modernizing infrastructure


modernizing infrastructure

Michael J. Astrue: Building a Social Security Administration for the 21st Century

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009 - 10:46
Posted by: 
The U.S. Social Security Administration touches the lives of most Americans.

Dr. Reginald Wells interview

Friday, May 9th, 2008 - 20:00
"We recognized that because of the retirement wave and the importance of maintaining our workforce, our competency, and our commitment to service, that we needed to revitalize our recruitment program and efforts."
Radio show date: 
Sat, 05/10/2008
Intro text: 
Wells discusses how SSA is assessing and planning for the pending retirement wave. He describes some of the solutions to the retirement problem that SSA is considering, including workforce transition planning, succession planning, and new recruitment...
Wells discusses how SSA is assessing and planning for the pending retirement wave. He describes some of the solutions to the retirement problem that SSA is considering, including workforce transition planning, succession planning, and new recruitment techniques. Wells also talks about SSA's training programs and the challenges facing new and long-time employees. In addition, Wells explains how the Office of Human Resources tracks and uses customer satisfaction information. Human Capital Management
Complete transcript: 

Originally Broadcast May 10, 2008

Washington, D.C.

Announcer: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour, a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The Business of Government Hour is produced by The IBM Center for The Business of Government, which was created in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. You can find out more about The Center by visiting us on the web at And now The Business of Government Hour.

Mr. Morales: Good morning. I'm Albert Morales, your host and managing partner of The IBM Center for The Business of Government.

The U.S. Social Security Administration faces complex management challenges closely linked to profound changes in our country. With the baby-boom generation nearing retirement age and people living longer, the public is expecting greater program integrity as resources become constrained. The success of meeting such challenges rests on the pursuit of an effective human capital approach and workforce strategy.

With us this morning to discuss SSA's strategic efforts in this area, is Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Good morning, Dr. Wells.

Mr. Wells: Good morning, Al, how are you?

Mr. Morales: Great, thank you.

Also joining us in our conversation is, Solly Thomas, associate partner in IBM's human capital practice.

Good morning, Solly.

Mr. Thomas: Good morning Al, and good morning Reggie, good to see you again.

Mr. Wells: Solly, it's always good being with you.

Mr. Morales: Dr. Wells, as you know, we always like to ground our listeners with some context around the broader organizations. So could you start off by providing us a general overview of the Social Security Administration, perhaps including its history and its current mission?

Mr. Wells: I'd be happy to, Al.

Social Security Administration or the Social Security Act was signed into reality by President Roosevelt, 1935. It has grown exponentially over that time. And as you see today, it basically provides three basic programs, or has three fundamental constituencies.

People who are retirees and are receiving benefits, social security benefits as a result of what they've paid into the system, that funding resides in a trust fund, and then you have individuals who are survivors of workers who have paid into the system. And you have people with disabilities, who for whatever reason have a catastrophic illness or a disability that prevents them from working full-time in many instances.

We currently have about 50 million beneficiaries today of the social security program, about 7 million SSI beneficiaries. And 164 million individuals pay in to that system in order for the system to be as successful as it is today. We issue something in excess of 17 million cards, which is how most people know of us, one way or another. We have a 800 number telephone system that actually deals with about 57 million calls each year. So we have a pretty phenomenal case load.

We have had some fairly highly publicized challenges in terms of our disability backlogs and things of that nature. And as the baby-boomer generation enters into retirement years or enter into disability-prone years, you tend to have more people coming to us for those services, so it is a particular challenge for us right now, having sort of that confluence of events.

Mr. Morales: Well, it's certainly a very large organization with a very critical mission here in our country. So you began to give us a sense of some of the scale of the operations. Perhaps you could elaborate a bit more on that; how the organization is organized, perhaps the size of the budget, number of full-time employees and contractors, and perhaps a sense of the geographic footprint across the country.

Mr. Wells: Well, we are a pretty large organization. We have 60,000 employees. We basically pay out a $650 billion in benefits. And that is roughly 60 million people annually. So, in terms of the impact on the U.S. economy, and obviously the subsistence of our nation's population, it's pretty significant. We have about 1,400 hearing and hearing officers and field officers, which are very direct, service oriented. So a very significant difference between the Social Security Administration and a lot of other federal agencies is that we really do have a substantial amount of public contact. In terms of that foot print we are geographically all over the country.

Very often, I think community see us as, kind of, the face of the government, because probably 96 to 98 percent of the American public has to have some dealing with us at some point in time. Whether it's getting that card or coming to us for benefits. We have 36 teleservice centers, and they deal with those phone calls I referred to earlier, the 800 number. We have a program service centers processing those benefits.

And we have an administrative budget of about $9.7 billion, which is actually pretty efficient when you consider the amount of -- the size of our budgets and the amount of benefits we pay up.

Mr. Thomas: Reggie, now that you have provided our listeners with the sense of the larger organization, let's talk a little bit about your specific program. What are your responsibilities and duties as the deputy commissioner for Human Resources and the agency's chief human capital officer? Could you also tell us about the programs under your purview, how your office is structured, the size of the staff, perhaps the budget as well?

Mr. Wells: It's been quite a challenge. I have been with the agency about 6 years now, and it has been really a pleasure managing the office of Human Resources as deputy commissioner for Human Resources.

But in that role I have the responsibility for -- an oversight for the Office of Personnel, the Office of Training, our Labor Management and Employee Relations area and Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity. I also have a couple of smaller components for managing, and they are really attached directly to my office for managing our executive services function, and also our human capital planning, which is really critical to workforce planning and the work that we do in concert with the Office of Personnel Management.

And it's really in that chief human capital officer role that I get to relate most directly to the Office of Personnel Management and to the other federal agencies in government. So, I tend to think of my role as deputy commissioner of human resources as sort of the inside work that I do, as a strategic partner to all the other deputy commissioners and components of SSA, supporting the workforce, making sure that we are administering those human resources programs.

And then as chief human capital officer, pursuant to the Chief Human Capital Officer's Act of 2002, I get to relate to other federal agencies, collaborate with them, serve on sub-committees, doing work that benefits all federal agencies across the board.

Mr. Thomas: And Reggie, following up on the roles and responsibilities that you have as the agency's chief human capital officer, can you talk a little bit about the most significant challenges that you face in your position, and how you have addressed these challenges?

Mr. Wells: I am delighted to do that too, because this is an opportunity for me to share with you and the listeners some to the things that we are grappling with. And obviously, since we do this as public service, it's an opportunity to inform them of some of the things that we need support on.

One of the biggest challenges and it's not just particular to social security, of course, and really not even particular to the public sector, is the retirement wave. There was a recognition that we had to do more in the area of human resources to support the workforce, to make sure the agency was postured properly.

One of the advantages of being SSA is that we have actuaries; that's one of our mission critical positions. They started doing some workforce analysis 15 years ago. It gave us a very clear indication of what we were going to be experiencing in this period as we projected the fact that a significant number of our people were going to be eligible for retirement. It was obvious to us that we were going to see a tremendous brain drain.

So that's one of our major challenges and of course with that comes the challenge of recruitment and finding the right talent to replace the talent we lose. I think because the largest number of people who are going the quickest are leadership folks, you have to make sure that you are grooming the next generation and do it the right way. And the Office of Personnel Management has required all agencies, which is important, given this retirement wave we are dealing with, to pay more attention to succession management and to have a succession management plan.

And I would say the most significant challenge that we are facing is really the resource challenge. Having enough budget capability to replenish our workforce, meet the numbers that we need to, we have some significant programmatic challenges as a result of the retirement of the baby boomers, but it is compounded by our own folks retiring, and in some cases not being able to replenish them at the same rate that we lose them.

So I think our Commissioner has really done a phenomenal job of informing the White House and informing Congress of that challenge. So we are feeling a bit rejuvenated in the sense that we can replace at least the people we are losing on a one-to-one basis.

Mr. Morales: That's great. It certainly is a challenge across the government and the private sector.

Now, Dr. Wells, I recall that prior to your joining SSA you were in the local D.C. government. Could you describe your career path for our listeners? How did you get started and what brought you to SSA?

Mr. Wells: I started out my public sector career in Essex County, New Jersey, as a matter of fact, and moved right into supervision and the social services and health area. And I managed nursing homes, well, the county nursing home and I was very much involved in the running of the county's psych hospital at that time.

