Social Security has a junk data problem — it should be the new commissioner’s first priority  

Social Security has a junk data problem — it should be the new commissioner’s first priority  

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The Senate recently confirmed Martin O’Malley as the next commissioner of Social Security. O’Malley sailed through the confirmation process, even picking up support from some Republicans. O’Malley’s public service credentials, including stints as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland, were important factors in his confirmation. Senators from both sides of the aisle have grown increasingly concerned about the administrative challenges facing the Social Security Administration (SSA). 

What makes O’Malley unique, however, is his appreciation of the role of data in effective governance. Indeed, he has become something of a data guru in the years since leaving elective office. That skill may be just what SSA needs to fix its troubled disability programs. 

In a series of articles in the Washington Post, reporter Lisa Rein exposed weakness after weakness in the administration of SSA’s disability programs. In fact, there are so many problems in these programs, O’Malley may be tempted to solve all of them at once and, in the end, solve none of them. 

His initial focus should be on replacing the junk data SSA uses to make disability decisions. Solving this problem will create a virtuous cycle, generating more support from Congress, agency staff, and the public. 

SSA routinely denies individuals disability benefits by claiming that individuals can work at jobs that, in reality, do not exist. Rein documented a case where SSA said an applicant should not receive disability benefits because the applicant could work as a nut sorter, a dowel inspector, or an egg processor. The Washington Post article had to include historical pictures to help the reader even understand what these jobs used to be (the picture of nut sorters was from 1939 and showed workers sorting pecan nuts by hand). 

Where does SSA get data on jobs? From a now-defunct book published years ago by the Department of Labor called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. The vast majority of occupations in the book are from the 1970s or earlier. When confronted with the obvious problems of using this book to make life-altering decisions for real people today, the agency claimed “To date, the best available source for occupational information has been the Dictionary of Occupational Titles.” 

The agency’s claim is not true, but O’Malley needs to let the agency’s defensive response sink in because it reflects a mentality that he will soon experience. SSA’s culture is about processing applications, not about promoting data quality. In fact, if the courts and political leaders allow SSA to continue to use the Dictionary of Occupational Titles in making disability determinations, SSA will gladly follow the course of least resistance and crank through millions of applications, year-in and year-out, using junk data. 

The courts, in time, will take the Dictionary of Occupational Titles away from SSA because federal judges that hear disability appeals increasingly recognize that the book’s use is leading to arbitrary disability decisions. When that happens, all the current problems plaguing SSA’s disability programs will seem small in comparison. Without occupational data, SSA will not be able to process disability applications. 

The administrative chaos that will ensue will devastate Americans with disabilities and shock Congress. 

Why would Congress be shocked? Because Congress has given SSA everything the agency has asked for to develop new occupational data. Specifically, Congress has given SSA time and money to solve this problem. Over the last decade, SSA has used the money to fund the collection of new occupational data through the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

BLS, to its credit, succeeded in collecting the data via its Occupational Requirements Survey. SSA, to its discredit, has fumbled the implementation of the new data. 

O’Malley should pay close attention to this failure. SSA, once an elite agency that gave operational life to Social Security, Medicare and other fundamental social programs, cannot, these days, even execute relatively simple tasks such as using correct data. 

Congress’s generous funding of the new data collection is a festering issue — not because of the cost, per se, but rather because Congress cannot see any return on its investment. O’Malley rightly flagged declining funding for the agency as the source of poor customer service by SSA, but when he attempts to address this issue during his tenure as commissioner, he is likely to get this response from members of Congress: “Even when we give the agency money, we don’t see results.” 

The surest way for O’Malley to establish trust with Congress is to successfully execute a high-profile project. Bringing in the new occupational data from BLS will solve a decades-old problem and demonstrate that SSA can be trusted with taxpayer funds. 

SSA’s continued use of junk data is also degrading relationships with key partners in state government that help SSA process disability applications. In particular, O’Malley, a former governor, should study the recent congressional testimony by Jacqueline Russell, who heads an organization representing state leadership. She emphasized that the Dictionary of Occupational Titles is outdated and flawed, and that 100 percent of state disability leaders support updating occupational data. 

SSA refuses to even give its state partners a timeline on when the new BLS data will be implemented. 

SSA’s use of junk data is a well-known problem and the issue will surely surface during O’Malley’s initial staff briefings. SSA’s disability policy staff will offer him many reasons why more time is needed, why tasks cannot be finished, or why other avenues should be explored. O’Malley should recognize this bureaucratic inertia for what it is and help the agency recover its reputation as an elite administrative organization capable of serving the public.   

David A. Weaver, Ph.D., is an economist and retired federal employee who has authored a number of studies on the Social Security program. His views do not reflect the views of any organization. 

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