Interview with Former Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel

This interview was conducted in two sessions, one on November 17, 2000, and one on November 30, 2000, while Mr. Apfel was in the final months of his term as Commissioner. Both sessions were held in Mr. Apfel's office at SSA Headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.

Conducted by Wayne Harmon and James Demer, Transcribed by Lydia Marshall

Soundclip from interview (In this clip, Apfel discusses his views on the roles and responsibilities of the job of Commissioner of Social Security):

Clip in Windows Media Player Format (4:48)

Clip in RealAudio Format (4:48)

Question: I think it might be interesting to hear from your perspective, and maybe enlighten us a little bit, about the process that was utilized for you to become the first confirmed Commissioner of SSA as an Independent Agency.  How did that whole thing evolve?  Did you just get a phone call from the President one day?

Apfel:  No, but I did from a very, very senior unnamed official in the White House.  This was not a job that I was going after.  I was not going after any job.  So I was approached and my immediate reaction was, I'm not sure that's the right thing for me.  Actually the call came in at 9 o'clock at night and my wife and I stayed up quite late that night as you can imagine, and then by the morning, I thought that I would probably be just about the perfect person to do the job. 

It is a very complicated process even after that point which is basically the preliminary presidential nod. It is not just the security clearances which comes later in the process, it's the very quiet vetting that takes place among the different key players both within the White House and the Administration and also on Capitol Hill and also very quietly among the organizations that are heavily affected by these issues.  In this case Disability groups, etc.

So at that point and time, some very backdoor vetting. I think it's fair to say, in a Democratic Administration with Labor and Aging and Disability groups.  In a Republican Administration it could be a different set of players vetting, but also subtle vetting both with Democrats and Republicans on the Hill.  Before the preliminary presidential nod turns into a kind of a second-level preliminary nod, which is the decision that yes, we think we'd like to have this person.  But the actual final nod doesn't take place until after FBI clearances and then the other ethics officers and a whole bunch of other people get a bite at it.  So the actual "yes" from the President does not take place until the day that your papers are submitted to the Congress. So it's not an on off switch.  It's basically a fairly lengthy, and I think actually overly lengthy, overly exhaustive process that is not culminated until the Congress votes confirmation --which in my case took four months and I was supported unanimously and was from day one.  It still took four months, so it's a very lengthy process.  I was sworn in in September, and, if I'm not mistaken, I think I was approached about this in January, so it was about a year.

photo of Apfel swearing-in

Acting Commissioner John J. Callahan administers the oath of office to Commissioner Kenneth S. Apfel, as his wife Caroline looks on. SSA History Archives.

Mr. and Mrs. Apfel

Commissioner Apfel and his wife leaving the auditorium after the swearing-in ceremony. SSA History Archives.

Question:  Now how did your previous positions and jobs prepare you to be Commissioner of Social Security.  I know you worked in OMB, you worked in HHS, and you've done a lot of legislative work I know with Senator Bradley.  Did they prepare you?

Apfel:  They absolutely did.  It seems to me that there are three key functions of the Commissioner as I have defined the Commissioner.  One, I had a ton of experience in, one I had a fair amount of experience in, and one I had no experience in.  One is an understanding of the programmatic . . . ..  I guess there really are four.  The first one is understanding the program, two is understanding the Washington ways - the Congressional hearing process, the White House world, the special interest world, working with the different associations in town . . . it's the inside the beltway flair role. The third one is public manager, and basically director of activities.  And fourth is communicator -- public communicator in the sense of media television and radio. 

The first one . . .you know I was quite involved with the Social Security reform endeavors back in 1983.  I had been involved with Social Security policy issues since I started as a fed (federal employee) 22 years ago.   I had always followed those issues and not only followed them but basically knew exactly what was involved when Bradley was on the Finance Committee.  That followed through both as the Assistant Secretary for Management and Budget that was overseeing all of HHS including Social Security, so I was involved with Social Security then.  And at OMB being the Associate Director for Human Resources meant understanding what was going on in Social Security.  A lot of vetting of the big policy issues always took place in my office on Social Security issues.  So my knowledge of Social Security both as a policy area and my own background in social policy, I know it well and that helped.

The second area would be the Washington scene.  Clearly, that's the area where I've spent my entire life.  So knowing that world is helpful. And overall, I think that one of the major assets that I've actually been able to bring to the organization is the ability to be able to figure out how to maneuver the Agency through the minefields.  I often talk about sailing between Scylla and Charybdis, the mine fields of the Washington World.  So I had plenty of experience over two decades in that one.

The third one, as Assistant Secretary for Management and Budget at HHS, it was program management activities.  So I had a strong management background from those years.  But I must say that this is an area where as Commissioner for the last two to three years is realizing that there is a difference between public management and leadership.   And to me the thing that I've tried hard to do--, and realize that I did not have experience or a history in leading an organization which I found different than classic public management activities.  Public management activities are resource allocations and human resource allocations and setting GPRA (Government Performance Results Act) targets and what have you, which was my history in terms of public management activities.  But leadership is how to you steer people.  How do you move an organization forward?  How do you create change within an organization that's best for the organization?  So I found out that the management area is actually two things, and one I had a pretty strong history in and the other I didn't.  And I've spent a fair amount of time on the second one, as I think you know. 

And then lastly is the public communicator side, which I had zero experience in.  I'd spent 23 years as a behind the scenes power person manager, player, always behind the scenes.  I had never done any of the public side, so that's the side that I had to spend a lot of time in the beginning, to learn how to communicate.  I still only give myself a B minus on that front, but I think I've improved quite a bit in the last three years.

photo of Apfel speaking to training conference

Apfel addresses Agency employees at a training conference.
SSA History Archives.

Question:  Well, I tell you, without flattering you, I think that you're a little modest on that.  I think you do a great job of communicating.  All you have to do is talk to the people that you've been around, and you've established a tremendous relationship and contact with them, in fact. 

I'll just jump into that next point.  You said in your talk to NAPA (National Academy of Public Administration) that leadership is to help frame the direction of an institution, alignment internally and then develop a deep keel to keep on course and avoid the pitfalls.  But then you went on to say that the glue that holds all of that together is communication.  So you still feel that?

Apfel: I absolutely feel that.  That's kind of a summation of the lessons that I've learned.  Someone once said . . Wasn't it Harry Truman that once said "Poor Dwight . . Poor Ike," he's used to telling people to do this and do that and he's going to come into the White House and realize that nobody does what you say -- you've got to convince people.

To me, I've never been an autocratic type but the only way to move an organization forward is if the people want to move.  One of the things that comes through in our culture surveys and other things is the concern that we don't have overall direction, and kind of a concern that the organization as a whole doesn't have a direction that's plotted out for the future.  And it seemed to me the only way it can do that is by developing a direction and getting organizational buy in.  That came all the way from the "SSI Kids" issue, which was the first thing that hit me when I came in, to the very last thing which was the 2010 Vision.  I think those are bookends-- activities, that by the time we did the rethinking on what to do about SSI kids there was alignment within the organization that that was the right thing to do.  That took hard work.  It didn't take Ken Apfel sitting down, or Ken Apfel with Susan Daniels and with Ken Nibali and saying let's do these six things and see how it works.  It took meetings.   Actually I remember sitting around with the Southern DDS Directors and Administrators beforehand to bounce some ideas off and to work things through so basically, by the time we were ready to move forward, the organization believed that it was genuinely the right thing to do and that takes communication.  And after that it takes communication and communication, and communication.   So I still believe that communication is the key.

Question:  You used a wonderful line when you were installed as Commissioner, you said, "I've prepared for this job all my life." And it's obvious that you did.  Now the things you talked about - program policy knowledge, Washington ways, public management, communication skills, you brought to the job to some extent.  Are there skills that the President looks for in a Commissioner?  Basically what do we want in this job?  What are we looking for?

Apfel: My own belief is that Cabinet level officials are picked for several reasons.  Many do not have very in-depth knowledge of the program areas that they come into.  They have executive leadership capabilities - ex-Governors, for example.  Good communication skills.  Some have in-depth knowledge of the areas for the particular positions that they bring.   I think Babbitt at Interior is somebody who knows Western land issues.