I left there after 4 years and came to Washington, D.C. to work in the Department of Human Services as it was called back then. That was mental health, public health, and social services programs like -- at that time it was called aid to families with dependant children, or the welfare program, child welfare, juvenile justice, homelessness program, and the disability programs, and a number of the child care programs in the city.

And I started out doing primarily institutional management, but moved into community work because the district was de-institutionalizing, amidst system for people with developmental disabilities, mental retardation and developmental disabilities.

And after 10 years of working in those areas and then the commission on social services as the deputy commissioner, I had the opportunity to move to health and human services at the federal level as the deputy commissioner for developmental disabilities and I did that for about 7 and a half before going to social security.

And actually I went to social security originally to work in the disability reform effort that was going on there, and I was tapped by the commissioner to head up human resources and supporting the workforce of social security given its mission and function has been really phenomenal.

Mr. Morales: That's a fantastic story, and you've clearly seen the 360 degrees of this business. So as you reflect back on those experiences, how do you think that they have prepared you for your current leadership role and shaped your current management style?

Mr. Wells: One of the things that was a constant through that experience was the importance of people and the equation. You really can't accomplish, probably any meaningful work, but certainly not public service without having an extraordinary group of public servants that are sort of committed to making a difference in the lives of people. And I found that to be true in all of the jobs I've had that there were extraordinary people who were committed, making a difference in people's lives and making their lives better. And as a result of that, it just impressed upon me how important the human equation is.

I think the importance of showing those people appreciation, because I think it's important of those of us who are in leadership positions in government to make sure we take the time to remind folks of just how important the work is that they do, and, how much we appreciate them doing it well. I'd say that it's been very, very clear to me that resources, at the end of the day, drive a lot of what you are able to do.

We were fortunate enough to be evaluated by the partnership of public service as being seventh from among the best places to work in federal government, and it's kind of special to get that kind of recognition from time to time. It's been very clear to me that providing employees with the tools they need to do the job we have asked them to do is extremely important and something that we should always be working towards.

Mr. Morales: That's fantastic.

What is SSA's human resource strategy? We will ask Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for human resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration to share with us, when the conversation about management continues on the Business of Government Hour



Mr. Morales: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I'm your host Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration. Also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Solly Thomas.

Dr. Wells, could you tell us about SSA's comprehensive human capital strategy and your efforts to develop and implement an updated strategic human capital plan, and if I may, how does this human capital strategy align and support SSA's broader mission and goals?

Mr. Wells: Al, all federal agencies at this stage of the game are required to have a Strategic Human Capital Plan. It basically sets the strategic direction for your human capital efforts at a given agency. As I alluded to earlier, the chief human capital officer is expected to be a chief advisor to agency head and the executive team in any given federal agency, and you have to have certain information at your fingertips and certain alignment between the agency's strategic plan and the human capital plan, or the strategies from a human perspective that you have to have in place in order to carry-out that agency plan.

So it's very important that there be alignment. We put a lot of effort into making sure that the agency's strategic plan and our human capital plan are in fact in alignment or layout the human capital strategies that are necessary to fill that plan, and OPM and OMB do monitor whether or not we are achieving that and accomplishing that. And back at the Social Security we're going through or actually come through a fairly rigorous process of coming up with a new agency's strategic plan. And we have been working on our human capital plan, sort of on a parallel track, to make sure that it allows us to fulfill that agency's strategic plan.

The Office of Personnel Management has human capital assessment and accountability framework. And we make sure that our human capital plan fulfills all of those requirements. The human capital plan is a roadmap, I meant, it basically lays out where we have to get to with regard to certain competencies in the agency, which can shift over time. Those of us who were baby boomers we had to learn computer skills on the job, and some of us are still technologically challenged, but striving to be as good as we can be. Responding to e-mails and trying to conduct business, and those kinds of tools are very important to our ability to be efficient today, so we are expecting that of our workers.

We lay out in our human capital plan a recruitment strategies, the ability to identify, recruit, and then ultimately retain talent is really critical, so this human capital plan lays out, how we intend to go about that. Training is a really -- and especially entry-level training is extremely critical. So our claims reps and service reps who do that public contact work, we have to teach them the intricacies of the Social Security Act, and the various programs that are laid out in it.

So there is a tremendous importance for our human capital plan, laying out what our learning management strategies are going to be as an agency. And then there's the whole issue of that workload forecasting. We have to -- there are priorities that are set by the Commissioner, by Congress, by the White House, and we reflect those in our agency's strategic plan, and therefore, the human capital plan has to lay out the mechanisms by which we will make sure we are able to address that workload.

Mr. Morales: That's great. So since 2004, you've obviously been performing very well against the President's Management Agenda. So I'm curious, what lessons have you learned from this experience?

Mr. Wells: We actually were recognized for making the most dramatic improvement of any federal agency, and that we went from 21st to 7th, and that was a pretty dramatic --

Mr. Morales: It's a pretty big leap.

Mr. Wells: -- pretty dramatic leap and I think the things we learned from it were that technology was extremely important to that. We put a lot of emphasis on communication, because I think the record shows that communication between management, leadership and the workforce, when it is not fluid, when it is not complete, it can result in some disjoint effort, and working at cross purposes. And I think that's one of the things that we concluded that it was important to have a performance management system, for example, that laid out the importance of each individual responsibility in relation to the agency's strategic direction, or strategic plan, having a clear sense of what's expected, and having very clear feedback on whether you are meeting and fulfilling those obligations or not. We felt it paid some major dividends in terms of how employees felt about the workplace.

Training was extremely critical, we felt, and preparing people for the challenges in the workplace, and -- historically I think we've done an outstanding job with entry-level training, or training -- the technical training, so we've put a lot of emphasis into that. And those are some of the things that I think we've learned as a result.

Mr. Thomas: Reggie let's talk a little bit about the role of the HR workforce. As, you know, the federal human resources community is changing from a transaction-based environment to a more strategic and consultative role. Could you tell us more about your efforts to transform the human resources function within SSA and on a related matter, how is your agency looking to build the skills and capabilities of its HR professionals, so that they can become more strategic in areas such as workforce planning and recruiting.

Mr. Wells: Well, that's a very insightful question, Solly, and for much of my career, I functioned as a line manager with the usual dependency on the HR component to support me to make sure that they processed, you know, actions that are requested to get talented people in, and that transactional business is extremely important, and you can go about it in a variety of ways. Some organizations contract out a lot of that work, and that's sort of a trend today, to sort of move in the direction of outsourcing that work, or contracting it out to either another public agency or a private organization. And the emphasis is on sort of strategic direction, and how we plan and execute those human resources strategies is a really important thing. The President's Management Agenda really did allow us to recommit ourselves to that, and to emphasize that human resources is a strategic partner in the workplace, so that just as a practical example, if you are going to be initiating a major programmatic initiative, it is better to have human resources at the table, at the planning stage, so that you can anticipate any blips or bumps in the road toward that implementation.

In human resources we've really reoriented ourselves to be much more strategic in the way we go about thinking about things and doing things, and that has allowed, I think, organizations to be much more efficient in the way that they operate, because they aren't wasting resources by having false starts or starting down a path that is ill-advised from a labor perspective or a training perspective, or generally a human resources perspective.

So I think being a strategic partner is extremely important in an era where you don't have resources to waste, and I think that's been extremely important for Social Security, and I've gotten similar feedback from other federal agencies, since we have had this chief human capital officer counsel in place, and we share promising practices and best practices with one another. I think it has allowed all ships to rise, I think we are all able to move in a much more efficient and effective way.

Mr. Thomas: Thanks Reggie. Now, earlier in our conversation, you had talked about the SSA's performance management efforts and maybe we can talk a little bit more about that. Could you tell our listeners what you've done to put in place an agency-wide performance management system, obviously, ideally one that links employee-performance expectations with organizational goals and objectives, and I understand that you have also put in place, the performance assessment and communications system, perhaps we could have a better understanding of how that works and how that supports your performance management program?

Mr. Wells: When I took over as deputy commissioner of human resources, the first thing the commissioner asked me to do was to revamp performance management in the agency especially with our senior executives. Social security, when I arrived, was under a pass/fail system. We basically had our executives all the way down, essentially evaluated in a pass/fail model, you either passed or you failed. And in that kind of a model, obviously, there's really not much room or there really is no room to make distinctions, I mean, if everyone passes, there's no distinction about whether someone passed in a phenomenal way or someone just barely passed. And so I immediately moved to a multi-level system for senior executives, the year following we converted for our Grade 15 managers.

