What GAO thought
The administrative judges of the Social Security Administration (SSA) review, process, and review requests for disability benefit hearings. In 2007, the agency set an expectation — which SSA said was based on trend data and the input of some regional executives — that judges would issue 500-700 orders (decisions and dismissals) each year, and the extent to which they have met this expectation has varied over time. SSA did not document the forecasting process in 2007 and has not formally revised the forecast since then. Judges in discussion groups held by GAO questioned the basis of the expectation, and 87 percent of judges surveyed by GAO (47 out of 54) said the expectation was too high. The extent to which judges have met the annual and related expectations fluctuates over the years (see figure). Without periodic reviews, SSA cannot be sure that its expectations will allow judges to weigh productivity against other expectations, such as quality, given changing conditions over time.
Administrative law judges who met or exceeded the SSA’s annual productivity forecast, fiscal years 2014-2020
Judges in selected hearings cited several factors that affect their ability to meet the annual expectation. The main factor cited by judges surveyed by GAO was the size of the files, which have increased on average fivefold since the expectation was raised, according to SSA data. The COVID-19 pandemic brought other factors into 2020, resulting in fewer hearings being held.
SSA monitors judges’ productivity and takes a variety of actions when expectations are not met, ranging from casual conversations to formal discipline. In addition, judges in 11 of the 13 discussion groups saw telework restrictions as a result of not meeting expectations. In addition, the judges surveyed by GAO reported feeling pressured to live up to expectations. For example, 87 percent of the judges surveyed (47 out of 54) said SSA placed too much emphasis on productivity, and some expressed concerns about the quality of their work and work-life balance. SSA officials said they are not formally asking for feedback from judges on expectations. However, without feedback or other pressure gauges, the SSA lacks information that could help it properly balance the timely processing of records while maintaining high quality work and employee morale.
Why GAO Did This Study?
The SSA’s approximately 1,350 judges play an important role in processing and reviewing hearing requests to ensure that individuals who disagree with their disability claim claim receive a fair trial. SSA receives hundreds of thousands of hearing requests each year and historically has a significant backlog. GAO was asked to review SSA’s productivity expectations for its judges.
This report examines (1) how SSA has set productivity expectations for judges and the extent to which judges have met them over time, (2) reported factors influencing the ability of judges in selected offices to meet annual productivity expectations and (3) SSA’s management of judges’ productivity. GAO obtained and analyzed SSA data on judge productivity for the fiscal years 2005-2020; researched and held 13 virtual discussion groups with judges in six hearings selected by geographic location, average productivity and average case size; reviewed relevant federal laws and agencies’ policies and documents; and interviewed officials from SSA and the association that represents judges.