Down 9,000 employees as a result of a three-year hiring freeze and facing burgeoning numbers of retiring baby boomers might seem like an unwelcome burden to an acting administrator, but in Colvin’s return engagement with SSA, she’s loving it.
“The Social Security Administration is the best organization I’ve had the privilege of working in,” said Colvin, 71, who has served as acting commissioner since February after her initial stint with the agency from 1994 to 2001. She is also on SSA’s board of trustees. “It’s very rare to have a second tour of duty at an agency and to see some of the ideas and seeds becoming institutionalized. That has been very, very gratifying. It means something I thought was the right thing to do was just that.”
Colvin, a native Marylander, pursued a career in social services while raising two sons and taking a 14-year night-school route to a B.A. and M.B.A. at Morgan State University. A job with the Baltimore city government helped to pay for tuition, and she eventually rose to become secretary of Maryland’s Department of Human Resources before joining SSA.
Then and now, Colvin concentrates on improving services at the agency’s 1,400 field offices, which provide benefits to more than 55 million people. Specifics such as in-person or telephone wait times, staff attitude, turnaround times to resolution—even if not favorable—matter to people, she says. She is lauded as an in-the-field leader of her staff. “I’m not a behind-the-desk kind of person,” she said.
Colvin left federal service to take over the District of Columbia’s troubled Human Services Department for two years, then moved on to executive positions with the Montgomery County, Md., Department of Health and Human Services, D.C.’s Amerigroup HMO, and Maryland’s Transportation Department. Since her December 2011 confirmation as deputy SSA commissioner, Colvin has focused on making “drastic changes,” given tightening budgets and an aging agency workforce.
When Colvin, a widow, finally begins to draw benefits as a retiree, she expects to travel, spend time with her five grandchildren, and work even more with organizations such as one that provides affordable housing in Anne Arundel County, Md., where she lives.
A simple credo drives Colvin’s management style and commitment to service: “There’s nothing more gratifying than making someone’s life better.”