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Dec. 3, 2020, 4:58 a.m. EST

Social Security Chief Andrew Saul is fixing the way the agency assists older Americans

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Richard Eisenberg

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

Meet Next Avenue’s 2020 Influencers in Aging. These advocates, researchers, thought leaders, innovators, writers and experts continue to push beyond traditional boundaries and change our understanding of what it means to grow older.

In recent years, the Social Security Administration had a pretty lousy — and worsening — reputation for customer services. Nearly 125 of its field offices were shuttered and hold times on the agency’s 800-number line were often infuriatingly long. Then Andrew Saul was sworn in as the agency’s Commissioner in June 2019, at age 73.

The first thing the former chair of the Federal Thrift Investment Board said after taking over was that he’d fix customer service at Social Security . But soon after he got to work on that, the pandemic hit, forcing the agency to close its field offices except for a few essential services, to protect employees and the public. Saul was undeterred.

“To be honest, a year ago, I never thought we would be this far along now,” Saul told me. “It did take us time to get up and running, but now we’re going to reap the rewards of a year’s planning.”

Next Avenue: Why was customer service such a priority for you when you started running the Social Security Administration?

Andrew Saul:  This agency, I think, probably serves more U.S. citizens and is more important to them than probably any other service that the federal government performs. So, customer service obviously is the most important feature of this organization.

And when I came in here, the first thing I did was make it very clear that our job at the agency, meaning the whole team, was to service our beneficiaries. Every decision that we make here has to be for the benefit of the beneficiaries. That’s the mojo here, and that’s what we are dedicated to do.

Also read: People who pay more for Medicare Advantage plans live longer

How would you describe the state of customer service from the Social Security Administration when you walked in the door?   The operating budget had been cut quite a bit, and yet the number of Social Security beneficiaries had been growing.

The Social Security Administration gets about 10,000 new customers a day. So, we are a growing business. I think that the vast majority of our employees really are concerned about our beneficiaries and what services we provide.

More: Social Security lets you change your mind

However, this is an agency that needs to move forward. And I think that a lot of what we do was rooted in the past. The people here perform amazing tasks, considering the support systems they had, but it’s now time, and was time a year ago, for us to move forward with modern ways to service our customer.

How has customer service improved since you’ve been on the job would you say?

Well, first we have to talk about, unfortunately,  COVID-19 , because there’s no question you cannot.

When I took over here, we had a tremendous amount of plans to digitalize and modernize the way we deliver services. But obviously when March hit and we were faced with this situation, we had to keep the lights on. We had to protect our employees and our beneficiaries, and therefore we had to revert to operating from home.

And we were forced to close our offices, both our field offices and our disability hearing offices, and become a virtual operation. We had no choice.

So, the service that we were delivering was interrupted, but considering what happened, this team did an amazing job. And I think if you talk to people that use our services on an active basis, they’ll say we really made a transformation here which was basically seamless.

Look, I’m not saying everything was perfect. It still isn’t perfect. The last six months have really pressed the team to the limits. But having said that, I think we’ve done a great job in keeping the lights on and keeping the old boiler running.

Now what this [COVID-19] has taught us and what we’ve been doing is changing the way we do business. And I think it’s going to be changed forever.

It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have field offices. It doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have an eight-hundred [toll-free] number. But we are going as quickly as we can so that our major form of communication to our customer is digital and video.

How are you shifting to providing customer service online?

As far as the field offices go, we are transforming as fast as we can to a much more online operation. We have something called the   Social Security account ; 53 million Americans today have one. [It lets you check your Social Security statement, change your address for benefits, verify your earnings and estimate future Social Security benefits.]

And what we’re going to do over the next 12 months is increase that number through a major [marketing] campaign to over 100 million  my  Social Security accounts. That will provide the ability for our customer to go online and be able to do a tremendous amount of the things that they would normally do in person or on the eight-hundred number.

And what about people who call Social Security?

The other major change we are now rolling out is all new technology for our 800 telephone number.

We have hired 1,000 more operators, which is something I did a year ago. The second tranche of 500 is being trained as we speak. Plus, the new system that we’re rolling out with Verizon /zigman2/quotes/204980236/composite VZ -0.19% will enable us to improve the 800 service tremendously.

And the field offices?

When we hopefully go back and roll out our field office operations again, we’re going to be using many more personal appointments rather than having people just come into the office. I believe the offices are going to be much better organized, with express service for certain things that people come in for on a much more regular basis.

What about the Social Security Administration’s website?

We’re going to have a new website, completely redesigned, which is something that is important because it’s our most important face to our customer.

How far along did you get before you had to pivot in March with the pandemic?

We had most of this under way. And you know, the amazing thing about systems work is you can do it off-site.

I’m not going to tell you this [COVID-19] didn’t slow us down, because we had to be able to go from an in-office to a virtual operation. Did it slow us down? Yes, it did slow us down, but now we’re running well.

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