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The Public Manager Magazine Article

Making Significant, Lasting Differences

Social Security Administration acting commissioner sees talent development as a growth enabler.

By and

Thu Sep 10 2015


SSA chief sees talent development as a growth enabler.


As the Social Security Administration (SSA) celebrates its 80th anniversary, the agency faces increasing workloads, decreasing resources, and high attrition. SSA Acting Commissioner Carolyn W. Colvin has tackled all three challenges with an unwavering commitment to training and a deep investment in leadership development. In fact, SSA's talent development policies have made the agency one of the few in government that can boast the highest levels of employee engagement—all while continuing to serve more than 60 million Americans who depend on more than $848 billion in Social Security benefits.


You have a distinguished public service record. What brought you to public service and were there some pivotal moments or highlights that really focused your career?

The reason I came into public service was my desire to serve. Government really determines how you live and how you die, and I wanted to be a part of making decisions that would impact the lives of Americans who are most vulnerable and most at risk. I think the highlights of my career have been the opportunities to work for two Presidents, a United States Senator, three mayors, and a county executive.

At every job, I've been able to make significant, lasting differences that have improved the lives of the people for whom I've worked. So, I've always been very excited about what we as an agency have been able to do.

You were retired, but agreed to come back to government and have served as SSA's acting commissioner since 2013. Why did you make the decision to return to public service?

It was really an opportunity to serve this President and this country, but it also was an opportunity to come back and finish some of the things I started. Coming back, I was able to see the growth of many of the programs that I had helped establish.


For instance, there is the Cooperative Disability Investigative Unit, which is SSA's primary fraud prevention unit. I started that in 1998 and it will have 32 units by the end of 2015. We started this program because I believed it was important to assure the American public that we are good stewards of the tax dollar and so they could see that there was a minimum amount of fraud, waste, and abuse. We have zero tolerance for fraud.

That is just one example, but I think the fact that people have confidence that money is well-spent is important. My education is in business, so I always believed that government needs to be run as a business that can demonstrate what the public is getting for the dollars it spends. I think this agency has been able to do that, and that has been very fulfilling for me.

You have a great deal of responsibility when it comes to leading such a large and important federal agency. What are some of the challenges you face?

The challenges we're facing are threefold. Our first challenge is our increasing workload. With an aging population, SSA's workload is growing.

The second challenge is our own aging workforce. One of the wonderful things about the Social Security Administration is that people stay 40 to 45 years, which is a great benefit. But considering that so many of them now have been here for that long, we're starting to have high attrition rates.


Our third challenge is certainly an inadequate budget. We're at a period of time when appropriators believe that government should be smaller. But the public pays into Social Security, so they have a right to expect decent customer service. And that's something we still have to provide—even if we're underfunded. I have spent considerable time on Capitol Hill meeting with both sides of the aisle, building relationships and explaining our programs, and I believe that has helped us in obtaining a good budget for fiscal year '14 and fiscal year '15.

The job of a claims examiner is tough. It requires a lot of experience and the ability to keep up with changes. How does SSA keep its people at the top of their game?

We have a very robust training program. When someone comes in as a claims representative or claims authorizer, they're going to have a significant training period. We have tried to develop a number of systems that will make training easier, and we are becoming more and more reliant on technology for training purposes.

We also have several programs that enable individuals to work in different components so they can gain different experiences within SSA to see how they fit in. One example is our job experience and learning program (JELP). With this program, I wanted to allow people who have never had experience in a field office, for example, to go into the field for 30 days and identify a problem that people were experiencing in the field.

I think that program illustrates the importance of training, and it's something we take seriously. Even in this austere budget environment, SSA emphasizes training and development. It's a natural tendency to cut training when you have budget challenges, but I think that's the absolute last thing that should be cut.

As you've said, even in austere budget environments, you're still fully committed to training at SSA. How do you see that playing a role in leadership development?