 So there really is a combination of factors that go into the pick.  It would seem to me that one of the most important ones given the independent nature of the Social Security Administration now--which is a quasi-Independent Agency, it is not a full Independent Agency--once in, that person is not removable except for malfeasance.  That there will be a very close look at overall philosophical views will probably be a key variable for whomever the next President is.  That the person generally shares (the President's) the overall philosophy about the direction of the program.  It would seem to me that we may find that to be one of the key determinants in the future as opposed to say, executive direction or executive leadership.  To me I think the executive leadership ones are just awfully key.  This is a very big organization, with enormous challenges and I would hope that it is the balance of those two things first and foremost in the choice.

But really for Cabinet level positions it is a very different mix depending upon the composition.  It's highly dependent upon Presidents and also, for different positions people are looking for different things, so I don't think there's really a cookie cutter answer to that.

Apfel with Clinton at RET signing

Apfel and President Clinton share a laugh over the comments of one of the speakers at the signing ceremony for the Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act of 2000, April 7, 2000. White House photo.

Question: Would you describe for me your leadership style and what are the components of that.  Would you say that it's a very deliberate style?  Very decisive style? And what are some of the other principles that you look for in being a leader?

Apfel:  I don't think I'm high on the decisive count, in the kind of military sense of the term.  Again, going back to communication I think that there has to be lots of communication back and forth through the organization before I make major decisions.  Usually what happens during that process is that some of the core issues that could easily not get voiced do get voiced.  But ultimately the role of the Commissioner is to decide.  And after all the communication is done and as close as you can get to some form of consensus through that, it still takes (a decision at) the end of the day. Brian Coyne (Chief of Staff) likes to say that when he gets to go home at night, he sleeps like a baby.  He provides great staff work to be able to help me.  I go home at night; I pop up a lot at 3 o'clock in the morning because there are decisions that have to be made.

So ultimately, to me, leadership is clearly about communication and lots of pre-decisional discussion but then ultimately I've got to be the one that has to make the decision because this organization, the way it is set up, forces many decisions, and I think probably a little too many that need to be made at my level.  But unless there is a significant devolution-- that takes a lot of culture change, and I think we've moved a little bit in that direction--a lot of things ultimately have to be made at the Commissioner level.  You've got to be able to do that as Commissioner.  I'm not quite answering your question.  I guess I hadn't thought of it in major terms except it just seems to me that it is lots of communication, lots of consultation and then trying to get to the point that most of the organization will view that for the greater good, that it's best to go in a certain direction.  It's what alignment's all about.  It's striving to get alignment within the organization. 

If we go back to the 1983 reforms, Social Security was a policy discussion, not a management discussion.  There were some relatively unpalatable choices that were made but, by in large, they were supported by the vast broad base level.  They were about as good as we were going to get--in terms of for the greater good-- to make those choices.  For the big choices that we have as an organization no one ever feels that the decisions are in their overall perfect best interest.  But if we can get to a place of alignment where people generally think that the decisions and the directions are appropriate then I think people will all stay in the same direction - to me that's key for any big big organization.  Now it may very well be that there are some organizations where that would not work, but I think any big organization that is undergoing some form of transformation I think that is key and that very much fits Social Security to a tee.

Question: A little over three years ago, you came to Social Security as the Commissioner.  Say in the first week to 10 days, what were your impressions of Social Security.  Did you come in with an agenda?  Did you have some sort of a game plan that you were anxious to put in place?

Apfel: Well that's two different questions.  In terms of the game plan, I said in confirmation that I wanted to strengthen the long-range planning aspects of Social Security.  To create, I didn't call it a vision then, but to create some form of a longer term planning perspective beyond the kind of traditional GPRA models.  I talked about strengthening policy which I thought was a critically important thing as we moved into the Independent Agency world and I thought we needed to greatly increase public education.  I may have said a couple of other things during the confirmation hearings, but I think those were the three that stick with me in a major way.

 We were becoming an Independent Agency--I actually indicated to NAPA  (National Academy of Public Administration) this stuff a little bit yesterday.  A lot of the policy and public education long-term thinking had really atrophied within the Agency and had been taken over being under the umbrella of Health and Human Services.  ASPE (Assistant Secretary for Planning & Evaluation) did most of the policy.  ASMB (Assistant Secretary for Management and Budget), and I was the ASMB, did a lot of the long-term both strategic GPRA directions and resourcing and figuring.  So there were really several of the functions that existed.  The broader issues had atrophied over the course of a period of time.  Over many decades--I don't think it's pernicious, I just think that's the reality of the way the Department of Health and Human Services, with a very large management and policy cadre, took over more and more of those responsibilities.  So clearly that had to be the priority.  For me coming in and creating a fully functioning agency, more than anything else -- strengthening policy, and long-term thinking and our education roles were the keys. 

You asked about the initial reactions.  I was struck on day one with the level of decency of the people in this organization.  The culture of decency and the heart.  I talked a lot about the heart.  I've been a fed for 23 years.  I have never seen another federal organization that has the same heart that the Social Security Administration has.  Baltimore. . you walk into Baltimore headquarters, you walk into Headquarters at HUD or HHS or Labor or Education, and I've been in all of them.  It's different.  The racial tensions are less.  The pluralism just in the way that people relate to each other is more.  The commitment to public service is higher.  The caring attitude is real, and that came through from the first week that I was here.  And I fundamentally believe that better decisions get made if there's a table that has 12 people and they happen to be some men and women and whites and blacks, Hispanics, Asians etc.  Better decisions get made in that environment.  Social Security works better because of that.  So my immediate reaction was that sense of decency and the fact that meeting after meeting was not a group of only middle aged white executives.  It was a diverse group and their hearts were on their sleeves, and I think that's what I saw.

Question: Some people criticize not the diversity, they have no problem with that at all.  We're too much family, too much Altmeyerish. We relate to people as family and not to structure.  Have you heard that criticism?

Apfel: I have.  My own take of that is Social Security as more familyish probably 20 years ago when the major hiring waves took place.  There were young families.  There were more softball leagues.  The chorus I'm sure was larger, etc. etc.  I would say that we need to not move away from that but we're going to have to reinstill that.  We look to the next ten years in this Agency's history.  We're going to be bringing in massive numbers of new people.  Now maybe in Fargo, North Dakota that Federal job is still a crown jewel that will be held onto for 30 years until retirement, but in Atlanta, I'm not so sure it is.  In New York City and in San Francisco, and in Seattle and Albuquerque, there are lots of places where Federal employment and a job in the Social Security Administration will not be viewed as the 30-year thing that I'm looking for.  We've got to find ways to ensure that individuals coming in want to be here.  So I think that that familyness is not something that's a negative for us, I think not only is it a plus, it's one that I think we're going to have to find ways to reward in the future more so or we're going to have a tremendous amount of turnover.  We're going to get our retirement wave hitting in the future.  I talk about the future all the time.  We brought in 7,000 people in this organization the last 2 and one-half years.  That's pretty dramatic.  But if 3,500 of them leave in the next two years, we're going to be bringing in 10,000 or 11,000 the next 2 years and if most of them leave, we're going to be bringing in 15,000 the two years thereafter. That cohesiveness  makes us special.  That badge that we have as a program and as a value I think is something that we ought to find out ways to encourage and not to walk away from.

Question:  Okay.  What would you say, Commissioner, are some of SSA's major accomplishments under your tenure?

Apfel:  Well, I think that probably you can go to the NAPA thing yesterday for a chunk of that.  The substantial re-invigoration of public education and public communications.  Whether it is the public affairs specialists -- you know the whole report that we put out about five months ago.  Have you seen that by the way?  Not enough people have.  The public education report that we did about five months ago that tried to anchor in the changes and directions and the whys and the wherefores.  I think that the expansion of both public affairs specialists, to the ambassador training, to the South Carolina training, to the Social Security Statement, to the web-based activities, to the retirement planner. That whole thing I think is something that I consider to be a cornerstone notion because of the legitimacy of our institutions and the fact that for as big as we are, as a big public institution, we've got to be able to be connected to the American people, so that's one.

 Two is the strengthening of policy.  And three of course would be 2010.  There's a retirement wave coming over.  A new leadership will have to reinvent things because that's part of what becoming a new leader is.  But leadership will be based upon what has taken place in the past. The same directions going to take place, I think, whoever the new Commissioner is.  It may be called something entirely different than 2010 vision.  It may be called long-term service delivery model, or who knows, and it'll change some, but I think the underlying precepts of a move to technology, of dealing aggressively with the challenge of the retirement wave that we face, is ultimately going to be dealt with by the next Commissioner. 

