The State Department, facing a historic increase in passport applicants, is looking to ramp up hiring and modernize its IT systems to drive down wait times.
The State Department set a record last year when it issued about 22 million passport books and cards last year. But the department is on track to break that record and issue about 25 million passport books and cards this year — about a 15% increase from last year.
Assistant Secretary of State for Consular Affairs Rena Bitter told members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the Bureau of Consular Affairs is seeing “historically high demand” for passport and visa services.
Routine processing for a passport now takes about between 10-13 weeks, and that expedited processing takes about 7-9 weeks.
Subcommittee Chairman Brian Mast (R-Fla.) said that when his constituents apply for a passport or need assistance overseas, “it sets in motion a giant bureaucratic machine in many cases. And it’s clear that that machine in many cases doesn’t fire on all cylinders.”
“If an American’s only experience with the State Department is a months-long delay on their passport application, then that’s going to be the only thing that they remember about the Department of State,” Mast said.
Bitter said the bureau hired 177 new passport adjudicators this year, growing its workforce by about 10%. She said the bureau is in the process of growing its workforce by another 10%.
“These are national security positions. Every passport adjudication, every visa adjudication is a national security position. And it does take time to onboard people, to ensure that they have the appropriate clearances, to make sure they’re suitable, to train them in many cases in quite difficult languages,” Bitter told the Subcommittee on Oversight and Accountability.
The State Department started bringing employees back to the office in the summer of 2020, well before most agencies launched a return-to-office effort. All passport adjudicators have been back in the office since August 2021.
Bitter said Consular Affairs had to freeze hiring during the height of the pandemic, but emergency appropriations from Congress kept the bureau from having to lay off employees.
Once the bureau started bringing in more revenue in late 2021, it resumed hiring for passport adjudicators. Bitter said the bureau started hiring more overseas adjudicators in the beginning of 2022, and that some overseas positions remain vacant.
Bitter said the fee-for-service bureau saw a 50% drop in revenue at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Congress, through emergency appropriations, made up the difference and gave the bureau more flexibility on how it spends fee revenue.
Bitter said the bureau is calling on Congress to make those flexibilities permanent.
The bureau also plans to fully launch its online passport renewal capability later this year, after rolling out the capability on a limited basis. Bitter said that online passport renewal is part of a decade-long vision to modernize the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ legacy IT systems.
“We don’t want to surge our way out of this, we don’t want to insist on people doing overtime. We want to be able also to invest in modernized systems and equipment to be able to support these functions,” Bitter said.
President Joe Biden directed the State Department to launch its online passport renewal system as part of his December 2021 executive order on improving customer experience across the federal government.
Bitter said 5 million Americans will be able to renew their passports entirely online by the end of the year.
“We cannot make meaningful progress on these priorities without sustained and significant investments in our IT infrastructure and staff,” Bitter said.
The department began testing an online passport renewal option in February 2022, and invited federal employees and contractors to apply.
Between February and August 2022, the department received 10,000 online passport applications.
The State Department expanded the audience to include the general public in August 2022. Since that time, over 500,000 customers have successfully submitted an application using the pilot online passport renewal. The department, however, temporarily closed the online renewal service to new customers on Feb. 7.
The State Department received almost 18 million passport applications last year. About 46% of Americans have passports.