GAO: Process needed to review productivity expectations for SSA administrative law judges
Wednesday, July 28, 2021

GAO: Process needed to review productivity expectations for SSA administrative law judges

By Payroll and Entitlements Editorial Staff

The SSA's approximately 1,350 administrative law judges play a major role in processing and adjudicating requests for hearings to help ensure individuals who do not agree with the determination on their claim for Social Security disability benefits receive due process. The SSA receives hundreds of thousands of hearing requests each year and has historically had a large backlog. The GAO was asked to review the SSA's productivity expectations for its judges.

This report examines (1) how the SSA set productivity expectations for judges and the extent to which judges have met them over time, (2) reported factors affecting the ability of judges in selected offices to meet the annual productivity expectation, and (3) the SSA's management of judges' productivity. The GAO obtained and analyzed SSA data on judges' productivity from fiscal years 2005-2020; surveyed and held 13 virtual discussion groups with judges in six hearing offices selected for geographic location, average productivity, and average case size; reviewed relevant federal laws and agency policies and documents; and interviewed officials from the SSA and the association representing judges.

What the GAO found. The SSA’s administrative law judges review, process, and adjudicate requests for hearings on disability benefits. In 2007, the agency set an expectation—which the SSA reported was based on trend data and some regional managers' input—for judges to issue 500-700 dispositions (decisions and dismissals) each year, and the extent to which they have met this expectation has varied over time. The SSA did not document the expectation-setting process in 2007, nor has it formally reviewed the expectation since then. Judges in discussion groups held by the GAO questioned the basis of the expectation and 87 percent of judges the GAO surveyed (47 of 54) said the expectation was too high. The extent to which judges met the annual and related expectations has fluctuated over the years. Without periodic reviews, the SSA cannot be assured that its expectations appropriately allow judges to balance productivity with other expectations, such as quality, given changing conditions over time.

Judges in selected hearing offices cited a variety of factors affecting their ability to meet the annual expectation. The top factor cited by judges the GAO surveyed was the size of case files, which have increased five-fold on average since the expectation was established, according to agency data. The COVID-19 pandemic introduced other factors in 2020, resulting in fewer hearings being conducted.

The SSA monitors judges' productivity and takes various actions when expectations are not met, ranging from informal conversations to formal discipline. In addition, judges in 11 of 13 discussion groups viewed telework restrictions as a consequence for not meeting expectations. Additionally, judges the GAO surveyed reported feeling pressured to meet the expectations. For instance, 87 percent of judges surveyed (47 of 54) said that the SSA placed too much emphasis on productivity, and some expressed concerns about their work quality and work-life balance. SSA officials said they do not formally seek feedback from judges on the expectations. However, without feedback or other gauges of pressure, the SSA lacks information that could help it appropriately balance timely case processing while maintaining high-quality work and employee morale.

What the GAO recommends. The GAO made two recommendations, including that the SSA establish and implement a process for periodically reviewing productivity expectations for judges and determine whether the expectations are reasonable. The SSA generally agreed with both recommendations (GAO-21-341, released June 17, 2021).

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