Are the services that people get from the Social Security Administration improving or declining? Is your nearest Social Security office a pleasant place to visit? Or is it just a few notches above your local department of motor vehicles bureau?
I get emails from some readers telling me that they were happy with the atmosphere of their Social Security office and pleased with the professionalism of the staff.
Unfortunately, I get many more emails from readers who complain about overflowing waiting rooms, generally unpleasant surroundings and overall poor service following a visit to the Social Security office.
I would like to think that this is based on the maxim that folks are more likely to complain about poor service than they are to applaud good service. But sadly (and this is coming from a retired 32 year SSA employee), I've heard so many complaints about poor service, unanswered questions and even alleged misinformation being given, that I must conclude that SSA's commitment to provide top quality service to its customers is going downhill.
This opinion was reinforced when I recently learned that many Social Security offices will soon be closing their doors at 3:00 p.m., an hour or two earlier than in the past. And I've also heard from my contacts within the agency that there are long term plans to lock the doors of all offices one day a week and to possibly close some local offices all together.
In their defense, SSA officials point out that the agency's online resources are always increasing. In other words, people can go to www.socialsecurity.gov and take care of almost any kind of Social Security business they formerly only could do in a local field office. They can apply for a new or replacement Social Security card. They can get an estimate of their future Social Security benefits. They can download about a hundred publications that explain all the facets of the various Social Security programs. They can file a claim for any kind of Social Security benefit. They can get access to actuarial reports and a whole variety of research and statistical data. Those are just a few examples of the many services available — 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
I will admit their website is very thorough. Indeed, some have complained that it's too thorough. There is a ton of information available online, but that's because SSA is such a huge agency, with programs and rules and regulations that impact every man, woman and child in the country. However, links to the kinds of services most people are looking for are rather easy to find and simple to follow.
Yet, I still have an uneasy feeling about the direction the agency is headed. There may be too much reliance on Internet services and not enough thought given to providing efficient and professional one-on-one personal counseling that often can be needed.
Here is a case in point. I have written many times in recent columns about the various ways people can try to maximize their Social Security benefits. Here is one simple example. A 66-year-old man who is still working plans to wait until age 70 to file for retirement benefits because he wants to get the 32 percent bonus paid to folks who put off taking Social Security for those four years. But if he has a wife who was a stay at home mom and thus has no Social Security on her own, he can file for his retirement at age 66 so his wife can then claim dependent spouse's benefits on his account. Then he would immediately suspend his benefits waiting for the age 70 bonus. But his wife would get her dependent's benefits during those four years. Just try setting up that kind of claims scenario online. It can't be done. Or rather, it can't be done easily.
And here's what makes the case for declining Social Security service even more distressing. Some of these maximizing strategies can be rather complicated. And I have heard from many readers who told me that the Social Security representative they were dealing with on the phone or in person did not understand the procedures involved. And in some cases, they were even told that such a strategy was not possible.
I'm afraid this is a result of the decline in training offered to Social Security personnel. When I started with the agency in 1973, I received almost three months of very intensive classroom training that covered all aspects of the many Social Security programs. These were relatively small classes taught by very experienced Social Security program experts.
Today's new SSA employees get a much-abbreviated training program and the sessions tend to include a lot of online-based lessons. It's just not the same as being taught by a human being who knows the ins and outs of Social Security laws and rules.
It's the decline in training and in the personal approach to service that troubles me the most about today's Social Security office. I can remember in the early days of my career being sent from my district field office to small towns and villages in the area where I set up a mini Social Security office for the day. I enjoyed being "Mr. Social Security" in those little far-flung burgs. I even was sent to people's homes to help them with their Social Security problems or issues.
I know I am coming across as an aging fuddy-duddy pining for "the good old days." Just as it isn't possible for doctors to make house calls anymore, it isn't economically viable to offer one-on-one Social Security service in small towns and especially in people's homes.
But I'm just not sure if an over-reliance on the Internet and an under-reliance on quality training and good old-fashioned personal service is the way to go.