Posted: 12:02 am EDT
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According to Commerce, international travelers contributed $220.6 billion to the economy and supported 1.1 million jobs in 2014. Processing visas for such travelers as efficiently and effectively as possible without compromising our national security is critical to maintaining a competitive and secure travel and tourism industry in the United States. Although State has historically struggled with the task of maintaining reasonable wait times for NIV interviews, it has undertaken a number of efforts in recent years that have yielded substantial progress in reducing such waits.
Significant projected increases in NIV demand coupled with consular hiring constraints and other challenges could hinder State’s ability to sustain this progress in the future—especially in countries where the demand for visas is expected to rise the highest. These challenges heighten the importance of systematically evaluating the cost and impact of the multiple measures State has taken to reduce interview wait times in recent years and leveraging that knowledge in future decision making. Without this, State’s ability to direct resources to those activities that offer the greatest likelihood of success is limited. Moreover, State’s future capacity to cope with rising NIV demand will be challenged by inefficiencies in its visa processing technology; consular officers and management officials at the posts we visited pointed to cumbersome user procedures and frequent system failures as enormous obstacles to efficient NIV processing. State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs recognizes these problems and plans a number of system enhancements; however, the bureau does not systematically collect input from consular officers to help guide and prioritize these planned upgrades. Without a systematic effort to gain the input of those who employ these systems on a daily basis, State cannot be assured that it is investing its resources in a way that will optimize the performance of these systems for current and future users.
Consular officers and managers at posts we visited identified current information technology (IT) systems as one of the most significant challenges to the efficient processing of NIVs. Consular officers in all 11 focus groups we conducted across the four posts we visited stated that problems with the Consular Consolidated Database (CCD) and the NIV system create significant obstacles for consular officers in the processing of NIVs.26 Specifically, consular officers and managers at posts stated that frequent NIV system outages and failures (where the system stops working) at individual posts, worldwide system outages of CCD, and IT systems that are not user friendly, negatively affected their ability to process NIVs.
— NIV system outages and failures at posts: Consular officers we spoke with in Beijing, Mexico City, New Delhi, and São Paulo explained that the NIV system regularly stops working. This results in a reduced number of adjudications (whether being performed at the interview window or, for an IWP applicant, at an officer’s desk) in a day. Notably, consular officers in 4 of the 11 focus groups reported having to stop work or re-adjudicate NIV applications as a result of these NIV system failures. In fact, during our visit to the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi in March 2015, a local NIV outage occurred, affecting consular officers’ ability to conduct adjudications. In January 2015, officers in Bogotá, Guadalajara, Monterrey, and Moscow—among the top 15 posts with the highest NIV applicant volume in 2014— experienced severe NIV performance issues—specifically an inability to perform background check queries against databases.
— Worldwide outages and operational issues of CCD: Since July 2014, two worldwide outages of CCD have impaired the ability of posts to process NIV applications. On June 9, 2015, an outage affected the ability of posts to run checks of biometric data, thus halting most visa printing along with other services offered at posts.27 According to State officials, the outage affected every post worldwide for 10 days. The system was gradually repaired, but it was not fully restored at all posts until June 29, 2015, exacerbating already increased NIV interview wait times at some posts during the summer high demand season.According to State notices, another significant outage of CCD occurred on July 20, 2014, slowing NIV processing worldwide until September 5, 2014, when CCD returned to full operational capacity.28 State estimated that from the start of operational issues on July 20 through late July, State issued approximately 220,000 NIVs globally— about half of the NIVs State anticipated issuing during that period. According to officials in State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, Office of Consular Systems and Technology (CST), who are responsible for operating and maintaining CCD and the NIV system, consular officers were still able to collect NIV applicant information during that period; however, processing of applications was significantly delayed with an almost 2-week backlog of NIVs. In the U.S. Consulate in São Paulo, a consular management official reported that due to this outage, the post had a backlog of about 30,000 NIV applications, or approximately 9 days’ worth of NIV interviews during peak season. Consular officers in 8 out of the 11 focus groups we conducted identified a lengthy CCD outage as a challenge to the efficient processing of NIVs.
— IT systems are not user friendly: In 9 out of 11 focus groups, consular officers described the IT systems for NIV processing as not user friendly. Officers in our focus groups explained that some aspects of the system hinder their ability to quickly and efficiently process NIVs. These aspects include a lack of integration among the databases needed for NIV adjudications, the need for manual scanning of documentation provided by an applicant, and an absence of standard keyboard shortcuts29 across all IT applications that would allow users to quickly copy information when processing NIV applications for related applicants, to avoid having to enter data multiple times. Some consular officers in our focus groups stated that they could adjudicate more NIVs in a day if the IT systems were less cumbersome and more user friendly.
— Consular officers in Beijing and Mexico City and consular management at one post indicated that the NIV system appeared to be designed without consideration for the needs of a high volume post, which include efficiently processing a large number of applications per adjudicator each day. According to consular officers, the system is poor at handling today’s high levels of demand because it was originally designed in the mid- 1990s. Consular officers in São Paulo stated that under current IT systems and programs, the post may not be able to process larger volumes that State projects it will have in the future.
— State, recognizing the limits of its current consular IT systems, initiated the development of a new IT platform. State is developing a new system referred to as “ConsularOne,” to modernize 92 applications that include systems such as CCD and the NIV system. According to State, ConsularOne will be implemented in six phases, starting with passport renewal systems and, in phase five, capabilities associated with adjudicating and issuing visas (referred to as non-citizen services). However, CST officials have yet to formally commit to when the capabilities associated with non-citizen services are to be implemented. According to a preliminary CST schedule, the enhanced capabilities associated with processing NIVs are not scheduled for completion until October 2019. Given this timeline, according to State officials, enhancements to existing IT systems are necessary and are being planned.
State Does Not Systematically Obtain End User Input to Prioritize Improvement Efforts for Current IT Systems
Although consular officers and managers we spoke with identified CCD and the NIV system as one of the most significant challenges to the efficient processing of NIVs, State does not systematically measure end user (i.e., consular officers) satisfaction. We have previously reported that in order for IT organizations to be successful, they should measure the satisfaction of their users and take steps to improve it.30 The Software Engineering Institute’s IDEALSM model is a recognized approach for managing efforts to make system improvements.31 According to this model, user satisfaction should be collected and used to help guide improvement efforts through a written plan. With such an approach, IT improvement resources can be invested in a manner that provides optimal results.
Although State is in the process of upgrading and enhancing CCD and the NIV system, State officials told us that they do not systematically measure user satisfaction with their IT systems and do not have a written plan for improving satisfaction. According to CST officials, consular officers may voluntarily submit requests to CST for proposed IT system enhancements. Additionally, State officials noted that an IT stakeholder group comprising officials in State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs regularly meets to identify and prioritize IT resources and can convey end user concerns for the system.32 However, State has not collected comprehensive data regarding end user satisfaction and developed a plan to help guide its current improvement efforts. Furthermore, consular officers continued to express concerns with the functionality of the IT systems, and some officers noted that enhancements to date have not been sufficient to address the largest problems they encounter with the systems.
Given consular officers’ reliance on IT services provided by CST, as well as the feedback we received from focus groups, it is critical that State identify and implement feedback from end users in a disciplined and structured fashion for current and any future IT upgrades. Without a systematic approach to measure end user satisfaction, CST may not be able to adequately ensure that it is investing its resources on improvement efforts that will improve performance of its current and future IT systems for end users.