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Customer service and modernization

The debate over customer service and modernization in the SSA is more broadly framed in the overall issue of the ability of the agency to meet its requirements in future years. For some, the only answer is to privatize the payment system of the Agency. While some argue that the SSA should stay as is, others argue that it should be privatized, which means that rather than just make payments, customers should be allowed to manage their own personal retirement accounts (PRAs).

Some plans for PRAs may help to raise the standard of living of retirees, and also “preserve the social-insurance features of the current system” (Liebman, 2005, p. 30), while other PRA plans “have no economic benefits to offset their high administrative costs” (Liebman, p. 30). Liebman (2005) argues, however, that PRAs are probably the only feasible approach to redresing imbalances as the other option, raising taxes to cover the shortfall, seems unlikely in the “current anti-tax environment” (p. 5).

Moreover, tax increases will most likely be needed to salvage Medicare and Medicaid. The upshot of the debate is that with PRAs on the horizon it appears that the Social Security administration is going to become involved in a new kind of customer service, making sure that individuals receiving benefits do not mismanage their accounts either by investing in mutual funds with high expense ratios or by investing in an inappropriate portfolio.

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Formerly, it is “not the government’s role to prevent customers from making bad choices” (Liebman, p. 6). However, “in the case of Social Security, the government has an interest in preventing people from making stupid decisions because people who end up destitute in old age will become a public responsibility” (Liebman, p. 6). How might this customer service be provided by the SSA?

Columbus (2004) argues that “what is needed is a hosted, secure platform that includes strong analytic tools for evaluating investment scenarios” (p. 2). That is, the SSA must provide its customers with “guided selling interfaces,” and these must be qualitatively different than the so-called online customer service of the past generation, where “investment portfolios were pushed around like Lego blocks instead of being treated as crucial personal assets” (p. 2).

It seems likely to Columbus (2004) that, because only a few companies provide investment advice to employees, and then usually only executives, and also because “investment firms are only reaching the most dedicated investors,” the onset of a PRA-system means that the SSA will have to get into the business of providing guided selling platforms and investment advice for many of its customers. Finally, the introduction of PRAs will cause a number of auxiliary problems as well.

For one thing, because the average amount placed in a PRA will end up being smaller than the payments made now, most of the public will see this change as a “government taking money away from account holders” (Liebman, 2005, p. 7), and thus, there is a public relations problem in explaining how the system works. Second, also because the payments into the PRAs will be smaller, there is the issue of the cost-effectiveness of this approach. Small PRAs are “unlikely to be cost effective, as a plan probably needs to have contributions that are at least 3 percent of payroll to be worthwhile” (Liebman, p. 8), and thus administrative costs of maintaining such accounts might be prohibitive.

This may entail limits being placed on services, in order to reduce costs, and may even involve charging customers for telephone inquiries, all of which may impair the perception of customer service. Finally, the PRA system will no doubt necessitate the creation of a number of guides and other publications, and also greatly increase the number of inquiries made by customers (FOIA, 2006). This too may weaken customer service.

In the SSA, many changes that improve customer service involve issues of employee workload and the use of technology. Many argue that only by improving its business practices, will the SSA be able to maintain a high level of customer service among the larger population of Baby Boomer retirees (Barnhart, 2007). Moreover, “unless SSA improves upon its current business processes by investing in and making use of technology improvements, resources may not be able to meet workload demands over the next 10 years” (Barnhart, p. 270).

One primary area in which this process is proceeding is Internet presence. The SSA “has rapidly expanded the types of online interactions that customers can conduct, such as filing claims for retirement benefits over the Internet” (Barnhart, p. 370). The SSA, indeed, “has a broad strategic goal of attaining a paperless environment by 2010” (Barnhart, p. 372). Other services provided online in the past two years include providing “Medicare replacement cards, online “account” status, access to change one’s address and telephone number, and direct deposit” (Barnhart, p. 372).

Overall, “the SSA will give high priority to E-government projects that will result in large productivity increased by improving the business process, such as with the ‘e-dib’ project, a paperless process centered on employees sharing an electronic folder in a secure environment to review disability beneficiaries’ files” (Barnhart, p. 372). Finally, the Social Security System must also abide by reforms caused by the current political climate.

For example, The Freedom of Information Act gives citizens new rights in terms of inquiring after confidential records held by the government. Thus, in addition to satisfying customers, the SSA must also respond to public requests for confidential information of various kinds. In fact, the SSA compares favorably to other agencies in terms of responding to FOIA requests, as, for example, “the SSA processed over 17,000,000 FOAI and Privacy Act access requests in over 1,400 locations during fiscal year 2005” (FOIA, 2006, p. 1).

The primary problem in terms of customer service with these requests is that, more than any other form of request, these requests are “the most time intensive” in that “the material requested is very voluminous or the issues are very complex and necessitate research and consultation with other SSA components” (FOIA, p. 1). The Office of Public Disclosure has 21 analysts who process about 2500 requests per year, including appeals (FOIA, 2006).

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