Getting to the bottom of passport processing flaws proves thorny

The State Department's management and union clashed this week over the root causes of passport processing mistakes revealed by the Government Accountability Office last month -- but seemed to agree there were systemic problems in State's Bureau of Consular Affairs.

Colin Walle, president of National Federation of Federal Employees Local 1998, said the State Department was placing too much of the blame for the problems uncovered by GAO on human error. An approach of moving applications along without waiting for the results of Social Security Administration database checks and a workplace culture of "quantity over quality" are more to blame, Walle said.

In March, GAO issued a report revealing that an undercover investigator obtained four passports using fake identifying information, including the Social Security number of a man who had died in 1965. State responded in part by suspending the adjudication authority of the passport specialists involved.

"We're getting fed up with how they're handling this," Walle said. "The employees are being scapegoated for the mistakes."

But Brenda Sprague, deputy assistant secretary for passport services at the State Department, said the suspension of the four specialists' approval authority was not a disciplinary action, but an attempt at training and education. The department required similar training for other workers who issued passports in error, she said. She added that State conducted an audit of all passport specialists immediately following the GAO report, and found few other procedural lapses.

From Sprague's perspective, miscommunication was at the heart of the failure.

"We never provided a clear directive that all work had to be held on a Social Security check to come back," she said.

That means the specialists and their supervisors might have been unclear about the security procedures surrounding passport approval, she said. "That's a systemic problem, and I take full responsibility for that," Sprague said.

State was experiencing a relative lull in applications in late 2008 after a spike in 2007, Sprague noted. The database check can take a day, which was never an issue when employees faced a backlog of applications in 2007, she said. But when the workload decreased and passport applications could be processed much faster, some specialists and supervisors didn't know to wait for the database check to be completed.

"It had been such a long time since we ever had the luxury of turning passport applications around so quickly, the idea that this could happen really never occurred to anybody," she said

State is considering recommendations in an April 13 GAO letter following up on the March report, and will work with the union to implement additional training, standardize procedures for verifying applicants' identification information, and adopt other security tools such as facial recognition software, Sprague said.

The union would like to see better coordination with SSA to allow immediate checks of databases -- rather than a time lag of a day or more, Walle said. NFFE also wants more permanent fraud staffing, and more incentives for fraud prevention and "quality work," he said.

"We're the ones intimately familiar with vulnerabilities," he said. "We're the ones who have been crying for help."

The Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Terrorism and Homeland Security plans to hold hearings on this issue in May, but has not scheduled them yet.

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