By that time the President's Management Agenda was full-blown and the guidance coming out of OPM was that pass/fail systems were frowned upon, they were not rigorous enough or robust enough to really distinguish performance. And so everyone was being encouraged to move away from it.

Well, we have a pretty healthy labor environment at Social Security; we have a number of unions that we work with as cooperatively as we can, and we felt that it was important to negotiate, enter into discussions around the sort of implementation of additional performance management changes and so we had a committee pulled together that really evaluated a number of performance management models, philosophies, and as a result of a -- really about a year, year-and-a-half process, came up with what you refer to, Solly, as PACS, the performance assessment and communication system.

The employee knows upfront how they will be evaluated against the expectations and then at the end of that year they sit down and sort of take stock of where they are. And we implemented it in October of 2006, and we've come through a full cycle now, and we're into the second year of it.

And feedback has been pretty good, there are always doubting Thomases, people who feel when you make a change, you know, it's going to be the end of the world. And I think it was done with extreme care, it was done very respectfully and working with labor around it, and I think in the final analysis, employees are giving us feedback that they do have a clearer sense of what is expected of them, And we've done some things with technology to make it a little simpler on how you actually record all of this. And so it really has been a very successful venture on our part.

Mr. Morales: Reginald earlier you've talked about the war on talent and the criticality of recruitment in support of your succession planning. Could you tell us what changes you are making to the recruitment process at SSA and are you able to use flexible compensation strategies to attract, or maintain employees and save the mission critical areas.

Mr. Wells: We use all of the flexibilities that are provided. We don't use them all at once, and we don't use them all the time, we use them when we feel we have a particular recruitment challenge, because of course, most of the flexibilities require resources and we try to use those as conservatively as we have to to make them go further. Our recruitment approach was actually revamped a number of years ago, I guess around 2001, and 2002, we actually overhauled in a major way, our recruitment strategy and we currently operate with a sort of a 10-point or 10-element approach. It involves an integrated marketing strategy and branding. For example, make a difference in people's lives, and your own to, sort of emphasize the mission-driven aspects of our agency.

And what I would suggest is that, at least for us, and this is a blessing, that our mission resonates very, very well with people, both young people and people who are looking to maybe have a second career, or to interrupt the career they are in to get into a line of work that they feel, you know, is more consistent with their value system or their goals in life, in terms of, you know, government does offer a pretty stable pension situation and other benefits that some people are gravitating to us for. So you know our mission is a very strong one, and we really, really play that up as much as we can, but we you know do on-campus recruitment, we have the benefit of a national blue -- and actually somewhat international blueprint.

So we are able to recruit in all kinds of communities, and which goes a long way toward allowing us to be a very diverse organization and to have a workforce that reflects the people we serve, so that's a very strong thing and something we continue to look forward in our recruitment activities.

We do a lot of online internet strategizing and we, as I said, use maximum flexibility. So I think we are doing all of that, I think in some strategically importance ways.

Mr. Morales: That's great, that's fantastic. What about SSA's knowledge management efforts. We will ask Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration to share with us when the conversion about management continues on the Business of Government Hour.



Mr. Morales: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I am your host Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration. Also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Solly Thomas.

Dr. Wells, as you know agencies must have an effective strategy for organizing and retaining its intellectual resources and its institutional memory, so to that end, could you elaborate on your efforts to implement an effective knowledge management system and what can you tell us about SSA's knowledge management strategies?

Mr. Wells: Sure Al, and it is especially important for a federal agency that has a program as technically complex as social security. There are many, many rules, many, many nuances, and the experiences of people presenting themselves for services and so it is very important for our workforce to be very precise in the way that they evaluate a case and make benefit determinations.

As a result of that, and as you might imagine, there is voluminous rules and ways in which we present for our trainees, and for people who are journeymen, technical information about the work that they do. We have something referred to as the program operations manual system or POMS, which attempts to present a lot of these questions and answers for people, a lot of this information technically. So in a way there are a lot of knowledge management strategies that social security had to engage in this very naturally in order to do its business.

But what we have tried to do as an organization is use various strategies, various techniques, for both capturing that information and making it accessible and presentable to people who might benefit from it.

So we have done things like having -- establishing communities of practice and communities of interests. In HR, for example, we've tried to put together an HR curriculum that allows us to take our subject-matter experts, and put the information in a format that a young trainee or someone who's being tutored by them, and being, sort of, the baton is being passed from the more seasoned worker to this person who they are sort of grooming. And we've gotten some pretty good results, but that is, as you might imagine a pretty slow and laborious process.

I mean it's very specific between that individual and the person they are trying to groom. Mentoring is a major part of that and that is something that I think is kind of built into the DNA of the agency already, but we've tried to emphasize it in a number of ways, and we tried to formalize it, so that we're making sure that certain knowledge is transferred as it needs to be, to keep this thing going efficiently. Those are some of the things we are doing. You know we have those information portals; we have communities of practice and communities of interest, and communities of action where we are sharing best practices within the agency.

One of the things that my office is responsible for is monitoring the human resources practices across the agency. We have 10 regions and transactional business and that goes on in all of those regions, and so we actually go and monitor as a result of that we capture the best practices from one region and share it with others or with headquarters and vice versa. So there are a number of things we are doing to try to get a handle on knowledge management.

Mr. Morales: That's great. Now a recent global human capital study conducted by IBM, of which Solly Thomas helped execute, showed that over 75 percent of the HR executives interviewed believe that they have difficulty developing future leaders. Now, we talked a little bit about this, but can you provide us some more specifics on SSA's strategic leadership succession planning efforts?

Mr. Wells: I'd be delighted. If we do not have strong competent visionary leadership, there is the greater chance we will go astray even with outstanding oversight from the White House, Congress, the public. And so that's something that we're putting a lot of emphasis on.

Our commissioner, when he joined us a year ago, acknowledged the good work we had been doing in human capital, but challenged us to take it up a notch or two, and so he introduced, or had us introduce a new thinking on leadership. It envisions laying out for our employees agency strategic a very clear message that if you have an interest and the ability to be a leader, we are going to do whatever we can to groom you, to help you develop yourself, and in some instances, to offer competitive programs that you can compete for and get into, as a very deliberate attempt to make you the best that you can be as a leader.

And we've launched, for example, a symposium series which we refer to as leadership matters and we've run about 2000 managers through that. It's really targeted at our mid-level managers and we've run them through it and it's been very, very successful. People are saying that the things they have learned in that three-day symposium is translating very well in making them more effective in the work that they do when they get back to their field offices, or hearing offices, or what have you.

So we're putting a lot of emphasis on that, we believe that because that is a cohort in the agency that turns over, and will be turning over very quickly because of the retirement wave and the aging of the baby boomers, we have to groom people a lot quicker than we've had to in the past.

Mr. Thomas: And Reggie, staying on the development theme, could you talk a little bit more about your key learning and development strategies. In particular, I think our leaders would be interested in hearing more about your learning management system, Go Learn, and how it helps the SSA more closely-linked training to competencies and also to employee career paths?

Mr. Wells: Yeah, the Go Learn, or what was formerly Go Learn, it's actually we just pushed the button on April 1st making it SSA Learn, is basically an ability for our employees on a 24/7 hour basis access e-learning. And basically what they can do through this mechanism is take courses; we offer some 2,500 different courses. They can take them at home because it is internet based, they can take the courses on non-duty hour at their PC, or they can even do it during duty hours if they get the permission of their supervisor to do that, if there is some special training that the supervisor feels is going to be important to their ability to do their fundamental position well. And that has really put a lot of control in the hands of the employees to develop themselves, which is something we have been emphasizing.

I mean, there is no way for us to have all of the resources to train everyone to be the best that they can be, all at once. It is important that employees have mechanisms available to them that they can get, sort of learning as they need it, or learning as they want it, toward either the career path of their own or perhaps even to pursue another career path. And I really do subscribe to that view that you want people to do the work that they are committed to, that they believe in, that they have a passion for.

And sometimes, that means having them go from one track that they may be on to another. We encourage that and we are able to in a large agency like we have, because you could come into the agency as a claims rep, then become a public information officer, or go to work in the legislative office, or go into Human Resources. There is the potential in an organization like SSA to have multiple careers and stay in the same agency. And so this mechanism, this learning management strategy, I think, allows a level of flexibility that is extremely attractive to employees.

