UnitedStates GAO GeneralAccomtingOffIce Wmhin#on,D.C.20648 w B-278086 -’ I December8, 1997 The Honorable Barbara B. Ke~elly Ranking Minority Member, Subcommittee on Social Security Committee on Ways and Means House of Representatives Subject: Social Securitv AdminWration: Information on Monitoring 8OQ Number Telenhone Calls Dear Ms. Ke~elly: In 1988,the Social Security AdmirU&ion (SSA) establisheda toll-free 800 number to improve the public’s abihty to contact SSA by telephone. The public can reach SSAthrough that number from anywhere in the country. Teleservice representatives(TSR) at the 800 number answer beneficiary inquiries, schedule appointments,and correct benefit records. Public use of the 800 number grew from more than 41 million calls in fiscal year 1989to more than 76 million in fkxal year 1997. As of January 1997,SSA employed more than 4,000 TSRs at 37 teleservice centers (‘IX) throughout the country. On high-volumedays, an additional 2,460technical staff are available to assist TSRsin answering 800 number calls. These employeesare known as “Spikes”becausethey provide this support on the busiest days with the highest peaks, or spikes, in call volume. SSAmonitors its 800 number telephone calls to ensure,good customer service under a program referred to as Senriceobsetion, in which SSA employees - listen to TSRs during their calls. The purpose of this observation is to assess the accuracy and courtesy of the ‘ISRs who provide information to the public, to identi@ training needs, and to gather statistical information on calls received. In July 1997,the SSA Office of the Inspector General (OIG) issued a report that criticized SSA’sservice observation program.’ This report stated that the program did not fully comply with federal laws and regulations, in part because ‘See SSA, Office of the Inspector General: The Social Securitv Administration’s Program for Monitoring the Qualitv of Telenhone Service Provided to the Public, A-13-96-52001 (Baltimore, Md.: July 1997). GAO/HEHS-98456R SSA 800 Number Calls the OIG questioned whether SSA had properly obtained the consent of the public or its employees for its observation during calls. _The report also criticized SSA for not adhering to a regulation that had been designedto ensure proper monitoring practices. However, when the OIG’s report was published, this regulation was no longer in effect.2 Given your concern about protecting the privacy of the public and of SSA employees,you asked us to answer the following questions: (1) What do the laws and regulations require and what has SSA done to gain consent for telephone monitoring from the public and its employees? (2) To what extent is SSA following private industry’s best practices for telephone monitoring? To respond to your request, we reviewed and analyzed relevant laws and regulations, and we located best practices in telephone monitoring. We also interviewed SSA officials, a representative of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), and SSA members of an interagency team that conducted a study of best practices in telephone service. We conducted our review in accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards from September through December 1997. In summary, we found that under current law, SSA cannot monitor telephone calls unless its monitoring practices fall within a statutory exception. One exception generally relates to the type of telephone equipment provided to a business and whether it is used for businesspurposes. Another exception requires the consent of at least one party to a conversation. The OXGdid not determine whether SSA meets the first exception, but SSA believes it does. Also, the agency has taken steps to gain consent for telephone monitoring born the public and its employees. SSA has negotiated agreementswith AFGE to more often notify employees when particular calls will be monitored and has added a recorded messageto its 860 number to notify callers that their calls may be monitored? SSA is also developing a new regulation that will formally notify its employees and the public of its monitoring practices. Regarding best practices, there are some similarities and differences between SSA’stelephone monitoring practices and those idenaed in a key study of private companies !Ihe statutory basis for this regulation was repealed effective August 8,1996, and, effective the same date, the General ServicesAdministration (GSA) specifically removed this regulation from the Code of Federal Regulations. However, the OIG reported that this regulation was still relevant to the study because it provided guidance for monitoring practices and becauseSSA officials told OIG officials that the agency planned to continue to follow the regulation until SSA’sown regulation is developed. -* 3As of November 21, 1997, SSA’srecorded messagewas not yet reaching all 800 number callers who spoke directly to a representative. SSA officials told us that they are looldng at options to resolve this issue. 