Question: In your opinion, have we had some lost opportunities since you've been Commissioner?

Apfel: Well, the biggest, I don't know if it's lost opportunity, but my biggest regret is that we're sitting here at the end of 2000 without having stabilized the long-term financing of the Social Security system.  You asked a while ago, what were the things that when I was coming into Social Security. . what were my keys (objectives), and I talked about policy and communication.  I don't know how I missed it.  What goes back there first and foremost, before any of the organizational issues, is the policy issue.  And I should have added that back there-- and ultimately that is the main reason that I came to the Social Security Administration.  This is a crown jewel, this program.  And the legitimacy of our overall institution and the program model is paramount to our sense of government.  What are we listening to everyday, today?  How many times have you read this week about all this election stuff in Florida and what it says about the legitimacy of our institutions, does this destabilize our institutions?  What about our broad-based legitimacy of our institutions?  Our electoral system is one of our key public institutions.  Social Security is that same way.  It's a big public institution with a need for strong legitimacy which is ultimately, when you ask about disappointments, the main reason I came was to see what could be done to strengthen the long-term financing of this system, to ensure the longer term legitimacy of the institution and therefore the economic security of Americans.  And it is clearly a disappointment that that did not happen over the last three years.  I think we moved the ball forward, but we're not there yet and I'm not sure whether we will be in the short term or not, that's an open question it seems to me.  That's the disappointment.

Question: So right now you say your position is somewhat neutral as to whether we'll come to some kind of a settlement, some kind of an agreement.

Apfel: It's inevitable that we will.  I don't know whether in the very short term we will.  What I think is very important for our institution is to continue our public education activities and everything that we're doing until we are in a situation where the system receives the support it needs to assure the stability for the long term.  I'm not pessimistic about action in the short term but it's a lot more questionable now than it was a year ago, I think.

Question: What do you mean by short-term?

Apfel: By short term I would say the next year or so.  The biggest mistake we could see is if this issue is not resolved during this decade.  I would have liked to have seen it resolved last decade.  I'd like to see it resolved as early as possible in this decade, but when I say short-term, I wonder whether the next two or three years whether we will see it resolved.

Question: Looking back, what could you have done differently to accelerate that process.  Is there anything you could have done?

Apfel: Well, I don't think so.  The reality is that it takes a long time - the bigger the issue, the longer time it takes to develop the consensus.  You go back to my communication, communication, consensus, consensus.  Well we're not in the same place that we were back in 1983.  The urgency is not there for the future as it was back in 1983.  But there is no consensus.  It's clear that we have two very different visions for this program that will be presented to the American people as one of the main issues to be discussed through this campaign.  And, if the electoral results are any indication, I don't think anybody has any idea where the consensus is . . .there isn't a consensus yet at all.  So I think we're a ways away yet.

I guess the second area of disappointment . . . not disappointment, but well maybe a little disappointment, it would be not moving the ball further faster in the disability area.  It's big institutional change with federal state partnerships, with independent administrative law judges.  I fundamentally believe that the prototype and HPI (Hearings Process Improvement) are steps in the right direction and putting more of the process at the front end.  A more comprehensive assessment at the front end, I think is the right thing to do. Those changes are hard.  I would have liked to have seen them take place faster and therefore see how much further we would be on other things.  This will never be a fully resolved issue.  Again, it won't be a cookie cutter approach that we make one change and that will be the end of it.  It will be years of strengthening the disability process and I suppose that would be a second area where I would have some disappointment that we didn't move the ball as far as we should have, as far as we could have.  I'm not quite sure what I could have done differently on that either.  That's something I'm sure I'm going to think about in the future.

Question: Do you think federalization of the disability program is a possibility in the future?

Apfel: I think that it's unrealistic.  I think certainly in the short or medium term it seems to be an unrealistic option.  States have responsibilities in these areas and I think it would be quite unlikely to happen.

Question: What about privatization of the disability program?

Apfel: Well we've seen some of that take place in the adjudication of claims in the welfare areas.  The privatization of those functions.  I personally believe it's a step in the wrong direction for the Social Security Administration.  But we probably shouldn't get too too far on this one, because future Commissioners may have different views.

Question: Or future Presidents.

Apfel: Or future Presidents.  But that's certainly the exact opposite of federalizing the program.  It would be privatizing the administration of the program.  I think both privatizing the state or the federal functions I've said is a mistake.  I think that we have very special responsibilities as government workers and these activities that I think we and only we should do.  I also think it's quite unlikely that there would be broad-based privatization of the institution itself.  I think it's quite unlikely.  Both at the DDS level or at the Federal level. 

Question: With all the effort and the expense that we put into disability redesign and prototype and I know we've got the ten states and the decision has been made, this is the disability business in the future.  Are we pretty stable right now with that process so that if a different leadership should come in, take a look at that, and say you know I don't really like that process at all, it seems to me it would be a tremendous upheaval for not only the process itself but the employees, the tremendous changes that they've been making in their adjudicative culture.  Where do you see us?  Are you pleased with the way that we're going so far with prototype?

Apfel:  I generally think we're moving in the right direction with the prototypes.  I really do.  I think that there are two different paths.  One is to have the state function be more of a clerk function.  A clerical function, a check off function  That it never was, but moving back in that direction I think would be a profound mistake.  There are those that would argue that what we need is a quick and dirty decision at the state level based upon whatever information that was to come in the door and then send it off to the hearings office where they do the real work.  At a fundamental level, I think that's a mistake.  I think that it's not good customer service.  I think that that's poor treatment of Americans who are most vulnerable.  I think that doing a more comprehensive assessment at the front end of the process would lead to more decisions being made favorably at that level, which I think, is better customer service and is just plain right.  So at a basic level I believe that-- even though it is a harder job, it's a higher-skilled job, there's more subjectivity to it--I fundamentally believe it's a step in the right direction.

Just as with 2010, the key elements that are built into 2010 will continue long after whatever leadership changes take place because the organization is moving in this direction.  I think that generally that will take place too in the areas of disability.  But I also believe that there will be changes.  And new leadership will and should make modifications based upon information that becomes available.  You know QA (quality assurance) and we're about one-quarter of the way along thinking about what the right steps are for QA and that that's a good area for some real potential change which is good.  My own belief in other words is that putting up stronger activities at the front end and I think eliminating the recon (reconsideration step) as well, we will see that continue.  But I would hope and expect that there will be further changes in the future.  There need to be.  So it won't be just status quo roads moving forward from prototypes.  I'm sure there'll be several changes, and you know, that's just how the world works.

Question: Has Social Security equipped itself well, in your opinion, as an Independent Agency?

Apfel: I think that we're about, at best, two-thirds of the way along the road towards independence.  Maybe as little as half; I'm not sure.  Becoming an Independent Agency is a lot more than hanging out a new shingle, a new emblem for the Agency and having a report change from the Commissioner to the Secretary of HHS to the President of the United States.  There have been significant accomplishments--whether it be the creation of a separate and confirmed inspector general, the general counsel's office, the policy office, the public education activities, the different reporting arrangements.  I will hope that what will stick is the balance that I've tried to create.  That the Commissioner should not be involved with direct political activities or endorsing candidates--The President or the Congress. Even though I have personal views, even though I have philosophical views about positions that people bring, I think it's important that the Commissioner of Social Security should not be endorsing candidates-- period.  That's not been the history, until I became Commissioner.

So I think that there are clearly steps that we've taken, but it takes a long time to fully define and to operationalize this quasi-independent nature.  I think it's going to take a significant strengthening in the policy areas, still.  The separateness of the Commissioner's budget versus the President's budget.  We're about half way along the road in fully ensuring that the Congress and the White House and others understand the differences and understand the statutory responsibilities of the Commissioner's budget vis a vis the President's budget.  We're stronger than we were two years ago, but we're not there yet, so there's still plenty of areas that we'll need to continue to move on in independence, but I think we're on the right path.

Question: What is your opinion of the Advisory Board?  Has the Board been helpful to Social Security and to you as the Commissioner or has it been a hindrance? 

