Down a long corridor, behind doors marked "secured" and "alarmed," stands the center of the real world of government today. Quite clean, uncluttered, unharried, not at all the picture of the bloated bureaucracy so pressed on the public mind of late. Certainly not a world that George Orwell ever envisioned when he conjured up his nightmarish specter of an obstrusive, omnipresent government structure where Big Brother was always watching. Not many people there in fact: just a faint humming sound emanating from banks of machines in gray casings.
That is the part of government that never stops, that continues moving on its own momentum, that grows and changes no matter who sits in the White House or occupies the Cabinet officer's chair or wins a seat in Congress. It is impersonal, inanimate, faceless - and indispensable.
We are all linked to those machines, and to that system. It is, in a way, the umbilical cord of our society, the line that reaches out and directly affects our lives.
"Every night we pass every personal record we have in our master file through the system," a government employee explains. "It's constantly changing, and all the records are kept current and active."
That means the records of 330 million Americans who have received Social Security numbers since 1936. Death will not keep your basic life's story from stopping. Long after you yourself have gone, your records will continue actively whirring through the Social Security system's computers.
"With a Social Security number we can tell your name, your father's name, your mother's name and her maiden name," the employee says. "We can tell your date of birth, your place of birth, where your Social Security card was issued, your address at the time your card was issued, your phone numbers at that time, your race and your sex. If you never do anything else, we'll have that information on you.
"If you go to work we'll know when and for whom you worked. We'll know when you changed jobs and what the address of your employer was, and how much money you're making. It's all on magnetic tape, all your earnings records. We've got it. We can tell if you're married, divorced and have children under 18. If you go on Medicare, we can tell what drugs you're taking and what your medical bills are. We can also tell your doctor's name and his address.
"The file will show evidence of when you died, and how you died, and from what, and where you're buried. We have better, more complete records than IRS. And today we have a better record on who your employers are than IRS - who the corporate officers are, who stockholders are.
"Where you're standing now comprises the largest computer operation in the free world. That excludes our intelligence agencies - and the Russians. Now you can see why we don't let people in here. It needs to be kept confidential.
This story is not about the potential abuses of that information system, but a small aside is in order.
I had walked into a New York Social Security office and found the person in charge exceedingly edgy. The FBI was there, interviewing one of his employees. It turned out the employee had been running a racket. He was selling Social Security cards to illegal aliens and others who wanted a new identity. Because he had access to the computer system, and knew how to use it, he would summon up names and numbers of people who had died.
Then he would type those names and numbers on Social Security cards - stolen from the office - and sell them at the highest price on the underground market. By the end of the day, the employee had confessed. Case closed. "But it shows you," the office manager said, "that the opportunity is much greater now for someone who knows the computer system, and who can use it, to abuse it."
The problem with Social Security is not corruption, although public and press focus more extensively on that aspect of government than any other. It sproblems are far more complex and critical.
Simply put, the basic question is: will Social Security, the agency that most directly touches the lives of most Americans, continue to perform its mission well? That is no longer clear. Other questions flow quickly from that. Can Social Security effective manage its complex machinery and its people, given the rapid changes affecting them both - complex changes in technological requirements and in attitudes of government employees about their jobs? Neither is clear.
Has the agency been asked to do too much? Has government been trying to do too much? Has anyone a real solution to the present self-defeating process by which a government chokes on government-inspired red tape and regulations?
These are not esoteric questions. They go the core of any look at government and the bureaucracy today. And they raise again the harder question - does a change in national leadership make any real difference? Social Security provides a case study of how increasing pressures can adversely affect one of the most vital and best-established government agencies.
Let it be said that Social Security employees, from the highest executives down, are remarkably candid and open in conceding their mistakes and discussing their problems. That is a tribute both to the quality of the employees and to their agency's long tradition of excellence in public service.
Almost without exception they will tell you that public confidence in the agency has eroded significantly - and that they have lost confidence in how effectively they perform their jobs.
"Most of this decline occurred in the three years that I've been there," says ruefully Bruce Cardwell, the commissioner of Social Security. "In the last three years the agency has kind of been beaten down. It's had some outright failures, failures it can't alibi. And they were probably the first failures in its experience. When you fail at something, particularly when you've always been successful and you're proud of your record, it hurts. It hurt me."
By that, he refers specifically to Social Security analysts' failures to anticiapte the true long-term cost of their system. It now appears that without huge increases in payroll tax rates in the future, possibly as high as 50 to 75 per cent, Social Security won't be able to pay promised benefits. That has led to headlines about Social Security going broke, and citizen fears about an impending crisis threatening retirement and other benefits.
The second notable failure, examined in yesterday's article, was Social Security's experience with administering a new federal welfare program for the nation's aged, blind and diabled.
In its first two years of operation, starting in 1974, Social Security over-payments in the Supplementary Security Income (SSI) program were totaling about $2 billion. In addition, difficulties in dealing with welfare case loads for the first time caused serious morale problems in Social Security offices across the country.
"We're still in the backwash of that shock," Cardwell says. "The error rates are going down a little bit, the program's coming under control.But I have to tell Congress it's about as low as it's going to get. In a program like this you have to face up to the fact that at any one time at least 15 per cent of the payments are going to have something wrong with them. And the Congress, at this stage, won't accept that."
Beyind these agency failures, Social Security faces more general problems that afflict virtually every government agency today. Bureaucratic tangles arising from new laws creating new and increasingly complex programs, changes in attitudes about work itself among employees, the rapidity with which new tasks are give to the agency by Congress, which in turn is reacting to every-rising public demands for more government action for more and more groups - all these are among them.
