CASE STUDY 7: A Funeral in the Public Service Center
Hal G. Rainey
For many years, the Social Security Administration (SSA) followed a very bureaucratized process for handling claims. A “claim” is a request for services, such as a retiree’s application for SSA to begin paying his or her social security benefits (that is, to start sending monthly checks to him or her). Claims handling also involves many different functions, such as updating records, adding and deleting dependents and relatives from records, handling changes in the requests, and other matters.
For years, the claims would be handled like this: a client (a citizen making a claim) would apply at a local Social Security Administration office, or by mail. The local office would forward the claim to one of eight public service centers (PSCs) in eight different regions of the country. At the PSC, a different unit would handle each different phase of handling the claim. One unit would receive the claim and route it to the others. Another unit had specialists, called claims authorizers, who would rule on the legality of the claim—did the person have a legitimate claim? Then a claim would be shipped, with a large batch of other claims, to a next unit that contained benefits authorizers, or specialists who would calculate how much the client should receive in social security payments. Then the claim would move to another unit for disbursement or payment of claims, and to another for filing and retention. This process was like a big assembly line, with the claim moving from one phase of the work to another.
Congress added many programs and specifications to social security and related programs. At the same time, the nation’s population grew and became more complex. The claims-handling process got much more complicated, and this assembly-line system began to have problems, such as many delays in handling claims and many lost claims. As an example of the problems with the system, when a benefits authorizer would find that a claims authorizer had not provided all the information about a claim that the benefits authorizer needed, the claim had to be delivered back to the claims authorization unit that had previously handled it. Often, the returned claim went back to a different person from the one who worked on it to begin with. This resulted in slow processing and frequent mistakes.
SSA went through a long period of trying to figure out how to resolve the problems, and finally decided to adopt a modular design in the PSCs. They put together in units, called modules, all the different specialists needed to process a claim—claims authorizers, benefits authorizers, typists, file clerks, and others. These groups worked together like teams. They would take a client’s claim and work it through to completion, so that they actually had the person as the client of their module—they could identify the clients as theirs. They could also communicate more readily with each other about any problems that came up. There were some tough problems in implementing this new system, but it worked out very well, and has become the standard design in the PSCs.
Time passes and brings changes that require adjustments by all people and organizations. Advances in information technology—computers and communications technology—brought changes for the SSA. The processing of claims became more computerized. Local offices handle many claims by entering the data directly into the main SSA computers in Baltimore, and getting answers back directly. This reduced the load of claims coming to the PSCs. In addition, the work in the PSCs became more computerized and automated through higher technologies. Claims authorizers and benefits authorizers handled more correspondence by simply hitting a key on the computer terminal that caused the needed correspondence to print out. This reduced the need for typists. More information was going directly into the computer, and requiring less paperwork, and this reduced the need for file clerks to file the papers. The modules needed fewer and fewer typists and file clerks. This created problems, because if a module needed only a couple of file clerks, and was only assigned two, the module became more dependent upon their work habits. If both file clerks were absent, the module managers had to do the filing to keep the module’s work going.
Social Relations Among Specialists. In the old system, a social and educational hierarchy existed among the specialists. Benefits authorizers were the most highly paid and highly trained, followed by claims authorizers, and then by typists and filing clerks. The filing clerks were often single mothers with low incomes and low educational levels. They often struggled with serious personal challenges in their lives outside of work. They would sometimes miss work or arrive late because of child care problems. When SSA moved to the modules, the move helped to break down social distance between these groups. The file clerks would work directly with the others, usually as friends and coworkers. Also, SSA tried to move file clerks up the ranks through training and development processes.
In one of the PSCs in the midwestern United States, the assistant director (A.D.) of the PSC had an idea for responding to the problem of the declining need for file clerks. He started a new organizational design, in which file clerks were assigned to special units, from which they would be farmed out, as needed, to the modules. The design was something like the old idea of a typing pool or secretarial pool. The problem was that the file clerks felt isolated and demoted by being taken out of their modules.
The A.D. learned of the file clerks’ unhappiness in a fairly dramatic way. In his office one day, he received a request from the members of the file clerks’ unit to come down to their office area. When he arrived, he found the office draped with black crepe and black balloons. A large black casket lay on a desk in the middle of the room. The file clerks, dressed in funeral clothing, began singing funeral hymns. A spokesperson for the group came forward to tell him that they were there to hold a funeral for the file clerks unit, to mourn the death of the file clerks.
The A.D. was stunned. He had heard that the file clerks were unhappy with the change he had made, but had not expected such a development. He was not sure how to proceed. He was not really sure what the “funeral” was supposed to mean or to communicate, except that the file clerks were unhappy. Questions were running through his mind. What should he do right now, as he faced the file clerks and their funeral? What should he do in the longer term? Should he discipline them? He knew that people in other units would be very aware of how he treated these file clerks and some would complain if he “let them get away” with such disruption and insubordination. Because of the problems mentioned earlier, that file clerks often had with late arrival or absences, the discipline and work habits of the file clerks were sensitive issues in the PSC.
Source: This case was written by Hal G. Rainey, Alumni Foundation Distinguished Professor, Department of Public Administration and Policy, University of Georgia
1a. What values was the A.D. promoting with the change?
1b. What values were the file clerks emphasizing through their behavior?
4a. What should he say and do, as he stands before the file clerks at their “funeral?”
4b. Once he leaves the room and returns to his office, what should he plan to do in the longer term?
4c. In advising him on actions to take, try to express the relations between your advice and important issues about values, motivation, and leadership.
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