When Andrew M. Saul, 73, was confirmed by the U.S. Senate as the new commissioner of Social Security last June, it brought to an end a six-year period in which the Social Security Administration (SSA) was run by a sequence of temporary appointees. Saul is now in charge of one of the most important operations in the federal government, an agency that pays out more than $1 trillion every year to more than 64 million Social Security beneficiaries. Saul—who started his career managing national retail clothing chains and also helmed the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board—is tasked with solving problems, such as slow customer service, that have troubled the SSA for years, and newer issues like scams run by people pretending to represent the agency. He spoke with the AARP Bulletin about what he's doing to help the SSA face these challenges, and here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
“It’s been, of course, a real learning experience, but the most significant thing is that whatever we do from here on in, the SSA has to be for the benefit of our customer. We are here to service them. It’s become kind of the watchword, that whatever decision we make, it has to be for the good of beneficiaries. If we do that, we will never make a mistake. That’s our mission. We have some challenges, as everybody knows, in delivering the proper service to our customers. And this is what we are currently focusing on—everything from our disability operations to our 800 number to our field offices.
“I believe in getting out there with our customers, getting into the field and seeing what’s happening. On one of my first field trips, I happened to notice on the door that we closed at 12 o'clock on Wednesdays. I frankly couldn't believe it, because we were losing basically 10 percent of our available time to service our customers by being closed on Wednesday afternoons. Then I understood why Thursday morning, when we opened, was kind of bedlam—like a Monday morning. But as of the beginning of January, all our offices are now open for the full day, five days a week.
“Our call wait time right now is down by about 50 percent. We’ve got farther to go, but I think if you watch over the next six months, we will get the call centers down to the proper waiting time, which will be close to zero. That’s a prediction that I'm willing to make here, and I believe we will succeed in doing this.
“The second thing is the offices. We’re reorganizing how the offices operate and how we handle customers from the time they walk in the door. If you look at our field offices, over a third of our customers come in for card replacements, and another 20 percent come in for benefit statements. So we are now working on a process where customers coming in for a simple task like that are routed to an express agent, and they don’t have to sit there and wait in the office for an agent who deals with more complicated tasks. This sounds so simple, but if you think about it, almost 50 percent of our customers coming into the offices were waiting like somebody that had a very complicated problem, which is crazy.”
Find more excerpts from the interview on the AARP website.