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On November 9, The Washington Post published “DHS Bid to Go Digital Falls Flat,” a story on the digitization program launched by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in 2006. The story fails to recognize the progress DHS and USCIS have made in recent years to correct course on this important initiative. Thanks to efforts to modernize our immigration services, we have provided a fresh start to the program. It is now within cost and on schedule.
Without a doubt, USCIS’s 2006 digitization program, with its original contractor, was over budget and behind schedule. But, rather than deem the original program “too big to fail” and continue further down the wrong path, DHS made the hard decision to fundamentally reboot the program around the latest industry best practices and approaches. We pulled the plug on the original program, phased out the contractor, and moved to a different approach. In 2012, we launched the USCIS Transformation Program, in order to digitize the more than 6 million immigration applications filed each year. This made processing more efficient, effective, and secure. The result of these changes was a program and system that has little in common with the initial outdated attempt that was launched in 2006, beyond a shared name.
Additionally, as part of the President’s executive actions issued last year, in which he directed key federal agencies to explore ways to modernize and streamline our legal immigration system, teams of engineers, designers, and product managers from the U.S. Digital Service have been working in collaboration with USCIS to transform the nation’s immigration process from a mostly paper-based system to a fully electronic environment. This new approach has proven effective and we are making sound progress. In November 2014, USCIS launched the first form in this rebuilt system, the application to renew or replace a green card. USCIS followed up earlier this year with another key initiative, the immigrant visa fee. So far:
- More than 500,000 filings are being processed in this rebuilt system. This represents 16% of all immigration processing, and we’re on track to add new forms that will increase that total to 41% by the end of 2016.
- Further, 92% of people who’ve filed using the new system say they’re satisfied with it. While we wish we could make these changes overnight, this type of lasting work takes time, and we look forward to continuing to build on this important progress in the months and years to come.
Back in 2012, we realized that, as with many government IT programs, relying on a single, large contract with one contractor was not working. We split the work between several contractors, who then had to compete with each other for continued participation in the project. Continuous competition created the spark for innovation, and the vendors responded. We also streamlined our oversight processes. We simplified the technical design of the system. We’ve taken steps to deliver capability faster and reduce costs. We adopted industry best practices including agile development, open source technologies, and continuous delivery. This is the same approach used in leading technology companies such as Netflix, Amazon, and Etsy, and large companies like Target, Nordstrom, Disney, and Capital One. It’s also the same approach that the President has tasked the U.S. Digital Service to provide - upgrading other sites across the entire federal government in order to best serve the public.
Finally, these reforms to our business practices are part of my Unity of Effort initiative for the Department of Homeland Security. We now have headquarters-level oversight of acquisition programs, to establish the right requirements on the front end, and to oversee the program along the way. We look for the latest information technology solutions. And, we are broadening our outreach to industry.
This is just the type of turnaround story in technology that we should be pioneering across the entire government.