Reginald Wells is the deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) Office of Human Resources and also serves as the agency’s chief human capital officer. Since 2007, SSA has been ranked in the top 10 large agencies in the Best Places to Work in the Federal Government rankings.
Wells spoke about managing Social Security’s nationwide workforce with Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership and vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. Fox also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.
Q. What have been some of your biggest workforce issues at the Social Security Administration?
A. The way in which we receive our resources has been a real challenge from a human capital perspective. The hiring freezes and the budget issues really have tended to wreak havoc with our ability to hire. We hire in spurts and sputters, and that tends to make it difficult to get the talent we need. There are also issues with morale and engagement because of the negative rhetoric about public servants. We’ve had to battle that one ferociously. As you know, the federal employee survey results have shown consistently that those kinds of pressures are starting to get into the psyche of federal employees. It’s probably making it harder for us to recruit the next generation of public servants.
Q. How are you motivating employees and improving morale at SSA?
A. The employee survey shows our people are totally committed to the mission, but they are concerned about not being given the tools they need to do the job. We’re making more resources available, including providing technological solutions, and maximizing the use of automation as much as possible in ways that employees are embracing positively. We are sitting down with employees individually or in a group and having discussions about the reality of our work situation and what kinds of solutions would enable us to work more effectively. That transparency, communication and honesty goes a long way in making people feel more of a team.
We also have a new internal television program called “Good Morning Social Security” that is broadcasting across our entire network encouraging employees, giving them information on the status of things, and essentially telling them the truth when it’s most needed. We are trying to give them a realistic picture and at the same time foster a sense of optimism.
Q. How can the federal government improve how it hires employees?
A. A lot of concerns have been expressed about the process of navigating USAJOBS.gov. I know the Office of Personnel Management is very much focused on making improvements, but a lot of students are suggesting that it has been a turnoff for them. One of my personal pet peeves is that we have not done enough to hire people with disabilities. We could be making much better use of some of the existing hiring authorities that allow us to bring in people with disabilities. At Social Security, about two percent of our workforce are people with targeted disabilities. I think the government averages closer to one percent or a little less.
Q. What advice would you give to college graduates about working in government?
A. We need to dispel some of the assumptions they have about public service. The myth I would try to dispel is that it’s impossible to get things done. It couldn’t be further from the truth — tremendous work gets done every day. I would tell young people that it’s not an easy job, but it’s one of the most rewarding. Social Security employees with some of the highest morale are in our field offices where the work is the hardest, and those people go home every day totally reassured that they make a difference in people’s lives, such as getting survivor benefits for a young mother who may have just lost her spouse and has young kids to feed and look after. Those are the kinds of things we try to remind young applicants or people who might be considering coming to our agency. Our recruitment tagline is, “Make a difference in other people’s lives and your own,” and I think that tells it all.