Mr. Thomas: Thanks Reggie. We want to shift our discussion a little bit to get your views on the blended workforce, the term commonly used for a workforce that consists of both contractors and federal employees. From your perspective, can you tell us how federal managers can effectively manage this blended workforce, and in particular, what you may see as some of the key differences that are intrinsic to these two core groups?

Mr. Wells: Well, social security and this is something that may vary from agency to agency -- we have a pretty longstanding and healthy use of contractors. There has been, over the last few years, an emphasis on making sure that that work with which is not inherently governmental can be pursued by contractors, and in some cases other federal agencies, a sort of shared service center kind of a concept, and what we have found is that our contractors, and career staff blend extremely well.

One of the areas that I would cite as a very positive example of that is in our information technology world, which Social Security, as you might imagine, has probably the largest repository of medical records and other kinds of personally identifiable information of any system in the world. And in order to manage that well, we have had to rely on both a large cadre of information technology specialists and mangers as well as contract workers.

And they blend very, very well. I think the reason they do is that the government workers recognize that they can't do it by themselves. So there is sort of a recognition that we need a partnership here or team work, in order to get this done. This is very important work, and we can't do it by ourselves. The other part of it is having really good project management skills, and the ability to lay out in fairly fine detail what it is we need for the contractor to do, and how that work is discreet from the work that the government employees do. So there isn't any sort of inherent competition with one another for that. So I think it's worked very well for Social Security. I think we have been very successful in that regard.

Mr. Morales: agency strategic Fantastic. What does the future hold for SSA human capital management, we will ask Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and Chief Human Capital Officer, to share with us when the conversation about management continues, on the Business of Government Hour.



Mr. Morales: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I'm your host Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration.

Also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Solly Thomas.

Dr. Wells, as you know, there has been much talk about commercial best practices in government, and particularly in the service area, such human resources, and we've talked a little bit about this, but what emerging technologies hold the most promise for improving the federal management of human resources?

Mr. Wells: Interesting question, Al. We've been very interested in trying to automate some of our programmatic tracking and our management information. So in areas like labor relations, tracking the official time usage of labor leaders, or looking at how our EEO cases are being processed efficiently, making sure that we are automating and we're able to look at how well the cases were working through the system.

Those are some of things that, I think, we feel are going to make a big difference in the area of training in particular. We've probably been the most proactive with our distance learning, our interactive video conferencing system really, and then learning system. It allows us to do distance learning to all those 1,400 offices across the country through a satellite system.

So that we don't have to bring people in large numbers to centralized locations to do training anymore, which is extremely expensive that, you know, that the transportation costs, and the per diem that - to have people come to those large gatherings. This is an extremely expensive proposition. So we've been able to save a lot of money by having that distance learning mechanism, and the one we were referring to earlier, SSA Learn allows us to offer training and the ability for self development. And it takes kind of the burden off of the agency. People can learn at their own rate in some instances, and take advantage of that which they choose to take advantage of.

Mr. Morales: Great, so you mention the future. So I have to ask, how do you envision SSA's human capital needs evolving over, let's say, the next two or three years, but more importantly, how do you envision your office evolving over the same period of time to meet some of these challenges?

Mr. Wells: Well, I think it gets back to an earlier question, I think, Solly posed, about you know, becoming more strategic. I think that we are growing up as strategic partners, and the tools and strategies that are needed for that, we are going to have -- we are going to get better at the whole issue of strategic planning we are going to be doing. But a lot of things are, I think, enduring. I mean, I think that we will always be concerned about our diversity and making the business case for it.

And however, the -- our public changes relative to those kinds of characteristics, we are going to be responsive to workforce planning is always going to be necessary to make sure we get the best bank for the buck, because even if we make out relatively well in a budget cycle, there is never going to be enough money to do all the great things we feel we need to do, to equip our workforce and to serve the public well.

So we are going to have to always prioritize, and have ways of sorting out what's most important, what's least important. Accountability and performance, there is an ever-growing expectation for that, a lot is going on at the national level, and tracking that and evaluating organizations. And SSA is one those organizations that always likes to be viewed as at the top of its game doing the best that it can with what it has been given to work with.

And so we are always going to be striving for recognition and acknowledgment of the excellent work we do. And so we are always going to be self-evaluating to make sure we stay at the top of our game, and that's going to be, I think, a constant persistent expectation that we in HR are going to have to be very sensitive to. And of course it plays out with that human capital survey, where you are asking your employees to give you feedback on how you are doing. And I think that's going to always be there.

Mr. Thomas: As you look to adequately prepare for the workforce of the future, one of the challenges you'll face, no differently than any other agency, is the fact that you have a high number of SSA employees retirement eligible. As I look at some of the statistics, nearly 60 percent over the next 6 or 7 years. What plans are in place to mitigate the effect of this retirement wave?

Mr. Wells: Well, the good news, Solly, is that people don't retire when they are eligible, necessarily, so we are fortunate in that. And again, I go back to it being probably mission-driven. I've talked with employees on the verge of retirement who expressed -- who are really looking to retire, but they express a sense of dread about not being in the mix and sort of in the public, that there may be people who come to their field office, that they have developed a personal relationship with, who may be disabled, or may have some other life circumstance that requires them to need benefits, and they feel personally responsible for that person connecting with those benefits.

So as long as we continue, I think, to attract the right people to social security, which I think, we've done a very, very good job of with our competency-based interview techniques and other strategies, as well as you know, being very clear about what our mission is. As long as we do that, I think, we are going to have people working a little longer than their retirement eligibility date.

Based on our projections, and we've been pretty accurate over the last few years. We are projecting that 23 percent of our workforce is going to retire over the next five years. So some of those people are going to work a little longer, but as we are -- as we have the resources to recruit and hire, we feel pretty good about our chances and our ability to do that. So whatever vacancies we have, we are pretty confident we are going to fill them.

Occasionally, we run into a challenge with a specialty, I mean, actuary is a specialized occupation, and you know, you sometimes have to do some extraordinary things to land the best ones, but -- or in the IT, it could be that way. But I think generally speaking, we have gotten that down to kind of a science. We've viewed some other techniques early -- using early retirement, for example, as a way of flaming the wave.

I think one of things that we have done or tried to do was to manage that wave, so that we didn't have a dramatic peak. At one point we are projecting that there would be at one point a dramatic spike in retirements which could have been devastating. By doing a few things creatively, to manage the wave, we've managed to flatten the wave so that there is no dramatic loss of people at any given point in time, and that has, I think, made some of the difference.

Mr. Thomas: And Reggie, I want to stick with the discussion on retention. The recent IBM global human capital study, one of the findings that it showed was that almost 50 percent of the human resources executives we interviewed, indicated that they are facing higher turnover. And perhaps more than half of those we interviewed are finding skills development within their existing workforce to be a particular challenge.

Now, at SSA, your retention rate is actually one of the best in the federal government, and probably on a related matter, one of the cause-effect, if you will, was that SSA was ranked by the partnership for public services, one of the top 10 places to work. What is the key to your success, and how do you see retention within your organization and your attempts to address that?

Mr. Wells: Solly, I think one of the major issues for us as I've alluded to with a number of the responses I've given is the mission of the agency. I think that single factor is very significant in drawing people to the agency and retaining them once they are there. We try to, as I said, find people who believe in this work, and want to do this work for a career, and we've been very fortunate in that regard. And we are -- and because of career patterns, concerns, and other things, we realize that there may be some shifts in that.

But so far, it's been holding that the mission has been an extremely strong draw, but once you have people in your organization, you have to do the types of things to convey to them that they are important to you that you need them in order to fulfill your mission. And we, particularly in HR, put as much effort into supporting the workforce, knowing that these jobs can be very, very difficult.

We have a few initiatives. One example, I would give you is the initiative we've referred to, sort of an umbrella initiative, caught all ages, all stages, and it was specifically designed with the multigenerational workforce in mind, so that whether you are someone with 35 years of service, and starting to experience elder care issues, or you are a new hire and you don't even have children yet, but you know, that's probably in the not too foreseeable future, so that we provide, you know, counseling and resources and information that might be a benefit to you. Or someone in between, who needs pre-retirement, you know, guidance, they are going to work another 15 to 20 years, but they want to make sure that when their time is over, they are all postured for reasonably good retirement.

We try to provide a lot of work-life balance. We try to make programs available like the flexiplace, where people can work from a remote site in some instances. It's a little tougher for SSA, because with the public contact work that we do, it isn't portable where you can't do it from home. There are also personally identifiable information concerns, about the security of the information that we have on beneficiaries.