2 GAOMEHS-98-66B SSA800 NumberCalls B-278085 considered to be the best in the 800 number business. For example, the approach SSA supervisors use to monitor TSR calls and the approach managers .- use to monitor broader unit-level performance are sin-& to private sector best I practices. Finally, SSA’s approach to quality monitoring differs from private industry’s best practices. Rather than immediate supervisors’ performing the quality monitoring function, SSA maintains a separate unit to monitor for quality to ensure that benefits are paid accurately. REQUIREMENTS FOR TELEPHONE MONITORING AND SSA ACTIONS TO GAIN CONSENT Current law limits federal agencies when they monitor telephone calls. The Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 prohibits intercepting telephone conversations by electronic or mechanical devices except under certain exceptions4 Under the business-use exception, telephone monitoring is permitted in a business setting when the telephone equipment is provided by the telephone company in the ordinary course of business and is used for monitoring business-related calls. Under the consent exception, intercepting telephone conversations is permitted when at least one party to the conversation consents, either explicitly or implicitly, to the monitoiing of the Cdl. The July 1997 OIG report did not determine whether SSA met the business-use exception for its telephone monitoring program, but it raised questions about whether SSA had gained the consent of either the public or its employees. At the time of the OIG audit, SSA’s practice was to notify SSA customers and the public of its service observation program through statements in documents and pamphlets it distributed. The OIG did not believe that this practice ensured that every person who called SSA had implicitly consented to being monitored. Also, the OIG questioned whether SSA had obtained the consent of its employees because it did not notify them every time it monitored their calls. The OIG cited language in a memorandum of understanding between SSA and AFGE that stated that an employee’s using a telephone that was subject to service observation would not be construed as the employee’s consenting to being observed. SSA officials told us that they believe their monitoring of telephone calls would fall under both exceptions. Regarding the consent exception, SSA officials said that SSA can infer that callers have given their consent through the pamphlets it distributes to SSA customers and the public. ln addition, SSA officials said that they notify their employees of the monitoring program by designating the ‘18 U.S.C. Sets. 2510-2522. 3 GAOIHEHS-98-56R SSA 800 Number Calls B-278086 telephones and telephone lines that will be monitored and by engaging in extensive negotiations with AFGE representatives on the procedures for telephone monitoring. SSA believes that employees who remain in their positions while they know that monitoring is a condition of their employment and who use the designatedequipment have implicitly consented to monitoring. SSA officials disagree with the emphasisthe OIG’s report gives to the statement in the memorandum of understandingthat an employee’susing a telephone that was subject to observation would not be construed as the employee’s consenting to being observed. Officials pointed out that the purpose of the memorandum is to set forth the parties’agreementthat monitoring will occur only under specified conditions. In addition, SSA officials said that they have changed the agency’sservice observation program in recent years. In 1996, SSA officials agreed to notify TSRSbefore immediate supervisors monitor their calls! This change was made as a result of cooperative efforts between SSA managementand national officials of AFGE. SSA Is Notif@ingthe Public The OIG concluded that its concern over whether SSA had gained consent for telephone monitoring would be satisfied if SSA modified the memorandum of understanding or included a messageon the 800 number requesting callers to consent to monitoring. In October 1997,SSA instituted a recorded messageon its 800 number designedto notify all callers who speak live to representatives of the telephone monitoring program! The messagestates, “To ensure that you receive accurate and courteous service, your call may be monitored.” SSA officials told us that they chose to provide this notice to callers in order to better inform the public of its monitoring program. They also stated that many major businessesuse such messages. A recent survey of SSA’sregional offices showed support for the message. SSA estimates that it wUl cost approximately $393,000per year to extend the length of the automated menu and about $361,000per year to pay for the time TSRs will spend talking to the callers who ask questions about the message. sEmployeesare still sometimes not notified in advance, as when TSRs have exhibited conduct problems or when unit managersmonitor calls to assess overall unit operations. These instances are discussedlater in this letter. % its 800 number service, SSA provides a;( extensive menu of automated options from which callers may choose. The agency intends to provide notification of monitoring to all callers who opt to speak to a live representative (about 86 percent of the callers). 