Passport to Efficiency

Front-line service makes all the difference in the world when it comes to public perception.

Federal agencies have spent years-in some cases decades-trying to improve the efficiency of their operations and the quality of their customer service. The growth of the Internet has helped immensely, leading to the current obsession with e-government. But when it comes to satisfying citizen-customers, the quality of good old-fashioned front-line service is what really counts.

I had some personal experience with this lately, as my wife and I immersed ourselves in the process of applying for passports for our children. We started where most people do these days-online. The results were impressive. The State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Web site largely delivered on its promise to "put together information that should answer every question" about the application process. We quickly found a full description of the rules, a rundown of exactly which documents we'd need to bring along and a database of passport processing locations showing those closest to our home. We gathered the documents, printed and filled out the forms, and picked a nearby post office to file the applications.

This is where the process started to break down. We arrived at the post office 10 minutes before it was scheduled to open at 10 a.m., to minimize our chances of ending up in a long line. But there was no sign of a passport processing operation. So we waited in the regular post office line, only to be told when we reached the front that we had to go around the side of the building and through an unmarked door. When we did, we thought we were in luck: No other passport applicants were waiting yet.

Nevertheless, we were told that others had made appointments for 10 and 10:15, and we'd have to wait our turn. There was no indication on the Web site, or anywhere in the unmarked office itself, that appointments could or should be made. After some back and forth, my wife finally convinced the passport processor to let us go first, since all of our documents and forms were in order and the folks who had somehow managed to learn that they needed appointments were nowhere to be found.

Then, when it came time to pay the processing fees, we were informed that we had to pay by check, even though a large sign on the wall said credit cards were accepted for passport applications. So we got out the checkbook.

The entire experience was irritating. We had done our homework, only to run smack into roadblocks we couldn't possibly have foreseen. I don't know whether the U.S. Postal Service or the State Department is responsible for the situation we encountered. And I don't care. The very least these agencies need to do is to learn to work together.

That will become even more important in the coming years, as the State Department moves to implement a new policy requiring Americans to use passports or other approved documents to travel to Mexico and Canada. Consular Affairs processed 8.8 million passport applications in 2004. It's projecting 10.5 million for this year, 12 million in 2006, 14 million in 2007, and 17 million in 2008.

In April, agency officials weren't on the same page in describing how they intended to deal with the impending crush of applications. At a press briefing, Maura Harty, the assistant secretary of State for consular affairs, said that over time the bureau would boost staffing levels and open new facilities. "I don't want anybody to run out tomorrow and buy a passport because two-and-a-half years from now they're thinking about a trip," she said. But a few days later, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary Daniel B. Smith was quoted in The Washington Post's Travel section as saying, "to avoid a last-minute crunch, we're encouraging people to apply for travel documents as soon as possible."

The folks at Consular Affairs clearly need to get on the same page. Here's hoping they do, and that they get the resources they need to manage their new workload. Passport offices, like Social Security and postal operations, are the public face of the federal government to millions of people. If Congress and the agencies responsible for running them acted rationally, then they'd spend all kinds of money and hire all kinds of people to make sure that service was impeccable. Too often, that's simply not the case.

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