of new systems or modules. For example, tools are available to measure call blocking, call abandonment, waiting times, and other aspects of telephone service. To achieve a service measurement system with integrity, it is important to (~) avoid data collection systems that are onerous and expensive in terms of staff time, (2) select measures, wherever possible, that can be generated automatically from existing automated systems, (3) use measures that can be easily verified or tested against readily available management data, and (4) use independent or external oversight to measure those things requiring judgment or evaluation (e.g. accuracy of responses to public queries). Managing to Achieve Service-Leve! Objectives Managing to achieve service levels requires a systematic understanding of the relationships between agency internal inputs (staffing, ADP, telecommunications, and so on) and the output service level. Understanding the relationship between input and output is important for two reasons. First, the SSA must understand the relationship in order to reach desired objectives. Second, it is extremely important to set internal objectives for the various internal organizations that are essential to delivery of the SSA's service targets. Social Security operations are a production function, translating inputs in the form of staff, facilities, ADP' and telecommunications to outputs that represent service levels. To manage the agency requires some knowledge of the relationship between inputs and outputs (i.e.,
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31 the production function). Some of this knowledge already exists in the agency; some will be acquired through the experience gained in managing to achieve service-level targets. But some key knowledge will need to be translated by SSA in terms of statistical and mathematical relationships between inputs and outputs. Acquiring New Management Tools Managing to achieve service-level targets will require new management tools and procedures for the SSA. There are products and accepted methods for modeling the performance of both ADP and telecommunications systems. The SSA can use appropriate tools to assist in this modeling effort. The models should provide estimates of response times and data-processing workloads, given the configuration of the system and the level and timing of demands placed on it by its users. The agency, which has had some experience with performance modeling in its past operations, should plan to model its ADP and telecommunications systems for the purpose of predicting workloads and service levels. The SSA will also need to develop models that relate, for example, staffing and staff inputs to workload and service estimates, taking advantage of management data generated within the agency. A number of mathematical techniques, such as linear programming, are available to use in such models. It is more important, however, to establish a good statistical and empirical relationship between inputs and outputs than to use sophisticated modeling techniques. In fact, the appropriate approach would be to begin with existing data on workloads and productivity and then build more complex models from very simple bases. For example, the number of staff hours per claim processed or staff hours per telephone response could be a basis for beginning to model service levels in claims processing and in telephone responses. Mathematical models will not replace good judgment in the management of the SSA, but such models represent an important first step in acquiring the tools and the experience needed to manage the agency's resources to achieve target levels of service. Modifying Service-Level Targets Service-level targets should not be carved in stone, and indeed there are very good reasons why they should change over time. In a large agency, permanent service-level objectives become stultifying and unresponsive to the real requirements of the agency. It would be wise to replace some objectives after, for example, a 5-year period to reinvigorate the agency. In addition, the SSA should strive to continuously improve service, developing a program whereby it will evaluate service objectives on a yearly basis for possible
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32 modifications aimed at incremental improvement. Many other factors, however, wall result in changes in agency objectives: 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. Target service levels should represent a public consensus for- achievable and affordable goals for Social Security processing. Achieving consensus may require changes in targets for levels of service. Some targets wall turn out to be unrealistic and unaffordable. For example, the degree of peaking of telephone inquiries may make it impossible for SSA to achieve common commercial targets of 2 percent blocking at peak hours. Achieving serv~ce-leve} targets, particularly those well beyond current performance, may lead to more ambitious targets that represent substantial · · ~ improvements In service. The resources available for SSA operations may not be able to support the service-level targets. Consequently, service-level targets may have to be reduced, perhaps temporarily. New services, new technology, and new public demands will cause changes in the serv~ce-level targets of the SSA. Public Support for Service Levels Public announcement of SSA serv~ce-leve} objectives is critical to their success as a management tool and to the overall success of the agency in achieving its stated objectives. The SSA needs the support or approval of its higher monitoring authorities] (HMAs) in taking a fundamentally different approach to the agency's management. It would be almost impossible to effectively manage the SSA to achieve a set of service objectives without announcing them publicly. The Congress, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the GAO, the General Services Administration (GSA), and the HHS secretariat are all part of the extended management structure of the Social Security system. Public announcement of service-level objectives Will make each HMA part of the process for setting these objectives. Each HMA will have a point of view on what the objectives should be. Initially, the committee expects that the various viewpoints on the appropriate level of service will favor better service, but as resource constraints are also considered, trade-offs will be necessary. Publicly accepted service objectives Fill make it easier for the agency to argue for Higher monitoring authorities include the GAO, the OMB, GSA, congressional committees, and HHS.
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33 needed resources. Focusing the Social Security budget debate on target service levels and how best to achieve them should strengthen the agency's ability to obtain resources to achieve publicly agreed upon service levels. There is public support, as recognized in the goals of Commissioner King, for at least some improvement in service by the SSA. Public acceptance of and confidence in Social Security hinge in part on expectations. Individuals, for example, tolerate lines at amusement parks that they would not at their local retail grocery. Publicly announced service objectives will help educate the public and adjust expectations toward what the SSA may reasonably attain. Public debate on the target service levels should generally be a healthy process and could result in useful modifications of the targets. Public announcement of service targets is also a critical step in galvanizing the SSA's work force in support of these objectives. Clearly stated objectives may help impart a strong sense of direction to the agency~s management and work force. There are risks in publicly stating objectives--particularly the risk of any failure to meet such objectives becoming a public failure. Even so, for too long the SSA has allowed its critics to take the initiative, leaving itself in a reactionary or defensive position. By selecting its own course, the agency may gain a stronger grip on its own operations. Improving Service Through Automation Achieving the SSA's goals for equitable and consistent service to the public will require a greater use of automation, not only for the volume of transactions processed but also for the decision-making process. Benefits analysts currently base their decisions on information assembled in 14 feet of manuals. It is difficult to imagine that such a volume of text would not contain inconsistencies where classification terms overlap, where terms of applicable benefits are unclear, or where gaps in coverage exist. The committee believes that the analysts do their best with this material, but inconsistencies seem to be inevitable. The current unautomated paper-based processes require human reinterpretation of information at different stages of the process and different levels of the organization. This opens the door for customers to receive inconsistent responses at any of those levels. Inconsistencies are equated to inequities in the public's view. A formalization of the rules and a definition of the data elements that the rules are based on can be achieved through automation. If these rules can be interpreted by expert systems and made available in local offices, a greater percentage of the population can be handled consistently and at the local level, which would reduce communication delays and the chance of errors that might otherwise occur from misunderstandings, incomplete information, or poor transcription.
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34 Me committee hastens to point out that the automation systems themselves should not be the motivations Rather, such automation becomes rru)re feasible when ~ is needed to provide good Seneca REFERENCE Social Security Administration. 1990. Social Security Administration Interim Systems Plan for Fiscal Years 1990-1995. Report prepared for the Senate Appropriations Committee. Washington, D.C.: Social Security Administration.
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