Editorial: Starving the Bureaucracy; More Cases, Less Money

The Social Security Administration is closing field offices and cutting back services even as demand surges with the wave of baby boom retirements, according to a report issued last week by the Senate Special Committee on Aging.

In deciding arbitrarily what field offices to close, the report said, the Social Security Administration ignored “both its own managers and the affected public.” The idea seems to be to replace face-to-face provision of services with online interaction, a notion that Sen. Susan Collins of Maine correctly characterized as “completely unrealistic.”

As beneficiaries-in-waiting, count us suitably incensed. A callous or incompetent bureaucracy making life difficult for ordinary folks is always outrageous. We did note, however, that the agency’s operating budget was $11 billion in 2013, about 4 percent less than in 2010, and the number of full-time employees in Social Security field offices has declined by 14 percent, to 25,420, since October 2010, resulting in longer waits for service. Meanwhile, claims for retirement benefits have increased sharply, to 3.3 million last year from 2.6 million in 2007, a 27 percent increase.

This somehow called to mind the scandal at the Department of Veterans Affairs, in which some officials manipulated patients’ appointment times in an effort to disguise unconscionably long waiting times for treatment. “We have learned that in many parts of the country veterans cannot get the timely care they need,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont earlier this month in introducing bipartisan reform legislation. The bill would make it easier to fire or demote senior VA officials, which is no doubt required to the extent that the scandal was the result of a management failure.

But the legislation also includes $500 million to help the VA, which is suffering from a severe shortage of primary care physicians, to recruit and retain more doctors. It contemplates leasing 26 major medical facilities in 18 states and Puerto Rico to try to reduce the backlog of veterans waiting for treatment and would allow those who have experienced long waits to seek care from private doctors at government expense. In all, these measures are estimated to cost the federal government an additional $35 billion over 10 years. There’s little doubt that the problem has its roots in systematic underfunding of the department by Congress over a period of years when it was already clear that servicemen and -women returning from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan would impose extraordinary new burdens on the VA.

And then there’s the Department of Children and Families in Vermont, which is undertaking organizational changes in the aftermath of the deaths of two toddlers whom it was supposed to be protecting. A State Police report revealed a breakdown of communications among social workers, attorneys, police and others in the case of one of the children, and the department has moved to tighten supervision in district offices. But again we note that part of the remedy is a plan to hire 18 more social workers for a department whose chief describes it as strapped for resources and whose computer system is 30 years old and has been found wanting.

There’s little doubt that in each of these cases, management has been culpable to some degree for failures and shortcomings, some resulting in tragedy. Individuals should be held accountable. But it is merely wishful thinking to suppose that large bureaucracies that provide vital services can be starved for resources and still perform effectively. Responsibility extends to lawmakers and those who elect them.