4 GAO/HEHS-98-66R SSASOONumber Calls B-278085 Even this new step to inform the public may not be reaching all callers. We made a small number of test calls and, depending on the menu selections we made, found that we did not consistently receive the new recorded message. SSA is aware of this problem and is analyzing how it may be corrected. SSA Is Drafting New Regulations Until August 1996, a regulation promulgated by GSA and known as the Federal Information Resources Management Regulation (FIRMR) governed the government agency practice of listening in on or recording telephone conversations.’ The OIG criticized SSA for not complying with provisions in this regulation that detailed the controls, policies, and procedures needed for agencies’proper public service monitoring. However, effective August 8, 1996, the Information Technology Management Reform Act repealed the statutory authority for the regulation.* Accordingly, GSA removed J?iRMR from the Code of Federal Regulations9 In the absence of a regulation to guide telephone monitoring throughout the government, SSA concluded that it should promulgate its own regulation. This regulation is now in draft Officials told us that with some exceptions, they used F’IRMR as a basis for their draft When it is final, this regulation will formally notify SSA employees and the public of the agency’s monitoring practices. Until then, SSA may choose to use aspects of FIRMR as guidance. ‘GSA was authorized to regulate many aspects of electronic equipment procurement and use for the federal government under section 111 of the Federal Property and Administrative Services Act of 1949, as amended (40 U.S.C. Sec. 759) commonly known as the Brooks Act. FIRMR is in 41 C.F.R. Chapter 201. ‘See Defense Authorization Act, P.L. 104-106, Division E, Sec. 5101. %e OIG report also criticized SSA for having iimited or no controls to ensure that telephone monitoring is being used for its authorized purpose, as required under Office of Management and Budget Circular A-123. For example, the OIG reported that SSA does not maintain a record, or audit trail, of the calls monitored and lacks adequate controls to prevent unauthorized monitoring. SSA has analyzed these issues and responded to the OIG, however, we did not analyze these issues in this letter because they were beyond the scope of our work. 5 GAOLEEHS-98-56R SSA 800 Number Calls B-278086 COMPARISONOF SSA CALL-MONlTORING PRACTICESWlTH PRIVATE SECTORBEST PRACTICES Telephone monitoring is an accepted and common practice among businesses that provide telephone tices. The National Performance Review’s (NPR) . February 1996 report entitled Serving the American Public: Best l%acttces in Telephone Service identified a set of best practices for service observation, and SSA follows some of these,notably when supervisors perform service observation.lo However, SSA has decided not to follow the industry best practices that the agency has determined are not consistent wlth its public mandate. The study team for the NPR report, composed of staff from SSA and nine other federal agencies,reviewed the operations of eight companies that have been considered the best in the 800 number business, or world class, by their customers and found an amazing degree of simihuity among the industry’s best.” Study participants told us that the culture of an organization affects its Venice observation approach. The study found that worldclass telephone service companies - have a strong corporate culture that focuses on customers, - view their frontline workers as the primary link to these customers, and - strive to create a climate that fosters trust, teamwork, and shared communication. Given these features, world&ass telephone service companies conduct service observation of customer calls in au open and supportive environment. The specific best practices for service observation can be grouped by type of observation: supervisory, unit, or quality assurance. Table 1 identifies the type and purpose of the observation and the related best practices. ?