So that makes it a little challenging there, but I think those are the kinds of things that you do to recruit and retain a strong workforce. You have to make a commitment to them that you are there for them that you are going to give them the supports they need.

And that's where the tools come in. I mean, it is sometimes challenging having all the resources, to allow people to do their best work, but we try to do the best we can. And our commissioner has spent a large amount of his first year in the position trying to convey information about all the tools and resources we need to do the kind of job. But I think the American public expects, and certainly the White House and Congress expects.

Mr. Morales: Reginald, you earlier you told us just a wonderful story about how you got started. So I'm curious what advise would you give to someone who is out there, perhaps considering a career in public service, whether at a local level or at a federal level?

Mr. Wells: Well, the one thing I would say Al, and I mean this very sincerely, I can't imagine a more meaningful career than working in public service. You know, obviously I'm a little biased, and I'm actually a second-generation Fed, so maybe, you know, I come by naturally. My mother worked for IRS for 45 years, and I don't know if I'm going to do 45, but I really enjoy what I'm doing and I really believe in it. And I think that it really does make a profound difference in how our country operates how the people in it are supported and allowed to lead the lives that they lead. Sometimes we are invisible in that regard, and people don't think about us until you have some natural catastrophe, but when those things, whether it's on a day-to-day basis that you need us, or an episodic basis, I think that public services, there is no finer work that one can do.

And then in terms of rewards, even above and beyond some of the things that a lot of people gravitate to us for, you know, stable pension situation, certain, you know, work-life flexibilities and balances that you are going to have, that you may not have in other occupations or other environments, I think, are extremely important. I think, more than ever before, the opportunities in government are going to be huge.

I think the positive results that we had through the human capital survey also reflected the fact that we had people retiring in larger numbers. Therefore, people in government who were at lower levels of the organization can move up quicker than they have ever been able to before. And I think that makes for an optimism about their futures and their ability to be all that they can be, more quickly, maybe than they could have, had they been a baby boomer.

This is a wonderful time, I think, to come to public service. I think the need is there, I think the opportunities are going to be there, I think like an organization like Social Security, where you could come in and test out different careers, all in one place, is going to be a tremendous draw into the future. And I think the sky is the limit for eager, talented young people, who may want to make a difference in their lives and other peoples. And I would like to take this opportunity, if I might to give the ways in which people can contact us. We have the website which is And a couple of phone numbers I'd like to give you. The general number is 1-800-772-1213 -- that's 1-800-772-1213, and the TTY number for someone who might be hearing impaired is 1-800-325-0778 -- that's 1-800-325-0778.

Mr. Morales: That's a wonderful perspective, thank you. Unfortunately we have reached the end of our time here, but more importantly, Solly and I would like to thank you for your dedicated service to our country both at the local level and now at the federal level.

Mr. Wells: And I thank you for your interest.

Mr. Morales: Great, thanks. This has been the Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Dr. Reginald Wells, deputy commissioner for Human Resources and chief human capital officer at the U.S. Social Security Administration. My co-host has been Solly Thomas, associate partner in IBM's human capital practice.

As you enjoy the rest of your day, please take time to remember the men and women of our armed and civil services abroad, who may not be able to hear this morning's show on how we're improving their government, but who deserve our unconditional respect and support.

For the Business of Government Hour, I'm Albert Morales. Thank you for listening.

Announcer: This has been The Business of Government Hour. Be sure to join us every Saturday at 9:00 a. m., and visit us on the web at There you can learn more about our programs and get a transcript of today's conversation. Until next week, it's

Dr. Reginald Wells interview

Friday, September 29th, 2006 - 20:00
"We recognized that because of the retirement wave and the importance of maintaining our workforce, our competency, and our commitment to service, that we needed to revitalize our recruitment program and efforts."
Radio show date: 
Sat, 09/30/2006
Intro text: 
Wells discusses how SSA is assessing and planning for the pending retirement wave. He describes some of the solutions to the retirement problem that SSA is considering, including workforce transition planning, succession planning, and new recruitment...
Wells discusses how SSA is assessing and planning for the pending retirement wave. He describes some of the solutions to the retirement problem that SSA is considering, including workforce transition planning, succession planning, and new recruitment techniques. Wells also talks about SSA's training programs and the challenges facing new and long-time employees. In addition, Wells explains how the Office of Human Resources tracks and uses customer satisfaction information. Human Capital Management
Complete transcript: 

Originally Broadcast Saturday, September 30, 2006

Arlington, VA

Mr. Morales: Good morning and welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Albert Morales, your host, and managing partner of The IBM Center for The Business of Government. We created this center in 1998, to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. You can find out more about the center by visiting us on the web at

The Business of Government Radio Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our special guest this morning is Dr. Reginald Wells, Deputy Commissioner of Human Resources for the Social Security Administration.

Good morning, Dr. Wells.

Dr. Wells: Good morning, Al.

Mr. Morales: And also joining us in our conversation from IBM is Tony Hess. Good morning, Tony.

Mr. Hess: Good morning, Al.

Mr. Morales: Dr. Wells, some of our listeners may be familiar with the Social Security Administration, but why don't we start with an overview of the history and mission of SSA.

Dr. Wells: I would be happy to, Al. The Social Security Administration came into being after President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act, back in August of 1935, and it began as a board but then evolved into an independent agency, and over the years it has really been like most federal agencies. As our government tends to enact laws in very incremental ways with lots of amendments and changes, it has morphed into something much larger, serving many more people. The original mission was to serve and basically provide income security for individuals who retired from gainful work.

Over the years, it's evolved, continuing that basic mission, but also evolving into serving or supporting people with disabilities, so it's essentially a social insurance program aimed at making sure that people have the subsistence they need to live in our society. And we do a tremendous job, in my opinion, on carrying out that mission. Essentially, we provide, for example, some 48 million folks in our nation with benefits that, I believe, are worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $521 billion, so it's really evolved into quite a substantial program. A very successful domestic program, obviously.

The Agency has actually once again returned to independent status. It had been part of the AGW; then HHS; Health, Education and Welfare; and Health and Human Services, but in 1995, once again it became an independent agency.

Mr. Morales: You have teased us a little bit with the size of the organization, can you give us a better sense of the scale, in terms of budget, number of employees, and geographic footprint of the organization?

Dr. Wells: Right, the total budget in '06, was $595 billion and the workforce is 65,000. As I think most of our listeners probably know, social security, we estimate, affects at least 95 percent or more of the public, and that range goes all the way from getting a social security card to receiving disability benefits. The mission is carried out through a network of field offices, hearing offices, teleservice centers, and program service centers that essentially allow us to be in communities around the country. And the commissioner often says that social security for many people is the face of the government, because most folks know where their social security office is.

Mr. Morales: Great. Can you give us now, a sense of the role and mission of your office, specifically, the Office of Human Resources? How big is your team and how are you organized?

Dr. Wells: I am responsible for the Office of Human Resources, and that is a cadre in headquarters of about 400 people. Because we are so decentralized as an organization and because we have 65,000 employees scattered over the entire country and beyond, actually we have some international involvement, the Social Security Administration has to administer that HR or human capital role through those regional offices that we have out there. And we have another 300 employees who work technically for the operations part of our organization, but because of our responsibility to oversee the policy for human capital and human resources, we oversee them technically.

One of the things we do in order to ensure that we have consistency across the agency is to be responsible for going out and monitoring the hiring, retention, and support of employees in the field. And of course, we do a similar thing for headquarters under the supervision, in a sense, of the Office of Personnel Management. In addition, my budget is roughly $100 million that includes obviously a lot of the service that we render to the employees for things like training. I have the Office of Training under my responsibility, the Office of Personnel, the Office of Civil Rights and Equal Opportunity, and the Office of Labor-Management and Employee Relations. Then I have a very small, actually new, component, a very small unit we call the Human Capital Planning Staff.

That allows us to do a lot of the coordination between my components and also it tends to oversee the national recruitment for the Agency. The gentleman that heads that component is responsible for our national recruitment campaign and he works through the regional offices and with local managers. It's a relatively small group, given the demands on it, but it allows us to do some of the tracking that is necessary under the President's management agenda. That's one of the important initiatives that all federal agencies are engaged in right now. They are being tracked by the Office of Management Budget and the Office of Personnel Management on how they go about certain lines of business, human capital being one of those.