Apfel:  I think that the Advisory Board has been about 75 percent very helpful to this Agency and maybe even 80 percent, but only 80 percent. You know ultimately the authority rests with the Commissioner, and to have a Board focused on the issues and the concerns of the agency both pushing the agency on some things as well as, I like to say, with the Board providing air cover for some of the things that make sense to do--to validate some of the activities.  If you look at the report on strengthening the policy making process, there is some that could say to this day that the Social Security Administration has nothing to do with policy, that we should just get the checks out.  I think that's a profoundly wrong direction.  But some may think that that's the way it should be and having the Board endorse the need for stronger policy helps provide the Commissioner with the ability to be able to move in that direction.

So I think that by in large, having advisory boards, bipartisan advisory boards can be helpful, but it also creates complications.  Sometimes I have disagreed with some of their views, their positions, that's one area where it's complicating.  And another, it's one more set of external actors that I have to find ways to manage.  Right now, for any agency it's the General Accounting Office and the Congress and the White house and the advisory board becomes another one that has its own views, and oversees and questions and prods and a lot of that can be healthy.  As I said, 80 percent positive.  But it also, it can help us get things done and help prod us to do the right things, but at the same time I think a lot depends upon the personalities involved and I could see an advisory board being highly unhelpful to the agency.  I could see advisory boards being entirely helpful to the agency - not just to the agency but to the program and the mission.  I've said that the Social Security Administration is 50-75 percent along in terms of becoming an Independent Agency.  I think that the advisory board is about 50 percent along in terms of evolving as an organization.  And a little bit depends upon what the future direction is that the board wants to choose. 

Question: I think we have a very aggressive board now.  Has that always been true?

Apfel: The original relationships, I believe it's fair to say, were poor between the Board and the Agency.  There was distrust and disinterest.  The Board was just being established but it was not a good relationship at all.  I really think that Stan Ross (Chairman of the Board) and I have tried to convene a stronger more ongoing relationship.  I meet with the Chair monthly.  I think that should continue.  So I think things are a lot better than they were three years ago in terms of the relationship between the Board and the Agency.  But a lot depends on the future, and that depends on the future of the agency and the future of the Board.

Question: Sometimes where you stand all depends on where you sit.  If you were on the board, I wonder how much change there would be.

Apfel: Well actually, I think that it would be a mistake for someone to leave the Commissionership and immediately go to the Board.  I think that that's not fair to the new Commissioner at all.  I think it's fine that there can be some old timers, but 20 years from now or 10 years from now or some period time, I may very well be on that board, I don't know.  But I think it's good to have some graybeards on the board, and my beard is grayer as we speak, but I think immediately would create too much direct oversight.  I need to give the new Commissioner more latitude I think. 

Question: When Shirley Chater left, in her oral interview with Larry DeWitt she said something like this, help me with this. "One of my biggest disappointments was that the union partnership really didn't meet its purposes."  She went on record on that.  She was disappointed.  How do you think we've proceeded with that under your tenure?

Apfel: I think we've made some progress.  This is an area where I think we're functioning at about a 40 percent level as to where it needs to be.  And I think that we were probably at about 20 percent when I started here.  So I think we're moving in the right direction.  I think it's a question mark it seems to me.  One of the very large question marks is going to be are we going to continue to move forward.  With 2010 we had a strong partnership.  I believed strongly if you want to get alignment and better communication, you've got to have labor as part of your partners.  I do not think that means giving away decisional authority, but pre-decisional involvement and heavy involvement I think is natural given the way that the world is moving.  That's what many corporations are doing.  A question mark that I would have is whether in the future we continue to move in that direction or whether we become more polarized and we see an increase in the number of unfair labor practices, and less information, less pre-decisional involvement. 

I think that we are at a crossroads.  I would agree with Shirley.  I would not consider this to be a disappointment.  I think that we've still got a long way to go on this front.  I think that we are at a crossroads right now.  And I think that further communication between labor and management would be helpful here.  We have still old-line warriors on both the labor side and the management side in this organization.  And if that becomes the model that we go forward with as an Agency, I think that's bad for the Agency for the long term.  I think we've made some progress, I think we're moving in the right direction.  I do think that this is an open issue as to what happens in the future because it seems to me that it takes pretty consistent top-down pressure or else this is an area where we could see some regression, and if so I think that would be wrong for the Agency.  Clearly this is the way modern organizations work and work well, and I think we're going to need that in the future.  But it's not as if the institution is entirely built in this area at all.  We've got a long way to go. 

Apfel with union rep

Apfel and American Federation of Government Employees Union President, Bobby Harnage, on the occasion of the signing of the new contract, 4/6/2000. SSA History Archives.

Question: Last year we worked on a model for you about staffing.  Brian kept saying that you went out to the field, you talked to the field people, and they said that we were cutting staff back.  Yet you'd come back here to Central Office and kind of got a little different spin on that.  So we worked for several weeks I guess to come up with this model.  And it really was very interesting to me as a field person to look at that.  If you had asked me, just one on one, Wayne what do you think about staffing in the field?  Has it increased, has it been reduced, I would have said it has been dramatically reduced.  But yet when you look at it, it was only down like three percent.

Apfel: That's exactly right.  One of the least reductions in government, in Social Security in the last five years.

Question: So how do you think about staffing.  Do you think overall that we're at a point where we need to be to provide the kinds of services to that we need to the public?

Apfel: I think what comes through with 2010, if anything is that we can still use somewhat higher levels of staffing.  I don't think dramatic.  I don't think that we desperately need to go back to the 15,000 or 20,000 extra staff that we had in the 1980s.  Technology has made major improvements in these areas.  I think that we're going to need, and it's pretty clear from 2010, that we're going to need some added resources, not just for technology, but for people.  Not dramatic, but I think we do need some increases.  I proposed some last year; I will propose some again in my exit budget.  The stresses and strains are real, and it's going to take more time than anyone would like to give credit for, the technology changes that are going to be needed to be able to help replace some of this activity.  So, I don't think the Agency, even ten years from now, I don't envision an agency that's significantly lower than it is now; if anything it'll be a little higher than it is now.  I believe it should be.  Technology will help us expand our level of services and at a very fundamentally level, you know this.  Right now we've got someone walking in the door and we say "so what's your Social Security number" and we punch it in; and we say "how many kids o you have, and what are their ages?"  If the individual is doing that themselves, that's going to save us some time.  And it's going to free us up to do higher order of work - program integrity activities, return to work activities, and other things.  I think that ultimately the message of 2010 is a higher-skilled, higher-graded workforce.  But probably somewhat larger than it is now.  I think it should be.

Question: You mentioned earlier that you got the call from the senior member from the White House about being interested in you being Commissioner, and you had a sleepless night.  Did you make the right decision?

Apfel: Profoundly.  It's been the honor of my life.  Back then, you're right, I said I thought that I had spent my entire life preparing for this job and I can say today that it's been the honor of my life to be the Commissioner.  It is very hard to leave this organization.  These are hard jobs.  My last job was just as hard - more hours than this job.  It's the right thing for me to be able to step back, and I think actually potentially play a stronger role about the future of Social Security and the program from where I'm going than being here.  So I'm not leaving the issue.  It was profoundly the right decision for me.  I think it was profoundly the right decision for this Agency.  I believe that.  Not to toot my own horn, but I think that I brought a lot to this organization.  I think that we've moved the ball forward in lots of ways.  It's only with sizeable ambivalence that I leave, but I actually believe that change is almost always good, both for people and for organizations.  I would hope that three years from now that people would be saying Apfel left right at the right time, and whoever came in was able to take the few things that were going and move the ball that much further.  That would be to me something else that I would be very pleased with. 

But it was time to go, and someone else will provide it with a different focus and a different take, and help move that ball that much further.  If I've learned anything, in terms of the last three years, is that leadership is critically important to organizations.  Continuity is important but newness is also important.  I think that has to be one of our key features here is to get with a new organization and merging it in the future and having some new faces I think is going to be good, from the Commissioner, all the way to your claims reps. 

Question: Was this the honor of your life, because the job itself entailed significant and profound issues that you personally are interested in and involved in or is it because of what you were able to accomplish while you were here and maybe the people that you worked with.  What made it such an honor?