‘he NPR report was based on a benchmarking study conducted by a federal consortium under the direction of NPR. Study team members surveyed world- class customer service telephone operations to identify practices that can be applied in government to raise the level of service to equal the best in business. It identified a whole set of best practices, of which those dealing with monitoring calls are only a part. We did riot validate these practices. “n\e eight companies were American Express Travel Related Services, AT&T Universal Card Services, Bell Canada,Citibank, Duke Power Company, GE Answer Center, Saturn Corporation, and USAA Insurance. 6 GAOMEHS-9%66R SSA 800 Number Calls R-278086 . Table 1: Kev Service Obsemtion Rest Practrces in World-Class Comnanies Type and purpose of Key best practice observation Supervisory obsemon: Focus is on an open and constructive - to assesshow well frontline relationship between supervisors and frontline workers are serving workers. Supervisors offer constructive and customers immediate feedback.’ Monitoring is both remote - to identify training needs as and side by side, although we were told side-by- part of a continuous side monitoring is believed to be the more improvement effort effective. Unit observation: to collect Unit managers regularly listen in on live calls in information on how well a call order to stay in touch with customers and center or unit is performing monitor the effectiveness of a center’s operations. Quality assurance Quality assuranceis performed by means of observations: to assessthe supervisory observation. World-class companies accuracy and quality of have moved away from using a separate,formal program operations quality-monitoring group for service observations. The next section gives a more detailed list of the supervisory observauon best practices. @A’s Practices for Suuervisorv Observation Are Similar to Rest Practices SSA’scurrent practices for supervisory review of TSRs are similar to the best practices identified in the NPR report.12 In fact, some of S&I’s current practices for supervisory observation are guided, in part, by the NPR study. SSA formed a work group to discuss the lessons learned from the study and how well S&I’s telephone service compared with that of the companiesthe NPR team visited. As a result, SSA signed an agreement with AFGE in 1996to include some of the best practices in its service observation program. Table 2 compares the best practices for supervisory observations with SSA’scurrent practices. ‘%~pervisory observation is conducted for TSRs only. Spikes are excluded at this time, although SSA officials told us that they would like to include Spikes in the future. 7 GAO/HEHS-98-66B SSA800 Number&Us B-278086 Table 2: Comnarison of Rest Practices for Sunetisorv Observation With SSA - __ Rest practices for supervisory observation SSA’spractices for supervisory observauon The purpose of supervisory observation is The purpose of supervisory observation is to identify training needs and provide to assessthe training needs of the TSR coaching or helpful suggestionsfor and to ensure courteous, accurate, and improving service professional service without a punitive environment Observations are not necessarily linked to Observationsare not linked to individual performance assessment performance appraisals Supervisor or coach typically monitors 5 Supervisor monitors l-6 calls per 10 calls per frontline worker per month experienced TSR per month; for trainees (workers with less than 1 year of experience), supervisors may monitor an unlimited number of calls Workers are to receive immediate Workers are to receive immediate feedback feedback Observation may be made from remote Workers are notified in advance and given locations or side by side, but side-by-side a choice of remote or side-by-side observation is seen as the most effective observation; unannouncedobservation is way to foster open communication permitted only for workers who have conduct problems While world-class companies observe calls either from a remote location or side by side, the NPR study participants we talked to emphasizedthat side-by-side monitorjng was seen as the most effective way to provide immediate and useful feedback and to foster open communication with employees. Before the 1996 agreement with AF’GEto change certain observation practices, SSA’s observation of TSRs did not provide for side-by-sideobservation. Monitoring was remote, workers were not informed in advance,feedback was given within 24 hours, and the monitoring was used for performance appraisals. The focus of observation was on identifying errors that related to whether TSRs conformed to operating procedures. Ac&ding to SSA and union officials, this approach did not foster trust and open communication. 