I require that we train all managers. Within a certain period of time, everyone who has a leadership role at SSA must be trained. And I don't see it as a resource issue; the money must be found. I can't have someone responsible for 20 other people and not be able to serve their employees or our customers well because they haven't been adequately trained. Our leaders not only need to speak the language, but also embrace the culture of our organization—and I've always believed that SSA must invest in that.

How tough is it to interpret Social Security laws and make sure your workforce stays up-to-date?

It's a very difficult job. We really have a complex program that is constantly changing. SSA was established almost 80 years ago, and started off with retirement and then added disability and other programs. Each of those programs has its own laws and regulations.

In addition, Congress is always changing some of the laws. As time goes on, Congress may see that something is happening that had an unintended consequence, so they'll make a different decision, which may require changing policies and processes on our end. One of the actions I've taken to address that is to centralize some of our complex workloads. Rather than expecting all claims representatives to learn every rule and regulation, we centralize the more complex functions, which reduce our rate of error.

Another strategy is through the creation of standard operating procedures. We are instituting a national program in which senior technicians work with less experienced employees to pass on specialized knowledge.

There's a real focus on government as a service. Can you talk about the things you have done within the agency to shift resources to meet the presidential mandate to provide better customer service?

I'm serving as one of the President's co-leaders for customer service across government workgroup. I would like to think that I was asked to help lead that initiative because SSA does a good job of providing customer service. We know that we have to change to meet the expectations of the public. They want to receive the same services from government that they receive from the private sector.

One of the things that we've been pushing is online services. We want to provide a number of service-delivery options that people can choose. SSA will never replace the face-to-face option, because the complexity of our processes means that people will always need face-to-face services. But I hope to make our online services so convenient, cost-effective, and secure that people will choose it as an option.

Government-wide, employee engagement levels have gone down, but SSA has bucked that trend. Last year, your engagement levels increased. With all of your challenges, how have you managed to improve engagement?

We're unique in that the people who work here come because of their passion for the mission. So even with the tremendous workloads, it's a "can-do" agency. I really try to engage everyone who works at Social Security. I have programs to keep everyone informed about what the agency is doing, such as brown bag lunches and town hall meetings.

When we get the results of the federal engagement survey, we break it down into its various categories, and each agency component is required to develop a plan of action to raise those engagement scores. Within the employee satisfaction action plans, I ask agency leaders to focus on three areas: communication, leadership, and work-life balance. And we communicate the idea that if you work for Social Security, this is your organization. If something is happening that an employee does not like, they have the responsibility to say something. Then leaders have the responsibility to fix it if they can.

I'd like to think that I'm very in tune with what is happening within the agency. We do everything we can to make sure our employees know they are valued and recognized. I recently held my first (but not my last) virtual town hall meeting, which allowed me to speak with more than 26,000 employees around the country at one time.

You have close to 63,000 employees. In the last six fiscal years, you've lost 26,000 of them. What are you doing to bring the next generation in and instill in them the same values of the workers who are leaving?

This is one of our biggest challenges. First, we're trying to address it through our [Senior Executive Service] candidates program. We are also relying on our leadership development programs, which expand employees' experiences by encouraging them to work in different parts of the agency. We also have individual development plans that help employees think about where they really want to go and then helps identify skills gaps they need to fill to get them there.

As the workforce gets older, they're fairly immobile, so addressing attrition in the different locations is important. SSA is really implementing telework, and we've had a lot of good experiences with that strategy. I hope it can give our workforce some flexibility.

Additionally, when I think of the future of leadership in this agency, I think of all the leaders I was able to nurture and develop along the way. I'm thankful for the values and the things I learned here and was able to transfer to others. What really matters is that we, as an agency, can help the next generation carry on this important work.

I always tell anyone who works here, "You have a responsibility to reach back and bring people forward." Despite our challenges, I think SSA's leaders are in a position to invest in the next generation. I don't think you can have a greater legacy than that.

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