Mr. Morales: Perhaps you could tell us a little bit more about your specific role. Although, your title is much longer, many of our guests will understand your role as being the Chief Human Capital Officer at SSA?

Dr. Wells: I wear those two hats. My social security formal title is Deputy Commissioner for Human Resources, but the government has the role, similar to the Chief Information Officer and the Chief Financial Officer, a Chief Human Capital Officer for many agencies. In some agencies the HR lead is not necessarily the Chief Human Capital Officer. At social security, the Commissioner's thinking was that those responsibilities should be contained under a single individual who can then coordinate and make sure that what we are doing internally is certainly consistent with what we are being expected to do externally. I will explain that a little bit.

As Deputy Commissioner for Human Resources, obviously, I have the responsibility for managing those areas that I have described a moment ago, personnel training, civil rights and labor management. In addition though, there is an expectation I think with this administration to look across government to make sure that we are achieving some consistency in the way we administer our strategic management of human capital, and so the Chief Human Capital Officers Council, and the Chief Human Capital Officer role was established in 2002 to make sure that we are achieving some continuity and that we have Chief Human Capital Officers coming together in a central place and sharing issues and working on planning for things that will further our interest as a government.

Mr. Morales: And that's very interesting. We also understand that you come from a family of public servants. Perhaps you could tell us about growing up with a family culture of federal government work?

Dr. Wells: Yeah, I do. I come by this work, pretty honestly, through my mother who worked for the Internal Revenue Service for 44 years. And growing up, of course, I heard a lot about the importance of public service, and I was fortunate to have both parents. My father worked in a factory in the private sector, but my mother worked in government and so I heard a lot about what that was like, and I never envisioned necessarily going into a government work, but I guess that acorn doesn't fall too far from the tree.

I also have a brother who works for the Veterans Hospital System. He was a Vietnam vet, came home, and, wanting to counter balance what he had experienced over there, he went to medical school and is now working in the VA System.

Mr. Morales: That's a great history. You obviously have a very distinguished career, including running the District of Columbia's Department of Human Services as well as Associate Commissioner of the Administration of Developmental Disabilities, how have these roles shaped your current management style?

Dr. Wells: Well, it obviously impacted it a great deal. I grew up, if you will, a little bit every time I had a new management experience, a new leadership challenge, and all the way from my early days working in New Jersey in what they called citizen services, the equivalent of what Health and Human Services does at the federal level, and also in their Health and Rehabilitation area, I got a lot of opportunity to see how things work at the local level; how local issues and concerns from direct service to the public sort of challenge you and force you to do your very best and to deliver that service. And working through people to get it done, is what you learn obviously, when you have a team.

And I got a lot of experience with those challenges in New Jersey. And then when I came into the District of Columbia it was probably a good time for me to experience that. I started out managing one of their institutions located in Laurel, Maryland, and was later asked to come into the city proper, and manage some of the programs; initially, the disability programs, but later I was asked to serve as the Deputy Commissioner for social services, and it really was that everything that was in public health and mental health fell under social services, so it really was a challenge and a lot of crisis management. You learn very quickly how to adapt to situations.

And I guess what really impacted me and influenced me was operating without all the tools and all the resources one would ideally like to have. And I think that is one of the challenges that public servants, no matter where they are, whether at the federal, state, or local level are sort of challenged with. There is never enough money to meet the needs of the public, particularly when you are talking about the kinds of programs that we are responsible for and the types of populations that rely on our support, so my management style has evolved into one that's pretty participative. I really believe that we get things done through teamwork, through collaboration, through effective communication, and those have been hallmarks of how I have tried to conduct myself as a leader and as an executive.

Mr. Morales: Excellent. How is the Social Security Administration managing the government retirement wave? We will ask Chief Human Capital Officer, Dr. Reginald Wells, to share with us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.


Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour, I'm your host, Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Chief Human Capital Officer, Dr. Reginald Wells of the Social Security Administration. Also joining us in our conversation is Tony Hess.

Dr. Wells, not that this topic is immediately going to impact anyone in this room, but it is an important topic, and that's the pending retirement wave. What's happening now at social security in terms of staff retirement?

Dr. Wells: Well, and I'm glad you asked me that question, Al, because that is something we have been tracking as an organization at least for the last decade or so, maybe even a little longer than that. It was the foresight, I think, of the leadership at the time to pay attention to the baby boomers moving through employment and getting to a point in the not too distant future where they would be retiring in larger numbers. I think the leadership felt they needed to take stock of that and social security, maybe because of the role we play, tends to be an organization that is very data driven.

We have, just to give you a sense of the actuaries on staff who project well into the future, the solvency of the program and the service delivery trends and that kind of thing. So we started looking at how many folks are we likely to lose and at what points in time are we likely to lose them over a decade ago. So we do what we call a Retirement Wave Analysis. We update it every year. Right now, approximately 23 percent of our workforce is eligible to retire. Fortunately, most folks work a little beyond their eligibility and that's something that we have experienced at social security.

I think a lot of federal agencies have that. I think our rate beyond eligibility is something like 3.7 years. In five more years that number of people eligible will go up to 40 percent of the current workforce and in 15 years it goes up to about 54 percent, so obviously we had best be in a position to replenish that workforce and to have some sense of when they would be likely to retire. We do projections and we use a model for determining what those numbers are likely to be. And what we are projecting right now is that over the next five years we are going to lose about 21 percent of our workforce.

So it moves us to really pay attention to that and to have some strategies for keeping it from being such a spike. I think the way the model projects are right now, we are looking at the peak of losses between 2008 and 2010. We have been using some strategies however to try to flatten that curve so that we don't have a tremendous spike at any particular point in time over the next few years.

Mr. Morales: So you just referenced this wave of baby boomers retiring across the country, and told us a little bit about how this puts additional pressures on services that supported the SSA. How are you preparing for this perfect storm of resource challenges?

Dr. Wells: Well, it isn't easy, as you might imagine, and I knock on wood every time I talk about this, because we really have not had the difficulty yet. That's why I knock on wood, because I don't take that for granted, recruiting and hiring people. But to address your question about the baby boomers moving into those disability-prone years and moving into retirement causing a greater obvious demand for our programs, we are doing things like a lot of agencies. We are trying to automate as much as we can.

The Commissioner recently announced that we have new regulations for our disability program. We were making some disability service improvements, which should allow us to move them through the process more quickly in general, but where there are appeals, we should be moving people through that process a lot quicker as well so that they have an answer much quicker about whether they are going to be eligible and entitled to benefits. On automation, there has been some reform of some of our systems to try to make it less cumbersome, less labor intensive obviously for us. Technology is not going to be a panacea, but I think it is going to help.

More and more people are applying for benefits over the internet. We are pushing that and promoting that a lot. In my area, people will be able to apply and that's been something that the Office of Personnel Management has been working on as well so that the opportunity to apply for federal jobs is streamlined from what it has traditionally been. So we are using various techniques, technology, systemic reforms, and I guess speaking regarding the human capital issues. We are really emphasizing training within the organization.

We want our employees to be the best they can possibly be. Part of that are the concerns about the loss of institutional memory when these very seasoned employees we have now move onto retirement, well-deserved retirement. We want a group of younger employees coming behind them to get up to speed very quickly. And I think, the retirement wave is a challenge for all federal agencies, and actually, is a challenge for all organizations, because it's not just a public sector phenomenon. But I think you really do have to invest on the front end to make sure you bring people into the organizations who really want to be there and want to do that kind of work.

Our training programs or entry-level training programs are pretty extensive. People can come in and end up in 16 weeks of training before they are even are allowed to attempt to serve the public and that's a substantial investment. So you don't want a serious retention problem early on. If people come into the organization and work five or ten years, and you get a really good service out of them and they choose to move on to other things, so be it, but to have someone new come into the organization, you give them 16 weeks of training and they punch out almost immediately would be a tremendous waste. And fortunately, particularly with new recruits, we have a pretty good retention situation.

Mr. Morales: Perhaps you could tell us a little more specifically about some of the activities your office is doing to develop and manage this kind of challenge? For example, what is the workforce transition plan?

Dr. Wells: The workforce transition plan, actually, was the precursor to the human capital plan. Truth to tell, it actually attempted to do a lot of the same kinds of things. It sort of, describes what the workforce is, what kind of succession planning we should be engaged in, where our greatest needs are from the human capital perspective. We have since adapted it to become really more like a tracking document for us, so we updated quarterly to see in specific detail what kind of activities we are engaged in, in our human capital work. And it just helps us stay on top of what we are doing and allows us to self evaluate whether we are doing all the right things and working on all of the important things.

