Into the Budget Morass

A delayed project to improve immigration processing is pulling resources and morale off course.

A delayed project to improve immigration processing is pulling resources and morale off course.

Imagine a technology implementation plan designed at the outset to make federal employees' jobs easier, protect taxpayers' interests and serve customers more quickly. That was the idea behind the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service's Transformation program. By converting much of the paperwork for immigration cases to an electronic processing system, agency officials expected to simplify the workload, improve management, detect fraud and resolve delays in authorizing foreigner work permits that sap the nation's competitiveness. Instead, the program is sucking employee morale and draining resources from other projects, some former USCIS managers say. The reason? Poor planning and mismanagement, they say.

Now especially, automating the largely paper-based system for processing immigration-related applications might prove advantageous. Transformation would allow the agency to handle a surge of up to 9 million submissions a year, according to the system's original 2005 mission statement. Such surge capacity is essential whenever a foreign crisis spawns large numbers of refugees, and it would be critical if Congress were to significantly change immigration laws as current overhauls propose. The system envisioned would allow applicants to track their cases and receive rapid responses to questions. Currently, many applications are contained in paper folders, meaning only one person at a time can work on a case. By digitizing the folders' contents, several people, for example, could work simultaneously on a single application, resolving petitions much more quickly.

But after spending more than $630 million, pushing back the completion date nearly a decade from 2013 to 2022, and increasing the original $536 million budget by billions of dollars, USCIS has little to show, either to applicants or employees. The latest projection is that a single form, one for visitors requesting extensions to stay in the country, will be ready by the end of the year. As of March 17, the chief information officer at USCIS' parent agency, the Homeland Security Department, regarded the program's schedule as high risk. He rated Transformation a two on a 10-point scale on the IT Dashboard, a federal website that tracks major system investments governmentwide, noting there also is a major risk the system's users might not be satisfied with the final product.

USCIS officials say the expenditures include costs independent of the Transformation program, such as $40 million in needed infrastructure upgrades.

As for the total planned budget, $2.4 billion, they say that is the program's complete life-cycle cost estimate. The sum covers operations and maintenance throughout Transformation's lifetime, as well as the cost of running existing systems until they can be phased out. The agency expects to complete delivery of the new system in 2014. Officials say they have gathered feedback from immigration applicants and employees, finished two prototypes and collaborated with partner agencies, including the State Department, to devise information-sharing strategies. Regarding the poor rating from the CIO, officials contend the high risk is due mostly to the program's aggressive schedule.

Critics attribute program delays to a bungled pilot test and inadequate preparation-impediments that arose before a contract was even awarded to the system's developer, IBM, in 2008. Transformation's cost and schedule have been rebaselined multiple times. The failed demonstration project, called the Secure Information Management Service, was supposed to digitize international adoption records for faster inspection. But officials abandoned SIMS in 2009 because the system was too hard to navigate and was not fully accessible to people with disabilities as required by federal law, according to internal memos. Only a costly upgrade could have fixed it. In March 2010, a DHS assistant inspector general told a House Judiciary subcommittee that several pilots initiated in 2006 and 2007 were hindered by, among other things, ineffective planning and management.

USCIS officials say the Transformation budget has been re-estimated periodically to account for evolving life-cycle cost projections. The original schedule was delayed, they say, because USCIS switched the order in which applications would be incorporated into the system. Initially, the plan was to start with immigration files. Now the installation will begin with nonimmigrant paperwork. Former and current Homeland Security employees dispute the notion that reversing the implementation order is responsible for the delays.

What doesn't seem to be in dispute is that morale has plummeted. A USCIS employee survey published in 2009 showed that 46 percent of Transformation program employees did not feel they could raise concerns with management without suffering negative consequences. Transformation garnered the highest percentage of concerns in this category out of more than 20 divisions surveyed.

USCIS officials note the survey is more than a year old. The program office has since "increased the opportunities for employees to meet with senior management and voice their concerns," agency spokesman Christopher Bentley says. The office's new chief held meetings with staff in fall 2010 and in March began to hold bimonthly forums that allow all employees to hear status updates, ask questions and raise concerns.

Some former managers say IT officials who tried to steer Transformation in the right direction were muzzled. The 2005 project plans called for the USCIS chief information officer to coordinate Transformation. By housing all IT activities under the CIO, the agency's operations would be in sync and supervision would be heightened.

But today, the Transformation Program Office operates outside the jurisdiction of the CIO and the agency's Office of Information Technology. The move has created technical problems and difficulties for employees at the IT shop, Frank Deffer, DHS assistant inspector general for IT, told lawmakers on a House panel last year.

"According to TPO and OIT management, the lack of coordination between the two offices has caused delays in decision-making and contract procurements," he said. The office devised unrealistic time frames for purchasing technology and services to test the scanning and digitization of documents because the IT office wasn't closely involved in the preparations, according to Deffer.

Greg Ulans, a former USCIS internal controls specialist, says efforts by one CIO to report such mismanagement went unheeded and ultimately led to his involuntary reassignment. Incidents in 2008 and 2009 indicate the IT chief was powerless to help Transformation reach its potential, several former USCIS managers say.

For example, although the CIO does not control Transformation, he is on the hook for reviewing its spending and technical standards. In fall 2008, the CIO submitted a requisite report to USCIS leaders on the adequacy of the agency's information technology internal controls, which are necessary to ensure operations are efficient, financially sound, and compliant with laws and regulations. "There is little more than a dotted-line relationship" between the CIO's office and the Transformation Program Office, he wrote, adding, "We believe this represents a control deficiency which, if left unresolved, could become a material weakness."

In 2009, the inspector general recommended that USCIS ensure its CIO has authority over investment reviews for all systems in development. Assigned to draft responses to the report, then-CIO Jeff Conklin concurred with the IG's findings.

But an acting director substituted Conklin's response with a statement that stopped short of giving the CIO oversight of all IT investments, including Transformation.

When Conklin saw his words changed, he proposed stating that the chief information officer's lack of authority "has led to the current program risks surrounding the USCIS Transformation program and represents a material internal control weakness that USCIS will address." A few weeks later, senior USCIS officials demoted him.

USCIS officials declined to comment on the reassignment, or the events that led to it.

Ulans says Conklin's removal hurt morale. "When the head of the organization could be moved that easily-that was the most demoralizing thing of all," adds a former USCIS Office of Information Technology executive who asked to remain anonymous. Another former USCIS official says, "Quite honestly, it was a huge disruption when this happened. Not only seeing a senior person run off a rail . . . but bringing in someone new who couldn't know all the details. And the whole search for a new CIO. You can't imagine how much time was lost because of this leadership void."

Separately, some IT staff felt unable to fulfill their duties because Transformation was diverting money and energy, the former IT executive says. "The Transformation program was a great sink of resources that was drawing away from our ability to support other systems," this person adds.

Bentley says USCIS must use its resources strategically and in accordance with mission priorities, "which by definition means that some projects may need to be delayed to accommodate higher agency priorities." In addition, focusing too much on existing systems would be akin to fixing problems twice, since Transformation is intended to subsume and enhance those operations, he adds.

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