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A Look at Program Implementation

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By John Pearson
January 15, 2016

The purpose of government agencies is not to have an IT staff, a legal staff, a human resources staff or any number of other support staffs. The purpose of government agencies is to implement programs (benefit programs, tax programs, regulatory programs, security programs, etc.) as defined in legislation.

Take the Social Security Administration (SSA) for example. Performance.gov, a website with information about federal government programs, lists three SAA benefit programs: Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI), Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

Program implementation starts with text coming from a public law, which assigns language for the agency to administer.

In 1983, Public Law 98-21 made major reforms to the Social Security program.

Imagine you were a top manager at SSA when Congress passed (and the president signed) Public Law 98-21. Your staff had been tracking the pending legislation for months but only now do you see the final language. Your job is to ensure all provisions are implemented. Note that this law makes complex changes to existing text that is itself already very complex.

To better illustrate the implementation process, we will look at one provision: section 113, known as the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP).

The first task with implementing any new legislation is to figure out what the new language means. Section 113 has exceptionally convoluted language. You and your program staff would read and reread this text many times. You would consult extensively with your lawyers.

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The WEP reduces Social Security benefits for persons who are eligible for Social Security but who have also earned a pension for which Social Security taxes were not withheld. The WEP is phased out gradually as the worker approaches 30 years of “substantial earnings.” A further complication is that if a person retires after their full retirement age (which varies according to the individual’s birth date), the effect of WEP increases. If the individual retires before their full retirement age, the effect of WEP decreases. The WEP calculation is in addition to many other calculations required to compute an individual’s Social Security benefit.

Here is SSA’s explanation of the WEP on its website. This is not a simple matter. There are links to multiple clarifying pages.

Remember, you are subject to court challenge if someone thinks you have implemented section 113 incorrectly. And you can’t just ignore section 113. You will be subject to Congressional oversight to ensure that you implement this section (and all of the sections of Public Law 98-21).

After the meaning of section 113 is determined, an important task of implementation would be to program SSA’s computer to make the WEP calculation. If this could not be fully done (i.e., there are scenarios requiring manual intervention), SSA would have to issue training materials to its claims staff explaining the manual procedures (or workarounds) necessary to complete the calculations.

Even though SSA’s computer system may perform the entire calculation, program analysts at SSA must have a detailed understanding of WEP in order to write the computer specifications and test the computer program. Customer service representatives must be able to explain WEP to the public. Part of implementation is creating necessary internal documentation. We must not think of an issue like WEP as primarily a problem for lawyers or for the computer staff. As the program manager, you will be held responsible for any implementation problems.

The SSA needs to collect information from the public to implement section 113. The Paperwork Reduction Act requires federal agencies to receive approval from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to collect information from the public. Note question 14 on SSA’s application for retirement benefits form, SSA-1-BK, requests information concerning the WEP issue. The OMB approval number is given at the top of this form and the required Paperwork Reduction Act language is found at the bottom on Page 7. The OMB approval process is part of the overall implementation process.

Also, as part of implementation, agencies need to determine if regulations (with the force of law) must be issued. Agency lawyers are likely to recommend regulations be issued so the agency will be in a stronger position if its interpretation of the law is challenged. The regulatory process can take years to complete. The SSA issued 20 CFR 404.313 to address the WEP. This regulation was first issued in 1987 and last updated in 1995.

Finally, implementation requires informing the public about WEP. Today SSA maintains the Web page referred to above. They also have a WEP calculator.

In the 1980s, before the Internet, SSA would have used paper documents such as pamphlets to inform the public.

The WEP illustrates the complexities found in benefit and tax laws. We must always bear in mind that such legislative complexities pale in comparison to the factual complexities faced every day by government organizations such as the Department of Defense. These agencies deal primarily with things and not just the words in legislation. An aircraft carrier is a lot more complicated than Social Security benefit rules.

My next column will address additional WEP implementation issues.


Author: John Pearson recently retired from a lengthy career in the federal government where he was a program analyst. He has an MPA and a bachelor’s degree in economics. He now writes columns reflecting on his experience in government. His email is [email protected].

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The American Society for Public Administration is the largest and most prominent professional association for public administration. It is dedicated to advancing the art, science, teaching and practice of public and non-profit administration.

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