Apfel: What made it such an honor is to be able to do.  To me it's always been about doing.  And I think we've done a lot.  This program is the crown jewel of American social policy.  I've spent my entire life on American social policy and this is the crown jewel.  And we've moved the ball forward on a lot of different fronts, so to me it's the honor of my life because I was given the opportunity to help move the organization. 

Question:  It would be helpful for us if you would discuss with us the driving forces, the dynamics that really drove SSA during the Apfel Administration.

Apfel:  There were two.  Growing into the Independent Agency and the emergence of solvency as a national policy issue.  On the first, it's all the way to the creation of new office space, and the General Counsel, the Inspector General, the creation and strengthening of the Policy Office, the public education functions and roles, and the creation of the Commissioner's budget request that is separate from the President.  The evolution of defining the quasi-independent nature of the Agency.  My decision that the Commissioner should not endorse candidates during the political two-month window, or appear with political people who are up for reelection.  I think the emergence of the Independent Agency has been clearly one of the major drivers.  And the outgrowth of that I think is 2010.  Trying to come to grips with where we need to steer as an Agency.  2010 was not an endeavor that was vetted throughout the Administration.  That was internal to this Agency that stopped with me.   And that was all again part of Independent Agency.  So I see 2010 as another outgrowth of the Independent Agency.

 So that's one, and then two is the whole issue of solvency and the President putting this very high on the radar screen and the need therefore for the Commissioner for the first time in many years to be playing within the context of the very senior levels in the White House.  There were weeks where I was in the White House two to three times a week dealing with both the deliberations and the development of proposals . . . So I think that that's probably the second because that unfolded on the Hill and other places.

 There would certainly be other issues whether it be the attempts to try to strengthen the disability program both in terms of prototyping, childhood, which is clearly my first endeavor here, which actually provided me with an enormous opportunity to lead.  I could spend a good long period of time talking about why childhood evolved as it did, and the need to reassess, and there are a lot of negatives there, but the positive was it enabled me to come in as new Commissioner and take hold of the Agency to reach out.  I think we talked about some of this last time, too.  Really, I don't think anyone thought that they were going to have a custodian Commissioner three months into my term and the thing that really enabled that to happen was the childhood thing.  Everyone in the organization said kind of  "hey" this guy got involved and that really did provide an opportunity to be able to create a leadership role.

Question: Would you describe that as a defining moment, would it be that significant?

Apfel:  I don't think it would be the defining moment.  But it clearly provided an enormous opportunity for me to be able to take hold of the organization, reach through the organization, become visible in the organization and be viewed as a change agent within the organization, which was an enormous opportunity that we maximized on, I think.  We did good things for the program.  We did good things for applicants.  We strengthened the legitimacy of the institution.  And we also strengthened the leadership of the organization, which I thought was a win, win situation.

Question:  Let me just go back to what you were saying a little bit about solvency.  We talked extensively about that in the last interview.  But I kind of reread your speech that you gave to NAPA on November 15.  And basically when you talked in there, you talked about solvency in three different areas.  You talked about first of all, that we needed to make sure that it was actuarially sound.  Then you talked a little bit about the massive education program that we have to be neutral but we need to make sure people have accurate information so that they can learn about the whole issue that we're talking about.  But I found it very interesting, the third item that you talked about.  You said the one thing that keeps you awake at night was the decline in public confidence, and that's something that has troubled me a lot even with my own children.  When I talk to my two sons who are out in the working world, I haven't made much progress with them about the value of Social Security not historically but for them.  They'd rather take their money and they'd rather invest it in the stock market.  So, do you really think that we will be able to change that mindset and restore and build public confidence particularly with the younger generation?

Apfel: This is not just an issue of Social Security, it's an issue of all of our big institutions.  Witness the election that we're in the middle of now, and the questioning of whether our institutions are up to the task of coming to a legitimate definition of who the next President's going to be.  Public confidence has declined in lots of our big institutions - I think all of them.  And so we share some of that.   It's not just Social Security, it's really all of our big institutions.  I don think it's just our big public institutions; I think it's big institutions in general.  There's been, most surveys show, an up-tick in public confidence in our institutions.  It's still quite low, but it's been going in the right direction for several years now. I think it is inevitable that if it is true that 25 years from now the confidence of this institution continues to be lower and lower and lower and more people become more and more skeptical, then there will be radical change to the system, because a big institution such as this needs to have broad-based legitimacy across generations and income groups over time.  So there needs to be broad-based legitimacy at a fundamental level, and that is why it is so important that we're not sitting here 25 years from now, or 35 years from now on the verge of the next 1983 situation which would be a lot tougher than 1983 in terms of shortfalls.  If we're sitting here 35 years from now, it won't just be your kids, it'll be their kids and it could even be their kids that have the same kind of doubts.

That's why it's inherently importantly, that's why the Social Security Statement is so important. I'm getting a little teaser on it next week with the Gallup stuff on the Statement and the impact, and knowledge is up, confidence is up, this is a good thing to do.  It's a way that people can look at that piece of paper and say "hey, this is something real.  This is tangible."  And I think that's why our public education aspects are so critically important, not just to help steer the debate, but to strengthen the legitimacy of the institutions over time.  And that's why our website is so important, that's why the benefits planner is so important, that's why our outreach, that's why our public affairs specialists and the expansion of those roles, the South Carolina training for managers, the Social Security statement. 

We've got to have a different definition of who our customers are.  The agency traditionally thinks of its customers as either businesses that send in their forms once a year or beneficiaries.  And it's not.  And if that's our definition of customer, then we're going to continue to have a problem.  Now, the program model is part of that, so it's going to be how do we strengthen the system so that the 27 year old and 35 year old can say I'm paying into something that I have a stake in not just because it's going to help my parents but ultimately because it's going to help me.  How that's going to shake out in the long run in terms of where the line is drawn between personal savings and foundational benefit, I think that's still an open question.  But ultimately I believe in the end of the day, there will be a strong foundational benefit, it will be inter-generationally financed primarily, that benefits will be probably somewhat lower.  Revenues coming into the system somewhat higher.  And there will be some further national savings incentives.  I tend to think that it won't be as part of Social Security, but that's really a part of the question for the future.  But ultimately it has to be our goal as keepers of the institution to strengthen that legitimacy.  That is fundamentally the most important thing we have.  And that came through in this election.  These institutions are fragile.  And I think they're very durable, but you've go to keep nurturing them and public confidence therefore is central to that function which is why we've got to expand our activities consistently to reach people of all ages.  On solvency, on what the program is, on how it works on how important it is.

Question: Going back to one of your key points, that communication is so critical.  We can't keep it in the halls here of Altmeyer, but we really have to get it out to the general public so that they understand.

Apfel:  Social Security, as an Agency, historically has been too insular both in terms of the public and also in terms of external criticism.  We tend to operate in too much of an insular pattern.  One of the things that I think I've tried to do in the last three years in the disability community is to get us more actively involved with the give and take with the disability community about childhood and return to work.  These are not unhealthy things, these are healthy things. Traditionally many agencies have much closer ties to the outside world and more of a give and take than we do.  We tend to be too insular as an organization. Having people be able to get in and out and talk openly about what we need to do about strengthening things.  I think it helps us as an organization, I think it's healthy for the Social Security Administration to become less insular and more open to both external criticism and external advice.

Question: Would that be, in your opinion, a fundamental change within our mission or would that be something to just change the methodology of how we operate?

Apfel:  I think that's part of culture change.  I don't think it's fundamental, but I think it's one of the pieces that as we become an independent agency, and we talked about independent agency, that takes growth on several fronts and one of them is to be more a player in the world and that means expanding our discussions with the aging community and the disability community and the childhood disability community

Question:  Minority groups.

Apfel:  Absolutely, minority groups - reach the Hispanic community.  We've got to have more of a give and take not only on educating them but also in hearing from them as to how we can . . .

Question: Educating SSA in the whole process.

Apfel:  Absolutely.  It's a reciprocal situation.  I don't think it's one of the fundamentals, but I think it's one of the aspects of independence and what will make us a stronger agency is to be less insular. 

Question: We agree about the impact of the Social Security Statement.  I think that's a wonderful process.  But as I recall, that was forced upon SSA before your time. By Senator Moynihan.   As I understand it, SSA didn't want to deal with mailing out annual statements.