Social Security is typical in another sense. It has grown and grown and grown. Not so dramatically in its number of employes, although 84,000 now work for it, but in the space required to do the job. That's what government is all about, too. Overall, federal government growth has been more in buildings and dollars than in people: the federal civilian work force has remained almost constant for a generation while the money it spends and the space it occupies have multiplied beyond reckoning.
Twenty-four years ago the Social Security Administration moved its national headquarters from downtown Baltimore to the suburbs. You can chart its great changes since and see how government has grown by merely looking at the Social Security complex in surburban Woodlawn. The agency now occupies 19 byildings there, eight of which the government owns, the others leased. Some 20,000 employees work in that self-contained government city. They are ants in the U.S. factory. Now a 20th building is going up at Woodlawn. It will be the biggest of them all. When completed, it will contain 350,000 square feet of space. It will become the first building ever designed and constructed solely for computers.
When Social Security was being created back in the New Deal days, some of its early leaders studied the way the English civil service maintained its records. The most they were able to keep track of, the British advised the Americans, was 3.5 million individual records. The Americans' experiment with Social Security could never succeed: it was too large an undertaking to maintain on paper. For years, all of Social Security's records were written on paper and kept on bamboo strips. Huge tubs, filled with bamboo strips, were everywhere. Then came the computer.
With typical American confidence in technology, our God of the Good Life, the computer held the key to the future. Oh, yes, the world of the computer wasn't perfect: every day tapes of records get misplaced in Baltimore, and sometimes lost. But a master set is kept, under tightest security, in a limestone cave in Pennsylvania. And, it was recognized, computers came with other built-in liabilities: they contributed to citizens feeling increasingly removed from their government. Orwell's Big Brother now seems more than a distant fictional phantom.
But Social Security could not function on its present scale if the government didn't rely very heavily on computers. Inevitably, that dependence will be greater in the future. Fine and well.But now another kind of sholk is setting in at Social Security. To quote Cardwell again:
"You hear people say they fear computers will start talking to each other and do terrible things to us all. It is spooky, and it's very complex. I think managers most everywhere today do not have full control over computers. Just as you don't have full control over your automobile. You can start it and stop it, steer it and drive it, and that's about it. You'd have a hard tome converting its load-carrying capacity, and you'd have a helluva time repairing it when it broke down.
"Managers now are in the same position vis-a-vis the computers. They don't know enough about them to make them do what they want, so they have to rely on someone who says he does. That's like your reliance on the automobile mechanic. You're learning more and more he probably doesn't know how to do it. The same thing is showing up in the computer business."
the most vivid recent example of computers going awry - or, to put it another way, of those operating them misusing the machinery - came in Social Security's traumatic experience over its SSI welfare program. Computers were spewing out erroneous information resulting in massive over-and under-payments. That led, in turn, to what became at times violent reactions from a public caught in the maw of the machines.
It still takes more than machines to run the U.S. government - and the Social Security system. There, the complaints are clear. People who work for the agency express frustration with their jobs, weariness with bureaucratic idiocies, anger at being asked to take on more than tasks than are reasonable, or possible. It isn't that they are incompetent or uncaring. It's the dept of their feeling and their essential belief that give special weight to their words.
A top-level administrator, a softspoken person with years of distinguished government service, voices a common emotion:
"I can really understand a federal official ignoring poor performance instead of facing up to it and trying to do something about it. While it's possible, it's not highly likely that he's going to be successful, and even if he is successful it's going to consume hundreds of hours to staff time. I've seen the most piddling cases around here that have consumed - well, in my opinion, just scandalous amounts of staff time.
"For example, we have appraisal forms which I think are just atrocious. A person is rated on ability and productivity and oral communications.I just ignore them by never making any out."
The middle-level bureaucrat, who worked his way from the bottom in Social Security and always felt great pride in its mission, tells of going to a conference of agency office managers from around the country. He was supposed to explain the latest way to compute widow's benefits. "They all laughed at me," he said. "It just cries out for a need to simplify the Social Security laws. It's enough to make you go bananas."
The manager, a lawyer by training, reflects on the changes in the manuals given to workers dealing directly with the public: "When I think of a GS-9 or GS-11 responding to questions from the public about these programs, I say to myself, 'My God, I couldn't even answer them myself and I've been working as a lawyer for many years.'"
The veteran administrator, who looks out at the bureaucracy of which he is a part, says:
"One of the things I see about the bureaucracy is its capacity to accept mediocrity. Maybe all institutions do this. The average manager in the government at the upper-management levels is today, and has been for a long time, dissatisfied with the system for hiring, for placing workers. Most of them think it's terrible. You'd find very few who would compliment it.
"Tak that some group of people and ask them how the government procures and utilizes office space and they'd all just scream, 'It's terrible, terrible. It's excessively complicated, excessively expensive, excessively slow. It's wasteful.' There's a whole host of criticism. Ten years ago if you asked them that you'd have gotten the same answer as today. They believe that 10 years from now they'll still give the same answer. They don't see themselves as having any responsibility or any opportunity to do anything about it.
"In fact, what they're doing is to condition themselves to survive those shortcomings. They'rd constantly patching and repairing."
These are among the reasons why Cardwell will reflect on his agency's problems and say:
"Where it comes out is this: Everybody's got to hold onto that lege just a little longer. It's 20 stories below and you're dead if you fall. So you just hand on as long as you can."