Agency under Stress: The Social Security Administration in American Government

Agency under Stress: The Social Security Administration in American Government

Agency under Stress: The Social Security Administration in American Government

Agency under Stress: The Social Security Administration in American Government

Synopsis

Prize-winning author Martha Derthick draws on the recent experience of the Social Security Administration to examine the quality of policymaker's guidance and the feasibility of their policies. Derthick concludes that many structural features of American government hinder good administration, that policymakers lack concern for administration, and that they often miscalculate the administrative consequences of their policy choices. To illustrate this argument, Agency Under Stress analyzes two much-publicized cases of poor performance by one of the biggest and best established of U. S. government agencies, the Social Security Administration. The first case is that of the supplemental security income program to support needy blind, aged and disabled persons. Given responsibility of administering the program in 1974, the Social Security Administration was unequal to the task: many payments were made in error; many eligible persons were not paid; computer systems were not ready; field employees worked millions of,hours of overtime; and other agency programs suffered. The second case is that of an eligibility review that Congress ordered the Social Security Administration to conduct for disability insurance recipients in the 1980s. The results were similarly traumatic: of over 1.2 million cases examined, 495,000 had benefits terminated, and, flooded with appeals, the courts ruled overwhelmingly against the agency. Derthick's analysis and conclusions have far-reaching implications for how the government can effectively serve its clients.

Excerpt

In 1979 brookings published Policymaking for Social Security by Martha Derthick, in which she sought to explain how so large and costly a program had been established with so little controversy. Viewed historically, social security had been an immense political success, even a "sacred cow," in the words of economist Milton Friedman. Nevertheless, it seemed possible that sharply rising costs would threaten the program's popularity. in 1977 Congress had been forced to rescue the finances of social security with a large tax increase.

Today, social security is no less sacred politically, despite having gone through still another fiscal crisis in the 1980s, but its administering agency has become much more vulnerable to criticism. the present book explores how and why that happened. It focuses on two traumatic events: the initiation of the supplemental security income program in the mid-1970s and a review of the eligibility of disability insurance cases in the early 1980s. On both occasions, beneficiaries and staff suffered and Congress and other overseers judged the Social Security Administration to have performed poorly.

Derthick argues that the quality of public bureaucracies' performance depends heavily on the quality of policymaking institutions' guidance-- and she shows that in many ways the guidance is not conducive to good administration. Some of the problems lie in the most basic features of American government: the changes in policy and leadership that accompany frequent elections, the fragmentation associated with federalism, and the interbranch tensions of separation of powers. Others lie in the low priority that policymakers attach to administration and in their inability to anticipate the administrative consequences of particular policy choices. Although Derthick's evidence is drawn from the recent experience of the Social Security Administration, her analysis . . .

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