Apfel: The history, as I understand it, is that the Agency did not want to do it.  Did not see the value or the. .

Question: Costs, workloads, etc.

Apfel: I think that's an example of insularity.

And Moynihan has always wanted to see a stronger Social Security Card.  I think it's a good idea.  I think that it's another little signal, that here is something that as opposed to a scrap of paper, that's got some heft to it.  I think it's a very small thing in compared to the statement, but it's a step in the same direction.  I don't know whether it's worth the cost that's involved.  I tend to think it is, to see us move.  I support the idea of moving to a different card.  That again, I think the statement is a perfect example.  I think this is something that is going to be throughout the organization increasingly understood to be probably the most powerful thing that we've done in public education ever.  And in strengthening knowledge about Social Security.  That seemed like less of a role or mission to the organization years ago, but it's becoming increasingly so and I think it needs to be.

Question: Where are we with the more secure card?  I've seen examples of pictures, and the bar codes.  Are we close to getting a SSA recommendation on having a more secure card?

Apfel:  Well I've endorsed the notion of having a plastic-based card with greater ability.  There's still enormous controversy that such a step would be a step closer to a national identification card that it will be be very costly, and is it worthwhile to do.  Those issues go well beyond the Social Security Administration so it hasn't been one of my absolute priorities because it does go beyond us and it also is a resource issue.  It's something I'd like to see done but I think it is also significant . . .There's a whole bunch of issues about it that go beyond us.  It's going to take some time I think for it to happen, but I generally endorse the idea.

Question:  Let me go back to your discussion about the budget request.  I understand how the process works now but in reality does it change anything.  In other words, when SSA's and the President's budget are not in agreement.  What does the Congress do?  I know one time our request was less than the President's request.

Apfel:  Well the history is that the Commissioner's budget has been almost always more than the President's budget request.  There was a year I think during the Chater time that it was not.

I don't remember what all the details were anymore, but there was a need for added resources that was unexpected during the Chater budget submission, but that was really a technical process up until the last two or three years.  I think it's been strengthened significantly.  We have a number of individuals as you know, including say Ron Nesing and others, able to get out, get to the Hill to talk about the Commissioners budget request as well as the President's budget request.

The Commissioner's budget request is the actually formal submission, which I now do each year on the Hill.  We're further along on the distinction between the two than we ever were.  We're not there yet, but we're a lot closer than we were to understanding what the Agency's resources needs are.  The President's budget and OMB have a different set of constraints.  There are overall budget caps, there are issues about guns versus butter to Head Start versus Social Security.  I don't have to worry about those, but I do have to worry about how we're going to get done the job that we have to get done so that I don't think that there's anything legitimate or illegitimate at all.  I don't think there's anything illegitimate about the President's budget request.  I think it's well thought through and what have you.  But I think the role of the Commissioner's budget request is a stronger one in terms of the Hill, in terms of the Agency than it was two or three years ago and I'm proud of that.

Question: Commissioner, you were appointed as the first confirmed Commissioner of Social Security in Independent Agency a little over three years ago.  And GAO about the same time did a report where they listed a number of current and future challenges for a new Commissioner and SSA as a whole.  And I don't want to go over every one of those but there are a couple that I'd like to get some comment from you on and maybe your reaction.  The first one was managing for results and accountability.  How have we faired in that?

Apfel:  Oh I think that we've increasingly moved on, not only on GPRA because I think that we clearly have one of the better throughout government GPRA plans.  We now have the ability to be able to quantify results and to be able to move towards performance.  2010 also was the missing ingredient in managing for results, or one of them.  It was key that the Agency needed to have some sense not only why we needed to make sure we got to 95 and 5 (performance goals) but it's also what are we going to do in the long-term about these issues.  So there's a sense that we're moving in the right direction. I would expect that GAO reports in the future would say progress has been made on managing for results.  And that also I would hope they say that 2010 has elevated (SSA) beyond the traditional managing for results model to be able to help steer the agency for the long term.  It's not anything that any other agencies have done, so it's going to take some time for that to be quantified but I would say that they would view what we've done in the last few years as important steps in the right direction on those fronts.

Question: There's another one that was on that list about combating SSI fraud, waste and abuse.   Are we moving in the right direction?

Apfel:  We are.  It's a resource issue as well.  I don't think that we should be taken off the SSI high-risk list yet. One of the questions in the Agency was should it be our short-term goal to get us off the high-risk list in SSI?   I thought that was impractical.  And the steps that were articulated and laid out in the SSI management report were important steps and are ones that we're still moving towards on - redeterminations, and different data matches, those are good things, but that really doesn't go to some of the larger issues in SSI. They will have to be addressed before, it would seem to me; it would be appropriate for us to be taken off the high-risk list.  When I say we going in the right direction, that's probably a little bit of an overstatement.  I think the steps that we're taking are appropriate, but there are still some pretty big issues that have to get resolved with SSI before we have a system that really is being managed to the best capabilities.

 A report is coming out this week, which you may want to make reference. We call it the SSI II report, which not only looks at the overpayment, underpayments, the SSI management report, but it's also to look at some options on simplification and also really what the program's all about.  And there are no recommendations in that report.  This is one of the other areas that I wanted to move the Agency forward on that I realized soon after becoming Commissioner that it was harder to get done than I thought.  And I also was concerned that simplification could be used as an exercise in significantly cutting back the program.  I did not want to see that happen.  I think that would have been a mistake but it would seem to me that the guise could be used to cut payments to poor people under the guise of simplification.  This report does lay out a series of options. This is an area where I thought we'd make more progress than we did in the last three years.  That was a tactical decision that I made that I did not want to see the program get either dismantled or devolved to states and/or significantly cut back under the guise of simplifying the program.  But some options are good and there's a need for improvements, and I think this report, this new one, sets the stage for a new Administration to look at some options and for a new Commissioner to try to determine where to go from here.

Question: If there were easy answers, Commissioner, we would have resolved this a long time ago.

Apfel: We sure would have.

Question: We've had a quarter of a century.  These are very, very difficult issues.  I don't know what the solution is.  This is the right direction obviously.

Apfel:  It's generally the right direction. And to lay some of the stuff open to the implications and changes, I think are important.  But I am cautious.  I would be cautious about a dramatic change to the program unless we're. . . I would hate to see us either dismantle or devolve -- I don't think its going to happen -- under the guise of the red tape of the program.  I would hate to see us end up significantly reducing payments to poor people, so there's a great amount of caution that I have in this area.  It's not only really hard; it also potentially can be very destructive.  And this report I think is a good step.  It does not lay out recommendations, it's a start at looking at some of the broader issues over the overpayment, underpayment type issues.

Question:  It's very interesting that you say that, because I personally just learned something and I think that it's so important that we communicate to the rank and file the rationale for certain positions that we take.  Like with this report.  I don't disagree whatsoever about being cautious, being a little more conservative.  Now I understand what you're driving is in that regard.  But I wonder if our CRs, when they sit down and they talk to the SSI recipients, I know they have a lot of compassion as Jim says, but also when they start looking at the regulations and the procedures that they have to follow, it's very frustrating to them.  So what they want is a real simplification here.  Go ahead and do the interview, demonstrate your concern for the person, but I've got to go through all of this other red tape, and tradeoffs and all that and it's just a horrendous workload.  But that's the first time I've ever heard why we were moving cautiously, and I agree 100 percent with that.  That's why I think that one of your great legacies is getting out of the insular and communicating to people.  And any decision that we make if we can't rationalize that to people, then we shouldn't have made that decision to start with.  There's got to be some basis for it.  So I'd like to see us get out on SSI simplification as to why we're taking positions like we are and why the movement maybe is not as dramatic and not as quick as a lot of people think that it should be.

As an OQA Regional Director, I do spend a lot of time in the field, But every time I go out there, people are always talking about not only the dramatic increase in workloads but also the anticipated, the future increases in workloads that we are anticipating.  And basically a flat line on resources so to speak.  How are we doing, in your opinion as we compete with the Head Start programs, with Defense and all of that, to get the kind of resources that would help our aging workforce deal better with the tremendous volume of work.

