Leadership for Social Security


It has been a tough year for the Social Security Administration. Leaderless for 13 months, it has faced mounting backlogs, deteriorating working conditions and low morale. There's no doubt Shirley S. Chater, sworn in yesterday as commissioner at the Woodlawn headquarters, faces a daunting challenge. But she comes with skills that should help her tackle the job of restoring the agency's efficiency, morale and sense of mission.

It took the Clinton administration scandalously long to nominate a leader for an organization that plays such a crucial role in American life -- a delay that drew some well-deserved blasts from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Social Security touches the life of virtually every American. It employs 65,000 people, including 15,000 in the Baltimore area. Bureaucracies that big may have a life of their own, but don't count on them to work smoothly without firm and able leadership.

Ms. Chater, a nurse by training, has attained almost legendary status as an administrator for her success in reinvigorating Texas Woman's University in the town of Denton, a school that was in danger of being folded into another institution when Ms. Chater arrived in 1986. Known as a creative, compassionate, energetic leader, she now leaves behind a thriving university with a renewed sense of mission.

Ms. Chater will need all her vaunted management skills in her new job at Woodlawn. During the Reagan and Bush administrations, Social Security was a favorite target for budget cuts. The agency's work force was slashed by 15,000, dropping to 65,000 from 80,000. Meanwhile, management problems grew.

To cite one example, there is a backlog of 700,000 disability claims from people unable to work. But any entity as big as the Social Security Administration will always present a tempting target for budget cutting, and in all likelihood Ms. Chater will have to find a way to solve the agency's problems with little or no additional funding.

That is no small challenge. But together with Lawrence H. Thompson, her principal deputy and one of the country's foremost experts on Social Security, the new management team at Woodlawn is good news for an organization sorely in need of strong and competent leadership.

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