Mr. Morales: You alluded to succession planning, and certainly this sounds like one of the keys to success in managing this whole retirement wave. Can you provide some lessons or advice to other government leaders who are facing this challenge of succession planning?

Dr. Wells: I think I can offer a little bit of advice. I think that it's very important, first of all, to know what your needs are as an organization. If you have a core mission that requires a certain competency or a certain classification of employee, then obviously you have a little bit of a sense of what kind of skills and abilities the people need and if there are logical pathways to hire or to work, obviously, you want to wait to try to identify the people who are most likely to do the best job there. Obviously, we always have to be engaged in merit principles and you want to never have instances where you regress into prohibitive personnel practices, but it is important to try to identify employees who are interested in moving up into other types of work that are important to the organization.

One of the mechanisms we used to do that, which certainly withstands the scrutiny of meeting merit principles is we have a number of career development programs which allow us to compete within the organization for identification into one or more of these groups where you would be on developmental assignments, getting training, doing this developmental work that allows you then to be a prime candidate for promotional opportunity down the road. We have four mechanisms that we use dealing with the various levels of our organization. For example, we administer our own senior executive service career development program, which is geared toward our GS-15 employees who aspire to be senior executives and they go through a year, or 18-month developmental process where they receive a lot of training.

Some of it is formalized training provided by the Office of Personnel Management at FEI, Federal Executive Institute. Some of it is actually working in areas outside of where they may have come from. So if you were a GS-15 working in operations, you might work in systems, or you might work in human resources and get a better appreciation for the organization as a whole. The next level down for our developmental programs is our advanced leadership program, and it's geared to our 13 and 14 graded employees.

A very similar program, it demands having a mentor, someone that can work with you around your development, developing an individual development plan so that you have some very specific skills you are expected to live up to and meet, and you identify through this collaborative process, what goals you are trying to achieve in terms of self development and professional development. We have a leadership development program, which is the next step down for 9 through 12 graded employees and it's very similar to the others. It is just the level of complexity for the work that you do and the exposures that you get. And then the Presidential Management Fellows is a mechanism we use to bring some pretty talented people into the organization. They may not have grown up in social security, but they have advanced degrees and are willing to come in and get on that track toward leadership.

Mr. Morales: This is a very extensive program. How is the Social Security Administration recruiting new talent? We will ask Chief Human Capital Officer, Dr. Reginald Wells to explain this to us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.


Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm your host Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Chief Human Capital Officer, Dr. Reginald Wells of the Social Security Administration. Also joining us here on our conversation is Tony Hess.

Dr. Wells, we spent a little bit of time in our last segment talking about the folks currently within the administration. What changes are you making to the recruitment process at the Social Security Administration?

Dr. Wells: We recognize, because of the retirement wave and the importance of maintaining our workforce both the numbers that the public, and the Congress, and the President expect, and also the competency, and the commitment to service. And so we, a few years ago, decided we needed to revitalize our recruitment program, our recruitment efforts, and we came up with a tagline: "Making a Difference in People's Lives and Your Own," as a way of branding social security, the service agency that it is.

It was very important for us to do that because, within our mission, the Commissioner, with our strategic plan, has identified four areas: service, stewardship, solvency, and staff, and it's extremely important to bring employees into the organization who bring a skill set that and an interest in service that allows them to really apply themselves to what we expect them to do and what the public expects in the way of service. So we developed this integrated marketing campaign, and we have really updated our materials so that they can be specific to individuals interested in particular career paths.

Social security is a huge organization, and if you have a systems background there is a place for you in one of the largest computer systems in the world. Collecting all of that payroll data, the information on payroll taxes, social security numbers, and the new disability system which is paperless, so there is obviously a lot of work going on in that area.

We have an agency that's large with a tight budget. We have a pretty large budget staff. And well…it's not large. When I say large, that's relative.

Mr. Morales: Be careful what you say.

Dr. Wells: Yeah, exactly. It's not large in the sense of large numbers of people, but they manage a large budget, and they have to be really good at that. So we obviously recruit and hire people who are very good at that. So if you have a financial management background, you are the type of person we would want to bring in to the organization. In that area, our largest operation obviously is our Deputy Commissioner of Operations component. And we need people there who obviously bring a very strong service ethic and who are very good in dealing with the public across the counter and across the desk and who bring an empathy for the types of people who rely on us for economic support.

And in the Office of Human Resources, where it's, as I said, relatively speaking, a small staff, we want people who understand and have a commitment to that type of work. My point is that it's a very diversified organization. And if a young person or even a mid-career person had an interest in this kind of work, we are trying to reach them, so we developed this integrated marketing campaign. We put an emphasis on communicating with people using technology, so we do as much work as we can over the internet.

And we try to get ads and magazines that cater to various populations, because we have to be a diverse organization. Diversity for us is a business imperative, because we serve the entire population. And in order to do that, you obviously have to be able to relate to them. We need that sort of diversity of thinking within our organization to be effective, and so that's very important. We've attempted as have the government as a whole to streamline the hiring process so that people don't have quite the cumbersome role they have coming in.

In fact, the Partnership for Public Service just put out some information from a study that they've done that is focused on college graduates. And what they reported was that people were basically very interested in doing public service, but they very often found it cumbersome or they didn't know where to go to pursue that interest. And so we do go out to colleges and universities and we do job fairs that try to let people know just what kinds of career opportunities there are at the Social Security Administration.

It really requires a lot of outreach, a lot of coordination, and we, because we are so decentralized, while we have recruitment lead and headquarters, we actually work through lead recruiters in all of the regions so that we can have a local presence. And they can cultivate relationships with local colleges and universities, and people who can refer the best and brightest to us.

Mr. Morales: You touched upon, in the last segment, some of the leadership programs that you have at SSA as well as potentially up to a six week training program for some of the new hires. Many of our guests across government share that a great deal of their focus is on ensuring that staff have these appropriate skills. With such a large organization distributed across the entire country and in some foreign territories, how do you manage this at SSA?

Dr. Wells: It's not easy, as you probably appreciate. It requires a lot of focus and attention. We have an office of training, as I mentioned at the outset of this discussion that is solely focused on trying to make sure that our workforce is receiving the best training they can possibly receive. And we've put a lot of emphasis, as you would probably hope we would, on our entry level folks coming into the organization. Our programs in one sense are very basic in terms of providing income security for people.

But in other ways, they're very complex, because there are a lot of rules around eligibility and assets that people bring to us when they come in requesting support. And so it's vital that we do that entry-level training and that we get our new employees up to snuff. But the employees who stay with us, and work with us over the years, and do an entire career with us, of course, have to be nurtured as well. They have to be kept as interested and committed in work. And so you have to replenish them, you have to give them support.

We have a significant e-learning mechanism that employees have access to. It allows them to go online and take over 2000 courses that are available in a variety of areas. Some of it is technical, but it can also be self development; it can be courses that allow them to perhaps make a career or transition to another part of our organization. It's really a tremendous resource, and folks can access it either from their PC at work, or from home. So that part of it is good.

We are really focusing on honing in this year and last year on our leadership training, because we like a lot of organizations when resources are tight, tend to not do as much of that as is really warranted by the needs of your management cadre. And so we have dedicated ourselves. And I'm really pleased that the commissioner in her foresight felt that in order for us to really be effective into the future, we have to cultivate that talent, and build a leadership cadre that will take us obviously into the next 30-40 years of this program.

Mr. Morales: Can you tell us about the role the Office of Human Resources plays in promoting diversity at the SSA, and do you have any advice you'd like to share with other government leaders?

Dr. Wells: Well, my Office of Human Resources plays a major role with the support and the commitment of all of the senior executives. As I said earlier, diversity is a business imperative for us in a lot of ways, and I'm defining diversity in the broader sense, not simply the EEO compliance focus that I think a lot of organizations focus on very appropriately. But we broaden it, because we feel that in order to be inclusive, we have to have a diversity strategy that encompasses all employees, not simply certain groups of employees. So we basically pay attention to the data. Once again, SSA has always been a data-driven organization.

We track, very closely our hiring, and promotions, and training and on a lot of dimensions. I am proud to say that as of today, because it's constantly changing, we are at parity with all of the numbers for all of our protected groups. And our workforce is comparable to a civilian labor force across the board. And that's something we're very proud of. In addition, we really do well hiring employees with disabilities. And it's not something we rest on our laurels about, because it is a very underemployed group of folks in this country.