Apfel:  Well I think that was inherent in stepping up the Commissioner's budget request and the visibility and the workload assessments, as well as 2010.  There's a key here though, which is at fundamental level 2010 paints a picture that says we need to change.  Any large organization is concerned about change, and I think we're definitely one of them.  The precondition towards resources, it seems to me, is a plan and a plan for change that basically. . You know I've said many times--remember (the movie) Field of Dreams, " if we build it they will come."  Well that's what I think we've got to be able to do, we've got to be able to build a vision for the future.  The only way that we're going to be able to get our work done is with more technology and a higher-graded workforce and movement and growth throughout the organization faster.  That takes change as well.  And where I think I've been pleased about how 2010 has unfolded is the understanding that we do need to change.  Clearly there are still some places in the organization that are really concerned very much about change.  But by in large I think there's also a belief that if we don't, that we're dead.  If we don't, we either become obsolete or somebody else will be found to do this work.  Contracted out or what have you.

 So I think there's a growing understanding, a precondition for change is an understanding that there is a need for change in the long term.  That the fiscal squeeze down in the organization, coupled with the increased workloads, created the right climate, I think to be able to say, look we're going to have to do some investments, but we're going to have to do some change as well.   So to me that was a precondition that helped get 2010 done and ultimately set the stage for the stronger resource issue.  Inherent in 2010 is the assumption that we are going to need resources in the future.  But inherent also is that we are going to have to change.

Question:  A new Commissioner might say: "I'm going to get my feet wet on all these other issues, we're going to put 2010 over here for a couple of years." Where do you think the sense is with new leadership taking up in the 2010 challenge?

Apfel:  Well it seems to me that any leader has to recognize the constraints that they face in the future.  And in this case, the workload is going to be dramatically increasing, in the short-term particularly in disability.  There's got to be a significant focus on how to deal with that.  Will it mean a dramatic ramping up of technology?  I don't think there's any other possibility.  It seems to me that what 2010 spells out is almost the only way that we can move forward.  I suppose you could say that there's no need for the program and there's no need for the organization but I think that's profoundly unlikely.  So I still stand by the comments I made last time on this.

Now I think it will have different names.  And it will have different components.  But will there be a need for process changes to enable us to move work more quickly through the organization?  That may have many different forms, but fundamentally it's what we're going to have to do.  Technology, process changes, and we're going to have to deal with the tremendous retirement wave that's coming our way.  Any person in this organization will have to face that -- they just have to.  I don't think it's an option.  Now it's entirely likely that the term 2010 may drop from the face of the earth.  That's fine.  That's Ken Apfel's 2010 vision and new leadership may need a different formulation, but it's going to be the same underlying issues.  Workload growth, retirement wave, technological change, customer expectations, how to deal with the challenges ahead.  How to deal with the process changes that are going to be necessary in a new technological era to be able to meet the work.  I don't think it's an option.

Question:  Commissioner, one of the things GAO talked about was establishing effective leadership, meaning confirmed Commissioner, and the Deputy Commissioner.  We've been impressed with the quality of the political appointees.  I think you were involved with two selections, Yvette Jackson and Jane Ross.  How does that process work?

Apfel:  And Susan Daniels.

Question: And Susan Daniels.  Well you elevated Susan didn't you?

Apfel:  Right.  And actually Carolyn too was elevated.

Question: In Jane's case.  My best guess is that you went after Jane Ross?  I would have.  How about the other people, how does that process work?  Does the White House call and say we've got somebody we want to place in a high position.

Apfel:  I went after Jane. I went after Yvette.

Question:  Good, okay.  Two good choices, incidentally.

Apfel:  Oh they were great choices.  One of the benefits that Social Security faces in terms of political appointments is that it's primarily a Baltimore-based organization.  So it doesn't have as high a cachet with the political types.  I think that some of the benefit of that is that at least during our Administration we've sought out political appointees who are more experts, probably are Democrats or liberals or what have you, but they're practitioners first and foremost more than they are political types.  I think that's true of my background and me; I think that's true of virtually every political official that's in this organization.  And that was Shirley's goal, that was my goal, and that could certainly be changed in the future, but I think that the fact that the Agency is in Baltimore helps ensure that the people who are coming here. . . their number one goal is not to be part of the Washington spin crowd regime.  So it means that there are some self-selections that go on as well.

There is always a give and take between the White House and the Commissioner on appointment of senior officials.  These are PA (Presidential Appointed) or PAS  (Presidential Appointed, Senate Approved) positions.  Presidential appointed, Senate confirmed for the IG and for the Deputy and of course for the Commissioner.  There is a give and take for the Commissioner for the individuals in command.

The experience throughout agencies is dramatically different on this.  There are some agencies-- use Donna Shalala as an example.  Donna went after a bunch of people and was practical about the kind of people she was looking for, and she was able to assemble a lot of her team that way.  She controlled a lot of the destiny of the creation of her team at HHS eight years ago.  I think it's very clear that Shirley and I have assembled the team that we wanted.  Other agencies have been less successful at being able to do that.  So it takes not only the leader itself but the leader and the assemblage around the leader to know how to move that system so that the results can be acceptable to the Agency as well as to the President.

I think we're in a better position than most because of our location in Baltimore.  And I hope that's the case in the future for whoever is the President.  We just have to wait and see how that works.  I think it's fair-- I've heard this pretty consistently that the organization believes that the team that we've assembled has been one of the strongest in decades. I think that's true.  Right down the line, it's a very strong organization and I have not heard any criticisms from the rank and file or from senior executives that somehow there are political hacks that are kind of running the place.  It's a series of highly professional people and it's very hard to tell a career versus a non-career.  I think that's right, I think that's the way it should be.

Question: What's going to happen to SSA on January 20, as far as leadership is concerned for the interim?

Apfel: Well, you're never sure -- there are so many uncertainties.  But I will be almost definitely leaving on the 19th.  Bill Halter will almost definitely be remaining for the short-term.  We don't know what that means yet.  We don't know what the President's going to do, and whether that means that Bill serves as the Acting Commissioner for a day, a week, a month, or four months.  I think it depends a little bit on the new President at that point and time.

Question:  I bet you can't wait to get to the classroom.

Apfel:  Well, as with other things in my life my mind has been moving in that direction pretty heavily.  It's not just the classroom.  The reality is that as the Chair holder at the school that a lot of my activities will also be external to the University.  That's what they want from me and so I'll be in and out of Washington.  I'll probably be making, I would expect, three or four major speeches on Social Security very early in February with major constituent groups.  I'm not leaving this issue for one and I won't just be going to a classroom, I'll also be staying active as a social policy leader on this issue.

Question: And certainly a little freer to speak.

Apfel: But that's one of the interesting things for future Commissioners as well is that this is a quasi-Independent Agency.  It is only a quasi-Independent Agency.  But it is still a quasi-Independent Agency and therefore the ability to be able to speak one's mind is certainly more than it is for traditional cabinet-level officials or senior political officials who serve at the pleasure of the President.  The six-year term connotes a measure of independence but its still not being able to say whatever the heck you want to whenever the heck you want to.  So it does free me up some, but how that line is defined could change by Commissioners in the future.  But the way that we've tried to define it, I've tried to define it since I'm the first, as somewhat independent of the executive branch but still we are part of the executive branch.

Question: Let's say for discussion purposes you serve a six-year term and you finish four years now.  So your next two years would be under a Republican Administration.  What happens in that process?  Can you live with that kind of arrangement?

Apfel: Well the Commissioner certainly by law, could do so.  I believe that the law should be changed.  That it should be a four-year term and not a six-year term.  I think that fundamentally it creates tensions.  Let's just take an extreme example of an extremely liberal administration, appointing an extremely liberal Commissioner and an extremely conservative President coming in four years from now who would, say, wanted to radically privatize the system; or it could go just the other way around.  Not to have the confidence of your Commissioner . . . I don't see how it would work very well, particularly with the political appointees which is a dance between the Commissioner and the President.  My own belief is that it should be shortened to four years - the same term as President, still keep a measure of independence, still not removable.  I think that we have yet to see the example of what happens when we have this, and it won't happen on my watch. It could four years from now, and I'll be personally recommending that laws be changed to make it four years so that we're not in that situation.  But I think there's many complications that are yet to be really thought through.

