The State Department is launching long-awaited capabilities that will allow the public to renew their passports online starting next fall.
The expected fall 2022 launch of these new features is the first major, public-facing service to go live as part of a decade-long IT modernization project at the department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs
A State Department official told Federal News Network that the agency is “committed to providing optimal customer service and is improving its passport services to better meet the needs of U.S. travelers.”
“We are currently piloting an online passport renewal system with government employees and contractors before opening it to the public. This pilot will help us test functionality and ensure everything operates as designed before online passport renewal is launched to the public in fall 2022,” the official said.
The new online feature will allow travelers to avoid a trip to a nearby post office or passport agency. According to several agency inspector general reports, this capability would also better position passport services employees to telework and ensure greater continuity of operations.
President Joe Biden specifically directed the State Department to launch the online passport renewal capability “that does not require any physical documents to be mailed,” as part of the executive order on federal customer experience he signed Monday.
Neera Tanden, a senior adviser to the president, told reporters on a call Monday that the online passport renewal capability would “start this month and expand dramatically” at a later date.
Once up and running next fall, the online passport renewal platform would give the State Department more options for employees to continue processing passport applications. The agency completed significantly fewer passport applications in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The IG office found an inability for passport services employees to telework led to a reduction in revenue and output. The department in May 2020 issued about 13,000 passports, a fraction of the 1.8 million passports it sent out for the same month in 2019.
Because the online passport renewal system was unavailable, passport services staff last year returned to the office sooner than other State Department employees, in order to deal with a backlog of passport applications.
“Had the online passport renewal system been available, CA/PPT could have pivoted to remote work and kept a greater portion of the incoming passport applications moving throughout the COVID-19 pandemic-related maximum telework orders in 2020,” the IG office wrote in September.
National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1998 President Lee Wentz told Federal News Network in July that staffing shortages and an inability for employees to telework during the pandemic made it more difficult for passport services employees to chip away at summertime backlogs of passport applications.
Passport services eliminated a large passport application backlog by September 2020, and started issuing as many as a quarter-million passports per week by mid-December, as processing times approached its pre-pandemic standards.
That backlog, however, crept back up this summer.
Deputy Assistant Secretary for Passport Services Rachel Arndt told reporters in July that Consular Affairs would surge staffing at passport agencies across the country to deal with a backlog of as many as 2 million passport applications.
The department, under this backlog, took up to 18 weeks to process routine passport applications, and up to 12 weeks to handle expedited applications. Under both tracks, the department is allowing up to six weeks for mailing.
The State Department typically processes 18 million passports a year and handles about 200,000 applications in an average week.
The pilot of the online passport renewal system, happening internally among agency employees and contractors, is now the second pilot to stem from the 10-year IT modernization project.
The ConsularOne initiative, launched in 2011, seeks to modernize and consolidate the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ 90 IT systems.
The Office of Consular Systems and Technology (CST) in March 2019 launched a “very limited pilot” of a platform that would give U.S. citizens living abroad the ability to complete an online application to report the birth of their children to the State Department for citizenship purposes, according to a recent inspector general report.
The IG report finds the agency launched the pilot at six consular locations, but missed its August 2021 deadline to run a second version of the pilot at those same locations.
The agency’s IG linked years of staffing issues to repeated delays in a decade-long modernization of the agency’s consular systems. CST’s director told the IG office that employee vacancies are “definitely part of the delay.”
Between December 2014 and April 2021, the IG found the vacancy rate of civil service positions in CST ranged between 28% and 39%. The IG found the vacancy rate peaked during the department’s hiring freeze from January 2017 to May 2018.
The IG office estimates the department has spent anywhere from $200-to-600 million on the ConsularOne modernization but said a lack of clarity from the agency over contracts linked to the project means the watchdog was “unable to determine the total cost of the ConsularOne modernization program with any precision.”