But we feel, given that it is part of our mission to serve people with disabilities, that we really should have a workforce that also reflects and has empathy for that population. So we do real well there. Some noted magazines: Careers & the Disabled, have recognized us as one of the better agencies in this regard. And we put a lot of emphasis into things like reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities.

We are bullish about hiring veterans, and we're working as a matter of fact, with Veterans Affairs to basically step up some of the things we are doing in that regard.

One of the things we're talking with them about, because we do serve people with disabilities as a core part of our mission. We're really interested in some of those vets coming back from the war, who may choose to get employed with another federal agency. And we're hoping it can be us, because of the insights they'll bring, and the commitment that they have to service. But I think the important thing really is to pay attention to your workforce, understand the ways in which it's diverse, and the ways in which it is not and be deliberate in going about addressing that.

And obviously in doing so, you have to be sensitive, as I said earlier, to avoid prohibited personnel practices and maintain merit principles. Those are always a given. But I think within that, there's still a lot of opportunity to reach out and communicate to populations that you may not have traditionally talked to or approached about coming into your organization and being a part of it. The other thing we do, which is a little unique, although I think there are a few other agencies that do it, is we have a number of advisory groups that we charter and work with very closely.

Most of them represent those protected categories. But we have found that has been a really good resource, because at the Social Security Administration, those people not only advise us on how to recruit and hire members of their group, but they also do a lot of volunteer work in the community, building relationships with the community, and of course, that then accrues back. People who they may have helped, or people who may have observed them helping others will want to come and work for an organization that's willing to do that.

Mr. Morales: What does the future hold for the SSA? We will ask Chief Human Capital Officer, Dr. Reginald Wells to explain this to us when the conversation about management continues on The Business of Government Hour.


Mr. Morales: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour, I'm your host Albert Morales, and this morning's conversation is with Chief Human Capital Officer, Dr. Reginald Wells of the Social Security Administration. Also joining us in our conversation is Tony Hess.

Mr. Hess: Dr. Wells, we know that customer service plays an important role in the SSA's strategic plan. How do you track customer satisfaction within the Office of Human Resources, and what kind of feedback do you typically receive?

Dr. Wells: Well, Tony, we get a lot of feedback. Fortunately for me, most of it is very positive. There are no shrinking violets among the executive team at Social Security, and so I get a lot of weekly feedback. The Commissioner holds an executive staff meeting once a week, every Monday. We gather as a team and we share important things, we discuss things. Very often, before and after, and sometimes during those meetings, people are commenting on the level of support we offer from HR, and I'm fortunate, because as an executive, most of that feedback is very important.

And when there are issues, I think what they understand is that we are there to serve them. We are there to facilitate their ability to serve the American public, and so it's very important for us to meet the needs of our workforce. And that's not always easy, because we do have legitimate limitations in things that we can do. Certainly as a public sector organization, you're protecting stewardship which is one of the things I mentioned. It is very important to our Commissioner and our strategic plan, and you really do have to utilize the public dollar in a very responsible way.

So there aren't opportunities to do Cadillac things sometimes for employees. But I think the fact that we focus on their needs and we try to meet them where they are, and support them when meeting the needs of the public, I think goes a long way. We have a number of programs that we do under the group of work which we call "All Ages All Stages." And that is really a way of trying to address the needs of the workforce as an intergenerational group, particularly now, with a lot of new employees coming in, and a lot of senior folks, you know, moving to retirement.

So we do surveys of employees. We often get feedback unsolicited, good and not so good, when people feel that way. And we just remain very receptive to any and all feedback. I think that having me at the table as a partner goes a long way. And there are some organizations that don't have that opportunity. In fact, the Chief Human Capital Officer role was intended particularly for those agencies where the HR human capital interests were not always sitting at the corporate table. At Social Security, that has been true for a long time. They've had a Deputy Commissioner for human resources for a while, well before the CHCO was established. So it really has worked very well for us.

Mr. Hess: We understand that the Social Security Administration was involved in providing relief to the hurricane victims. Can you tell us about SSA's involvement, and what lessons did you learn that can provide insights into possible future emergency responses?

Dr. Wells: Well, I've been with the agency for over four years, it was four years in April. And I don't think I've ever seen a better example of public service than I saw with that particular crisis. Last year when hurricane Katrina, and then Wilma and Rita hit, I think everyone became painfully aware of the devastation in that part of the country. We have countless examples of where our employees, even though their houses were washed away, were, within a day or two, mobilized in meeting with hordes of people who obviously were reeling from the devastation of the hurricanes.

And it doesn't get any better than that as far as public service is concerned. They worked, 12, 14, 16-hour days, 18-hour days, or more. They were reeling back and forth between Baton Rouge and the New Orleans area in shifts, keeping around-the-clock service to the people, and we got checks out within a matter of days. It really was one of the success stories. I didn't get the sense it got a lot of publicity in terms of the main media, but within government, I think, we were recognized as having really hit the ground running.

And it really was not a surprise to us within the agency. I mean, obviously there was no storm as devastating as that one. It was a once in a lifetime kind of catastrophe. But that's what we do. Every year, there are hurricanes some place. Every year, there are earthquakes of some sort. Every year there are brush fires that may destroy the peoples' homes and displace people. And our agency always adjusts to it. It always has been on a smaller scale obviously, but we apply the same approaches in terms of this large scale catastrophe.

And really the lessons that we can offer are things like the importance of communication, making sure that people know what they're supposed to do and being prepared, having done that planning, or having that experience, even if it's on a smaller scale, addressing those kinds of needs is really, really important. And being visible, I think, one of the things we took away from it was that leadership really does matter, and our people stepped up when the need was there, to become the leaders for distribution of checks or whatever was necessary to keep people going.

Mr. Hess: Many in government encouraged folks who are starting their career to think of government as a stop in a long career. Do you encourage this philosophy and can you tell us what advice would you give a person who's interested in starting a career in public service?

Dr. Wells: There is a lot of discussion about that today. I know that Director Springer is trying to address that issue. Director Springer, the Director of Office of Personnel Management, she's doing a lot of very fine work, and she is looking at the fact that some people are not necessarily looking at government as their final stop in terms of their career path. At Social Security, we've had a little bit different experience, and again, I knock on wood, because it could change. But we've had a lot of young people coming into the organization.

And I think because we are so big, relatively speaking, and because we do direct service, which gives that sort of tremendous intrinsic reward feedback to people, we've had a lot of our young people coming, and saying, "You know, we think we do want to spend a career with you." Of course the caveat is, "as long as we're able to continue to progress in the organization and advance and move into areas that we really want to move into as we get older and more established in our careers." So we're really sort of shaving it that way. As I said earlier, we do a lot of training on the front end.

And we ideally don't want to lose any of those people even after 30-40 years. But where people are looking at us as maybe the first stop, obviously you've got to be prepared to address that too, and if you only want to serve for 10 years we're still interested. And, you know, it's not servitude. We happen to think if you come and work for us, you'll probably want to stay for a career, because I think there are a lot of opportunities working in the Social Security Administration.

Mr. Morales: That's great. So what advice would you give a young individual who's getting ready to launch their career?

Dr. Wells: Come work for us.

Mr. Morales: Excellent, excellent. This has been a wonderful conversation, and unfortunately, we've reached the end of our time. I want to thank you for fitting us into your busy schedule. But more importantly, Tony and I would like to thank you for your dedicated service to the public and our country in the various roles you've held at the SSA and in the federal government.

Dr. Wells: Well, as a follow-up to your last question, I just want to offer to anyone listening, our website: it's And if you go into that site, you will get a really good sense of all that we offer, and as I said earlier, I think there are a lot of opportunities not only in terms of direct service delivery to the public, but also all of those support roles behind the scenes, that infrastructure that allows our frontline workers to be so effective.

Mr. Morales: This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Social Security Administration, Chief Human Capital Officer, Dr. Reginald Wells. Be sure to visit us on the web at There you can learn more about our programs and get a transcript of today's fascinating conversation. Once again, that's

As you enjoy the rest of your day, please take time to remember the men and women of our armed and civil services abroad, who can't hear this morning's show on how we're improving their government, but who deserve our unconditional respect and support. For The Business of Government Hour, I'm Albert Morales. Thank you for listening.

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