8 GAOIHEHS-98-66B SSA 800 Number Calls B-278086 In addition to their supervisory monitoring, team leaders in the world-class companies listen to live calls as a group, score the calls-individually, and then compare their scores to ensure consistency of measurement. SSA does not currently follow this best practice, nor does it plan to in the near future, according to an SSA official. . ts Unit-Level Obsexvauons . Are similar to Rest Practrces SSA’sobservations at the TSC or unit level are similar to the best practices listed in table 1.13In the companies studied by the NPR team, unit managers f regularly listen in on live calls in order to stay in touch with customers and to monitor the effectivenessof a center’s operations. In SSA, supervisors and r, managers at TSCs monitor calis in order to obtain aggregatedata and stat&i& information on a particular type of call or to assesstraining needs at the local ‘ISC or other SSA unit. The information collected is also used to assesshow well the unit is meeting the public’s needs. This type of observation is not to be used to assessindividual employee performance. i Despite the simiMty between SSA’sunit-level call monitoring and best practices, an SSA union represent&ve told us that she believes that this call monitoring is subject to abuse shxe it is unannounced,remote, and performed at the discretion of the managersand supeMsors. Workers fear that unlike supervisory monitoring, which must be announced, managers could use this type of obsewahionto inappropriately monitor TSRs. An SSA official told us that SSA is working with union representatives to develop controls to ensure that this monitoring approach is not used inappropriately. For example, they are developing procedures that will allow for the random selection of the particular calls to be monitored. They plan to implement this process after the peak calling seasonin 1998. . . SSA’s Qualitv Assurance ObservauonDiffers From Rest Practrces SW% service observationsfor agencywide quality assurance differ from best practices. According to the NPR report, world-class organizations ensure quality control by making regular supervisory observations. These organizations have moved away from using a separate, formal quality- monitoring group for service obsmons; separate groups have been dissolved. In SSA, the Office of Program and Integrity Review (OPIR), a separate entity, performs service observationsfor the purpose of quality assurance. %pikes are included in this level of observation, and managers may monitor calls for a particular ‘EC or for an SSA unit where Spikes are located. GAO/HEHS-98-66B SSASOO NumberCaDs B-278086 The purpose of OPlR’s service observation is to assessthe accuracy and quality of 800 number telephone service, and the focus is on regional and national T!3C performance.” Data are collected on the reason for and type of calls, the accuracy of the information TSRs give, benefit programs involved, and TSR& types of response and courtesy. Quality observation is unannounced, and the results are not to be used to assessindividusl performance. SSA officials told us that the agencyneeds a separate formal quality group to ensure that services are consistent with SSA policies on a regional and national level and that callers receive highquality service. SSA officials told us that since TSRs give callers vital information that may affect their eligibility for or level of benefits, giving accurate information is part of their responsibility to help the public and to safeguard the SSAtrust funds. SSA has no current plans to eliminate this type of monitoring. In fact, SSA recently entered into a new agreement with APGE to conduct a pilot study in which OPIR will monitor calls to 60 of SSA’sfield offices. In world&ass organizations,not only do supervisors provide feedback on how well workers are serving the customer; the organizations also collect customer feedback on the service that has been provided by conducting postcall mail and telephone surveys. Customer responsesare shared with the &ox&line workers who handled the calls so that they may better understand a customer’s point of view, and the responsesbecome part of a worker’s performance assessment. SSA’sOPIR conducts ongoing evaluations of the SSA’s 800 number service through semiannualrecontact surveys of callers’experience and satisfaction with the300 number se.Mce. However, SSA does not yet collect suffMent information at the time of a call to link a survey response to the individual TSR who handled the call. Thus, the results of these surveys cannot be used to provide feedback to individual ‘ISRs.16 AGENCY COMMENTS We obtained written comments from SSA on a draft of this report, and we have incorporated the agency’scomments where appropriate. In its written comments, SSA reiterated its view that the agency is operating within legal authority in its 800 number telephone monitoring. In addition, SSA further explained its rationale for maintaining a separate quality monitoring unit. By maintsining this independent and unannounced review of calls, the agency aims ‘“Spikes are also included in this level of observation. ‘%I the past, under FIRMR, SSA was p rohibited from obtaining personal information that would identify callers. This is subject to change under SSA’s new regulations, and any changesare also subject to discussion with the union. 