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Dorcas Hardy's stamp on social security. Head of sprawling US retirement system is unretiring in word and deed

Dorcas Hardy brought a reputation for hard work with her last summer when she became chief of the sprawling US social security system. She had already spent nearly 20 years working with those whom society labels as vulnerable - children, the elderly, the disabled, the ill. She sees those 20 years as devoted to helping people get through temporary problems by keeping the support temporary; her critics see them as 20 years spent slashing programs for those least able to defend themselves.

For the five years prior to assuming the social security helm, she supervised 1,200 people as assistant secretary for Human Development Services, part of the Department of Health and Human Services. There, she concentrated on child abuse, foster care and adoption, and programs for the handicapped and the elderly.

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As social security administrator, she heads a department of 76,000 people in 1,340 offices around the country. On that considerable bureaucracy - termed by many as antiquated and inefficient - she is focusing a conservative philosophy and strong management skills. Her goal is to turn the system's image around: ``I want to leave it the premier department in the government,'' she states matter-of-factly in a New Jersey accent.

Around town, she's not exactly known as the humble type.

``When I first arrived there,'' she says of her initial appearance before the legislators on Capitol Hill, ``I found out they expected someone polite and demure.'' That's not what they got. ``When they yell,'' says her assistant, Enid Borden, ``Dorcas yells back.''

Her no-nonsense approach can come across as combative, abrupt, and cold, a perception her supporters say is false. ``She's not Attila the Hun or anything,'' says Dave Rust, a former assistant to Ms. Hardy. ``Actually, I think she's a bit of a cream puff.''

He gives this example: ``I have little children, and take the train home; I try to leave early enough to spend some time with them at night. Dorcas has memorized the train schedule and would often interrupt a meeting to tell me to get out of there to catch the next train.''

Even her own father, former New Jersey assemblyman C. Colburn Hardy, asked to described her, says right off that she's ``aggressive.'' She's been a manager from the start, he says: ``In college, Dorcas ran for office twice and lost both times. Then she became a campaign manager, and never lost. And she managed her dormitory, a 28-hour-per-day-job, and did it very well.''

Smitten with politics early - her mother, Ruth, remembers her stuffing envelopes at Republican headquarters as a child - Hardy took a job as a summer intern to Sen. Clifford P. Case, a liberal Republican from New Jersey. Then she took off for a year abroad, representing the Girl Scouts in Pakistan and eventually winding up in Tanzania.

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She came back to work in Washington, both on the Hill and at the White House, but found herself drawn to a philosophy of government best exemplified by then governor of California, Ronald Reagan.

``California was the best-run state in the country,'' she says, ``and I was impressed by the governor's commitment to reforming Medicaid and welfare.'' She worked under Reagan in California and campaigned for him in his presidential bids of 1976 and 1980, following him to Washington in 1981.

Throughout her career she's been a manager in a man's world. But she says she never saw herself as a female in a male role: ``I've never felt that way. The issue always comes down to competence, not gender.''

That attitude has deep roots in Hardy's upbringing. ``I remember what my grandmother, who lived close to the headquarters for Prudential Insurance, told me,'' says the social security commissioner. ```Now, Dorcas, you should go around to Prudential - you can start out at the bottom and work your way up to the very top.' Well, Nana would be happy to see me now that I'm head of another kind of insurance.''

Social security is an insurance policy that people have come to rely on for retirement - which is a mistake, she says. ``If I have one responsibility, it's to remind [the baby boom generation, heading toward retirement] that the one with the primary responsibility to the individual's future is that individual. Somewhere along the line we came up with the idea that social security is the entire retirement ticket,'' she says. ``It's not - the ticket is a combination of social security, savings, and pension.''

The issue of retirement planning needs a new set of assumptions, Hardy asserts.

``It's just a feeling on my part, but I think we assume that our generation is going to be similar to the current retirees. We are different from that generation, and our expectations will probably be different.''

She says the question to ask is, ``What do you really need to spend your money on [at that age]? Six fur coats?'' The major expenses such as housing, she says, are behind this age group and therefore less money is needed to maintain a decent lifestyle.

And if continued consumption is the desire, ``why not take another career at 67?'' she asks. Working through old age may be necessary to cover a high-cost life style, in her view.

But social security, Hardy affirms, ``will be there and I will draw it.'' Meanwhile, her goal is to bring to the system ``a little more modern view.'' She hopes to install 22,000 computers in the next year. Concurrently, there will be a gradual staff reduction by about 14,000 people through attrition over the next four years, and the closing of a dozen or so offices per year.

``We're setting up 20 [computerized] model offices around the country right now,'' she says, ``and using them to train people.'' In the future, she claims, you'll be able to make an appointment to talk with someone at social security. Telephone banks will be developed to encourage people to solve their own problems by phone.

``For most people the issue is, `Did I get my check this month?' They don't care about the system behind it, whether it's efficient or not,'' she says. ``But I care. The business of government should be businesslike.''

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