DHS improves foreign student tracking program, according to GAO

The Homeland Security Department has taken many effective steps to improve the web-based Student and Exchange Visitor Information System, according to a new General Accounting Office report.

The agency has successfully streamlined the process of collecting and recording information on foreign student and exchange visitors, the watchdog agency said in its report (GAO-04-690). Several key improvements were the increased staffing and training of the Help Desk, the use of new software, and regular meetings being held within the department and with educational representatives.

Indicators such as system availability, response time, capacity, and resource usage showed that requirements are being met, the report indicated. But not only are key performance requirements being met, requests for systems changes are declining and "officials representing educational organizations generally see performance as having improved," it went on.

Between January and June 2003, more than 20 critical and high-priority system change requests were reported in a six-week period. However, between June and December 2003 only two were filed. This dramatic decline shows the effectiveness of the initial changes, GAO said.

User feedback shows many of the early problems--user access, system timeouts and data merging--that plagued SEVIS no longer occur. Representatives from educational organizations told GAO that overall program performance has improved, as well as outreach and responsiveness.

Homeland Security officials continue to monitor the program and try to improve the system. The agency plans to continue biweekly internal performance and technical meetings as well as biweekly conference calls with education representatives. The department also has created special e-mail accounts to report user problems, and has user groups testing new changes to SEVIS.

Despite increased staffing, response from the Help Desk continues to be a cause of complaint, the report showed. Homeland Security officials said Help Desk responses are sometimes complicated by difficulty learning from users the exact problem and lack of user computer knowledge. The agency told GAO auditors that they continue to try to improve response time with Help Desk review and training as well as user education.

GAO made four recommendations for further improving the program. They are designed to improve Homeland Security monitoring of key system performance requirements, address educational association performance concerns, and expedite collection of a SEVIS fee to pay for the service.

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