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Paper Folders Twice As Fast As Computerized Immigration System

David Smart/Shutterstock.com

Story has been updated to include comment from USCIS officials.

After six years of development, a new automated system for processing immigration forms takes twice as long as processing applications by hand, according to a Department of Homeland Security internal watchdog.

The $1.7 billion information technology project, called Transformation, began under a $536,000 contract with a 2013 end date but soon stalled because of, inspectors say, poor planning and inadequate staffing.

One problem today is that the user interface on the Electronic Immigration System -- or ELIS -- is something of a maze.  

"Immigration services officers take longer to adjudicate in ELIS in part because of the estimated 100 to 150 clicks required to move among sublevels and open documents to complete the process," Richard Harsche, acting assistant inspector general for the DHS Office of IT Audits, said in a newly released report

ELIS -- the abbreviation was intended to evoke the historic immigration station Ellis Island -- also has no tabs or highlighting features, and searches do not produce usable results, he said. 

At one location evaluated, employees closed 2.16 cases per hour manually and 0.86 cases in ELIS.

"Instead of improved efficiency, time studies conducted by service centers show that adjudicating on paper is at least two times faster than adjudicating in ELIS," Harsche said. The project is being financed through immigrant fees. 

Officials at DHS U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which maintains the system, are aware of the technical problems, according to the IG. The agency plans to make adjustments in future phases of the project, including reducing the number of clicks required to get work done.

However, in some respects, the agency's hands are tied by the project’s original blueprints. 

"USCIS has been limited in its ability to make changes to ELIS because of challenges with the existing architecture," Harsche said. "The architecture consists of 29 commercial software products, which are difficult to integrate." Most modifications will take place by the end of 2014, during a transition to a more flexible architecture.

The agency recently inked a potential $58 million contract in hopes of completing the e-filing system. Going forward, USCIS will break up the project into six-month software release cycles to identify problems early, rather than run the risk of finishing and discovering the whole system does not perform. 

This "agile" development strategy was praised in the IG report. 

"Agile methods used during software development projects can reduce the risk of project failure and assure that the delivered system performs as intended," Harsche said. "With the appropriate blend of tools, processes, and people with appropriate skill sets, the USCIS [chief information officer] can use these agile approaches to support the agency better in its goals, such as completing the USCIS Transformation effort.”

On Tuesday afternoon, USCIS officials said a June 2 letter that replied to a draft report will stand as the agency's public response to the final assessment.

"Coordination and communication between the system owner and business owner is crucial to the success of USCIS meeting its mission," agency Acting Deputy Director Rendell Jones wrote. "The respective program offices are responsible for training users on the IT systems appropriate for an indivdual's particular job function" and USCIS officials also ensure "user manuals and training documentation are up to date."

He said officials expect to complete updates for the ELIS user materials by November.

(Image via val lawless/Shutterstock.com)

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