Question: I'd like to maybe make it a little bit more specific for you, and we'd be glad to cut this off if you feel more comfortable that way, because it could be a little sensitive.  I look back before we got a confirmed Deputy Commissioner and the word was that Social Security was kind of run by a troika.  We had the Commissioner who was the Chief Executive Officer, you had the Principal Deputy Commissioner who was the Chief Operating Officer, and then of course you had a Chief of Staff who handled a lot of the political aspects, a lot of the liaison work around Washington.   Now we have a confirmed Deputy Commissioner.  Have there been any adjustments at all?  Has there been any different dimensions entered into this because now we have a confirmed Deputy Commissioner, working with the Commissioner of Social Security or have those roles been pretty well delineated either under the old concept or the current concept.

Apfel:  Well I think that's it's clear to me--just as we're half or two-thirds of the way along on independence in terms of what that entirely means as an agency--that we're probably about at best half-way along about determining the roles and responsibilities of the confirmed Commissioner vis a vis the confirmed Deputy.  Bill and I have worked towards finding a way to greater define that role.  Which can easily be changed in future formulations depending upon who the two people are.  Just as past is prolonged, laying out some of the foundations for that role seems to me to be very important.  The creation of more of the operational responsibilities and the day to day activities being lodged in the Deputy has always seemed to me to make sense.  How that line gets drawn, I don't think that either Bill and I, or the institution as a whole, have fully sorted that out because we've only had a year of experience and people knew that this was the sixth year of a six-year term and a new presidency.  So we've gotten about halfway along.  I think that's going to take another Commissioner and another Deputy Commissioner for that relationship to move forward.  I think we have made progress on defining it, but again it's about halfway along in terms of greater institutionalization of the role.  But that's good.  It was one of my goals for the last year to find ways to start to institutionalize that role and I think we've done that, to some extent.

Question: Would you say that the 65th Anniversary of Social Security was a highlight of the agency.

Apfel: Oh absolutely, because it was going back to basic principles. There is clearly a need for some change to the program.  There clearly is a need for some organizational-management-leadership-operational changes to the program, but what the 65th anniversary provided was to go back to the foundation, go back to the cornerstone values that are inherent within Social Security.  And I think that was a way for us to be, inside the agency and also to some extent outside, to be able to go back to communicate on what this is all about at a very basic values level.  I think we had an enormous opportunity to do that and I think we were pretty successful.

Photo of Apfel with Cynthia Koch

Commissioner Apfel with the Director of the FDR Presidential Library, Cynthia Koch, during a special program honoring the 65th anniversary of Social Security, held at the Library in Hyde Park, New York, August 5, 2000.
SSA History Archives.

Question:  If we eventually get the new transition team in here and/or we get a new Commissioner and you have the opportunity, and I'm sure with the transition team you would, but even with the new Commissioner, what kind of advice, what would you say to these people about Social Security?

Apfel: Well that's one I think I should keep to myself because I do expect to have the opportunity to do so.  And I'd be very surprised if I didn't have the opportunity for some very open and candid conversations with whoever the new Commissioner is, no matter what their philosophical views are.  But I think it's probably important for me to keep that to myself at this. I would view that as an important discussion to have with them and keep that solely between us.

Question: Okay.  Fair enough.  Maybe I can ask it in another way.  What's SSA's most pressing challenges?  If the new Commissioner said "Ken, what should I be concerned about, what are the things that require my immediate attention?"

Apfel: Well, it seems to me that there are still two or three areas.  One is long-term solvency.  The way to strengthen the legitimacy of the institution and to assure economic security for future generations is by continuing to move forward to get changes to the system to ensure its long-term stability.  That's the goal today, that's the goal tomorrow.  It's certainly a goal in two months so that clearly has to be fundamentally important.

 The second one is the long-term. It's 2010, maybe without the 2010 name.  The need for short-term changes and process changes to move us in the direction to be prepared for the future challenges seems to me to be the second one. 

Third would be strengthening the disability system.  It's still a very tough process - prototypes and HPI have moved it part of the way forward but there's more that's going to have to be done that I haven't thought through that needs to be done to strengthen the disability system.

Question: As I look at our programs, the disability program is a very complex program, but if you look at it organizationally or structurally, it just seems to me that it's somewhat of a fragmented process.  You've got the Office of Disability (OD), the Disability Process Redesign Team (DPRT), the Office of Disability and Income Security (ODISP) doing certain things.  You've got the Office of Policy (OP) getting involved in some pieces.  Is my assessment of that correct or am I just totally wrong about that?  How do you feel about our approach to disability?  Do we have everything under "one source of leadership" where we can do the right?  Another area, you know you talk about OQA and of course that's where I'm from, and I just think a lot of times we get involved with OD on a lot of the same kinds of issues. I just wonder if we're structured properly, is really my question.

Apfel: Well, this may be another one where I won't give full opinions.  Because I think it's really going to be up to the new Commissioner and new leadership team as to how to restructure.  I can tell you this.  To me, reorganization, for reorganization sake, eight times out of ten are counterproductive, and don't get to the heart of the real issues.  I personally believe that 2010 moved this organization a lot further forward than reorganization ever would have.  Reorganizations tend to make organizations more insular for two or three years while they go forward.  We don't need to be more insular; we need to be less insular.  But there are clearly some institutional issues that are out there about whether restructuring would help and I have not come to judgment personally about whether the structures are so fundamentally in need of repair that major reorganization would be a step in the right direction.  I have not concluded on that.

I've also really deferred that for what was either going to be my second term or was going to be the next term for the new administration.  That shouldn't be interpreted as saying I don't think change should be done, but I came to judgment that over the last three years it did not need to be done.  That, I thought, would have been a step in the wrong direction even though the fragmentation is real.  That all of our activities would have been focused on everyone worrying about where their future job's going to be and whether or not their going to keep their GS-12 and I think those kinds of things can be enormously counterproductive for organizations.  I focused on other areas of process change both in terms of HPI and prototyping and 2010.  Don't rule out the need for reorganization changes in the future but I felt that over these few years it would be inappropriate and counterproductive.

Question: I have one final question I would like to ask, and Jim may have a couple.  Say 25 years from now Ken Apfel picks up a history book about Social Security during the Clinton Administration.  What would you like to see in there beside Kenneth Apfel as far as his legacy is concerned to Social Security?

Apfel: Well it would certainly have to be a Social Security book to have Kenneth Apfel even mentioned in terms of a history book.  If it was a lengthy history of just Social Security and where we've come, I would hope that it would  mention the important steps taken towards creating an independent fully integrated organization with the American public for one, and two, the creation of a framework for dealing with the long-term challenges that the Agency faces.  You asked what the two big things are (1) it's Independent Agency and becoming more involved with the public and less insular, which I think we've done and (2) starting to come to grips with the long-term challenges that we face.  And I would hope that's what I would be remembered as helping do.  And I suppose (3) is starting to take the steps that were necessary to lead to the long-term strengthening of the Social Security system. This would not have been a presidential issue as it was in this campaign if it wasn't for the work that this President did and that this organization did over the course of the last three years.  It gets us closer I hope to ensuring the long-term stability of the system.  So I guess that would be the third.  We didn't get it done, but we did move the ball forward on that one.

Question: Commissioner, I'm always interested in role models.  In your career that have been your role models or heroes, however you want to put it.

Apfel: Well Frances Perkins has always been a hero.  She's from my hometown.  Just a remarkable figure-with a commitment to improving the lives of working Americans. 

Bill Bradley has certainly been a hero of sorts.  I worked for him for ten years.  I believe he's a very decent man that probably one thing we should add to this is one of the main things I learned from Bill Bradley, as I did from Bill Clinton, is the importance about having honest discussions about race as well as moving toward a diverse America.  And we haven't really talked much about that here but I think we've made good progress on this.  I think Social Security as a whole has made good progress for many years on this.  I think we've stepped up the ante some particularly for Asian and Hispanic individuals, given the future workforce and future customer base is very important.   So for Bradley, I believe that the things I've learned from Bradley about race in America and about the importance of inclusion they were certainly touchstones for me as Commissioner to continue to try to move us forward on those issues.  The other thing about Bradley would be his belief to try to seek the higher plane, which I think I've tried to do.  Choices based on moral, not just on management, which I think is a way to touch people. 

So I guess Bradley would be one, Frances Perkins would certainly be one.

Apfel farewell photo

Apfel delivers his farewell remarks to a gathering of top SSA executives, 1/9/2001. SSA History Archives.