The Actuary Magazine December 2004 - Putting His Best Foot Forward

Putting His Best Foot Forward

by Sam Phillips

Stephen C. Goss, chief actuary at the Social Security Administration, was recently awarded the National Academy of Social Insurance?s (NASI) first ever Robert M. Ball Award for outstanding achievements in social insurance. According to NASI, Goss ?exemplifies ?public service? at its very best. He gives tirelessly and selflessly of himself to try to clarify, illuminate and explain complex social security issues and how estimates are made of revenues, expenses and actuarial projections within that program. He openly and forthrightly invites suggestions and criticism, hoping to improve the quality of his knowledge and the accuracy of estimates put forward by the Social Security Administration. Steve Goss and the entire Office of the Actuary provide an exemplary model of integrity and transparency, while maintaining a very high level of productivity.?

The Actuary asked Goss if he could give a little more of himself and answer some questions about his career, which, of course, he did.

What is your education background?
As an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania I became a math major largely because class sizes were small, unlike most physical science courses. In my sophomore year I took an economics course, just to fulfill distributional courses, but liked it so much I ended up developing a double-major fulfilling all the re-quirements for both math and economics majors. Upon graduating in 1971, my wife and I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Virginia. I completed a master?s degree in math early in 1973 and began looking at the job market.

How long have you been employed by the Social Security Administration (SSA)?
Interviewing for jobs at the University of Virginia, I ended up purely by chance talking to the recruiter for the Office of the Actuary from the Social Security Administration. I had never heard of an actuary before that interview, but the work sounded interesting. The job was particularly attractive due to the opportunity to get involved immediately in work that would potentially make a difference for a very large client base.

What are some of your greatest career-related accomplishments?
Opportunities have been so much more significant than accomplishments. The opportunity to work with members of Congress and administration cabinet members on the development of policy and proposals that would affect virtually all of the people living in the United States has been perhaps most notable. The work of our office has contributed substantially to the evolution of all legislation related to Social Security over the years. I have had the opportunity to play a significant role in the development of the 1983 amendments and subsequent legislation. For over a decade now we have been immersed in development of proposals that will lead to the next major change in the program. This could occur within the next several years.

In addition, the work we do on the annual valuations (Trustees Reports) for Social Security is challenging and gratifying. I believe we have been a significant factor, working with the trustees, in maintaining a consistent picture of the future financial prospects of the program.

What has been the secret to your success?
There is the great old saying, ?the more you know, the more you realize how little you know.? Listening to others, being open to new ideas and staying flexible are critical. But the hard part is trying to balance the need to change on the basis of new ideas and understanding with the desire for consistency and stability over time. Identifying which changes in experience are transitory or cyclical, and keeping their influence on future projections in proper perspective is important. When I came to Social Security I did not realize how much contact our office would have with economists both inside and outside government, or how useful my background in economics would be. In the government, and perhaps for all actuaries, a solid background in the ?dismal science? is very useful.

What career-enhancing advice would you give to other actuaries?
First, listen to others very carefully. You never know when you are going to hear the next great idea. Second, be humble. No one knows everything. And it is remarkable how readily people will come to help if asked. Third, remember that communication is essential. We are all ?selling? our ideas, and if you cannot convince others of the relevance and logic of your propositions, you will not be able to influence outcomes. And finally, always maintain your integrity. Your credibility and objectivity are essential.

What are your career goals for the future?
There are two. One is for the office to provide the very best possible analysis and consultation to assist policymakers in developing the next major legislative changes for the Social Security program. Everyone says they agree that these changes would better be done sooner than later. While the political process may not precipitate change for some time, we must be ready at all times in case the stars align. My second goal is to work with the other seasoned veterans in our office to continue acquiring and training the next generation. The Office of the Actuary has existed, even prospered, for about 70 years now, and we want to assure its continued ability to contribute.

What is your best ?on the job? memory?
I am so lucky that I can honestly say there are too many to even begin to mention. The daily interaction with each of the 50 members of our office on issues of great mutual interest is way up there. Working closely with the current and past Commissioners of Social Security, and so many others in the agency, on sometimes contentious, but always productive matters. Working closely with members of Congress and their staff, admin-istration officials, folks from other agencies like CBO and GAO, and so many from academia and the private business sector. The common thread in all these memories is the desire of all to work toward the benefit of others. This aspect of public service, by government employees and by others from outside government, is not appreciated enough.

If you had to do it all over again, would you choose the same career path?
That is a very difficult (hypothetical) question. As finding this career path was largely a matter of luck and chance, it is hard to say whether following another path would be as fulfilling. I suspect that any job that provides the opportunity to work with good people who care about what they are doing and that provides the opportunity to make a contribution, would be very satisfying.

Sam Phillips is associate editor for The Society of Actuaries.