Recognizing the impending rewards of shifting U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services from mountains of paper to streamlined online processing, the agency also knows that collaboration and a culture change are paramount to move everyday business into the digital age.
Director Francis Cissna “has made a full commitment to implementing electronic filing for most forms by the end of 2020, which is an ambitious undertaking still despite the progress made,” the USCIS ombudsman said in a June report.
“It’s a huge, huge shift in how we’re doing business,” said Rob Brown, integration architect in USCIS’ Office of Information Technology at the Government Technology & Services Coalition’s USCIS Day in McLean, Va., on Friday.
Brown sees an “opportunity to think about introducing” even more technology, machine learning and artificial intelligence to help clear up the agency’s backlog. The shift in how the agency handles data can be a “gateway drug to really awesome things.”
Chief Information Officer Bill McElhaney noted “a lot of early successes” in the goal to achieve complete electronic processing by 2020 by integrating the environment. “We have a long way to go,” he acknowledged. “We’ve just barely left base camp.”
Making it happen, McElhaney said, requires “passion, commitment, tools, vision, resources, and leadership.”
“We have an alignment of the stars here,” he said, which “gives us the opportunity to do something we have never been able to do in the past.”
Some USCIS business such as work authorization will still have to be on paper and will be out of scope of the digital project, noted Tammy Meckley, associate director of the Immigration Records and Identity Services Directorate.
Meckley called the e-processing initiative “incredibly exciting” and “probably one of the most exciting things we’ve ever embarked on at USCIS.”
“When you have that support from the top… then the sky’s the limit,” she said, stressing how the shift is “going to get people out of these boxes that they’re in” and open up opportunities for employees as they acquire more tech proficiency.
David Blair, chief of the Transformation Delivery Division, emphasized that USCIS is “still a very heavily paper-based organization,” processing about 9 million cases a year with each of those files about 8 inches thick. Stacked together, he said, that’s twice as high as the Statue of Liberty.
“We were kind of on survival mode for a long time,” he noted.
Fixes to the agency’s website have helped inform the process of digital transformation as the online portal tries to resolve some of the basic inquiries people have up front.
Courtney Winship, division chief of digital services in the Office of Citizenship and Applicant Information Services, said the website overhaul has been a project to “not just look at immediate fixes but how we build a full experience.”
She said it’s been “really exciting that our office has been pulled together in the way that it has” to move USCIS forward in the digital era.
“Communication and collaboration make everything possible,” Winship said.
Communication is key, stressed Field Operations Directorate Technology Coordination Chief Jeff Sapko, when ensuring that enhancements and advancements work for USCIS staff who have “a real sense of ownership” in the cases they work.
“Where we run afoul of technology is when we end up chasing the technology instead of having the technology work for us,” Sapko said, adding that what’s helpful is to partner with OIT “to develop lightweight solutions that just work.”
“What we’re trying to do is figure out a way that we can give you coherent requirements that you can build against,” he said.
Ted Kim, deputy associate director at the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations Directorate, outlined some of the ways in which technology can help clear the agency backlog of 300,000 asylum cases and provide enhanced vetting for refugee applicants.
This includes text analytics to look for boilerplate language that can help flag fraud in asylum applications. Kim said he hopes they can at some point move into dialect analysis.
With the new USCIS interconnected suite of self-help systems, said Mariela Melero, chief of the Office of Citizenship & Applicant Information Services, “creating a baseline of service in a digital environment is going to be critical.”