10 GAOEIEEIS-i8-66B SSA800NumberCaU B-278085 to ensure that its monitoring is objective and standardized across the various sites and that the results are valid. In this way, SSA believes it meets its stewardship responsibilities and further ensures public‘contidence. The full text of SSA’s comments appears in appendix I. We will make copies of this correspondence available to those who are interested upon request. If you or your staff have any questions, please call me on (202) 512-7215. Other staff who contributed to this correspondence include Kay Brown, Vernette Shaw, and Stefanie Weldon. Sincerely yours, Associate Director, Income Security Issues 11 GAOMEHS-9846R SSA 800 Number Calls ENCLOSURE I ENcLosuF2E I COMMENTS FROM SSA SOCIAL SECURITY Offlceofthe CommlssIoncr December 3, 1997 Ms. Jane L. Ross Director, Income Security Issues U.S. General Accounting Office Washington, D.C. 20548 Dear Ms. Ross Thank you for the opportunity to comment on your proposed correspondence "Information on the Social Security Administration's Program for Monitoring 800 Number Telephone Calls (GAO/HRHS-95-56R)." We would like to address two specific matters contained in your draft correspondence. First, SSA is operating within legal authority in the conduct of its BOO number telephone monitoring. As you accurately state, monitoring is permissible if one of two statutory exceptions is met. The first exception, the consent exception, requires that one party to the call consent to the monitoring. As you note, we meet the consent exception given the knowledge of our employees about monitoring and the recorded message now in place notifying callers that their calls may be monitored. The second exception, the business use exception, requires that the equipment used to conduct the monitoring be provided by a telephone company in the ordinary course of business and the call monitored be of a business nature. Our Office of General Counsel believes that SSA's monitoring falls within the business use exception because it has determined, even without conducting a survey of the SSA's equipment, that it is reasonable KO assume that: 1) SSA obtained its telephone equipment from telephone‘companies; and 2) the calls received on the 800 number are related to SSA’s business. Second, with regard to quality monitoring, we believe that the best way to ensure that we are providing accurate information to the public is to engage in a program of independent and unannounced monitoring. If monitoring were left to supervisory personnel in the component being assessed, we would be concerned about assuring ourselves and the public about objectivity, standardization of procedures and validity of the results obtained. We do not believe that this approach conflicts with best-in-business practices because it is consistent with SSA's additional responsibility of stewardship for the programs we administer and to further ensure public confidence. 12 GAO/HEHS-9846B SSA 800 Number Calls ENCLOSURE I ENCLOSURE I Some additional :echnical points related to your draf: letter have been transmitted to your staff. Thank you again for the opportunity to comment. Sincerely, Acting Principal Deputy Commissioner of Social Security . (207017) 13 GAOIHEHS-98-66B SSA 800 Number Calls Ordering Information The first copy of each GAO report and testimony is free. Additional copies are $2 each. Orders should be sent to the following address, accompanied by a check or money order made out to the Superintendent of Documents, when necessary. VISA and MasterCard credit cards are accepted, also. Orders for 100 or more copies to be mailed to a siugle address are discounted 25 percent. Orders by mail: U.S. General Accounting Office P.O. Box 37050 Washington, DC 20013 or visit: Room 1100 700 4th St. NW (corner of 4th and G Sts. NW) U.S. General Accounting Office Washington, DC Orders may also be placed by calling (202) 5126000 or by using fax number (202) 512-6061, or TDD (202) 512-2537. Each day, GAO issues a list of newly available reports and testimony. To receive facsimile copies of the daily list or any list from the past 30 days, please call (202) 512-6000 using a touchtone phone. A recorded menu will provide information on how to obtain these lists. For information on how to access GAO reports on the INTEBNET, send an e-mail message with “info” in the body to: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit GAO’s World Wide Web Home Page at: http#www.gao.gov United States General Accounting Office Washington, D.C. 20648-0001 Official Business Penalty for Private Use $300 Address Correction Reanested
Social Security Administration: Information on Monitoring 800 Number Telephone Calls
Published by the Government Accountability Office on 1997-12-08.
Below is a raw (and likely hideous) rendition of the original report. (PDF)