How USCIS is building a ‘digital Ellis Island’ for the future

Amid a growing emphasis on efficiency from the Trump administration, some agencies are beginning to find new savings by retooling cumbersome customer service pr...

Amid a growing emphasis on efficiency from the Trump administration, some agencies are beginning to find new savings by retooling cumbersome customer service processes and modernizing legacy systems.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, for example, said it’s developing the equivalent of a “digital Ellis Island,” an application that would allow prospective U.S. citizens to complete almost the entire naturalization process online.

“If you think about Ellis Island and you think about this massive, one place that people [would] come in and would see the Statute of Liberty, be inspired, go through that processing center and within a few days, a few weeks, sometimes a few months, those folks would emerge as new Americans,” David Simeon, division chief of innovation and technology for the Customer Service and Public Engagement Directorate at USCIS, said March 30 during a Government Executive panel discussion in Washington. “Of course that’s not possible in today’s digital age.”

The agency has so far launched the naturalization application online, which customers can fill out to begin the citizenship process. Based on those online forms, CIS can begin to determine whether applicants qualify to move forward.

Simeon said the agency is “close” to finishing other aspects of the tool.

Roughly 40 million people enter and leave the U.S. temporarily every year. USCIS receives at least 7 million applications for citizenship annually.

Now, most immigrants wait weeks, months or even years. The process starts with a few dozen forms. If there’s a mistake on one of them, CIS will send it back, and the process starts over. The agency manually uploads those forms into its systems and then ships them to USCIS processing centers. CIS employees will examine each applicant’s file and perform background checks. Once applications go through the CIS processing centers, local offices pick up the work and begin to arrange interviews with qualified applicants.

“Hopefully, they’ve satisfied all your questions,” Simeon said. “Hopefully, they’ve brought all the evidence. If they haven’t brought all the evidence, then you have to either continue that case or issue   what we call a request for evidence. That elongates the process even more.”

CIS recently focused its attention on developing a mobile-friendly and responsive website. Nearly 40 percent of users who come to the myUSCIS website, for example, access it through a mobile device, usually a smartphone, Simeon said.

The agency has so far learned a few valuable lessons from these projects.

“It’s not necessarily just about the technology,” Simeon said. “It is about the user experience. We actually do the experience design. We do ethnographic studies, where you go out and interview customers in their homes.”

The Federal Elections Commission is also updating its website and automating its campaign finance disclosure filing system. By the end of April, FEC will move its website to a cloud provider.

“If we could basically take one of our legacy systems, put the effort in transforming that, modernizing that, then [we could use] the money saved from that and then [reinvest] it in new technology,” said Alec Palmer, chief information officer of the FEC.

By the end of the fiscal year, the agency will move and close its hosting facility. The project will save FEC $1.2 million a year, Palmer said.

“That may not sound like much to [someone like] DHS, but to the FEC, that’s a huge part of our IT budget,” he said.

CIS also recently introduced the concept of split or A/B testing, Simeon said. CIS will test one version against another to gauge what performs best with its users.

In addition, CIS is taking the some of the lessons it’s learned from Ask Emma, the agency’s artificial intelligence (AI) assistant that helps answer customers’ questions in real time.

Now, CIS is developing an internal-facing tool that would help the agency’s employees direct their time and resources to more complicated customer questions.

“For those general questions, for those questions that … if there was a technology that understood the actual policy and could interpret it and be able to relay an answer to the customer that they would understand, that would get us to the folks that are probably at the most disadvantage and need actual resources of a human being to help them,” Simeon said.

Developing and adopting virtual assistants and tools has been a learning curve, as CIS shifts more resources away from human capital and personnel and more toward AI, he said.

The goal, Simeon said,  is to deflect some of the agency’s call volume. CIS receives 14 million calls a year.

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