State’s passport services to roll out limited online renewals in 2018

Imagine a day when applying for a U.S. passport can be done from the comfort of your home — no long lines at a post office, no appointments necessary, and you can put your selfie-taking skills to good use.

That day is still a decade or two down the road, but the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs, is offering a short-term mitigation in the form of online passport renewals.

Carl Siegmund, community relations officer for passport services, said the department is looking to roll out the limited, online renewal option in mid-2018, along with new push notifications to help applicants stay informed on the status of their applications.

“We’ve got to be future-focused,” Siegmund said during a May 2 Adobe Digital Government Symposium in Washington. “We’re trying to move from paper to digital. But the digital isn’t really integrated, it’s sort of hit or miss. So we’re really trying to integrate our digital offerings and sort of remove the paperwork burden.”

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State’s passport services office right now doesn’t control the end-to-end customer experience, Siegmund said. After an applicant fills out their paperwork, they still have to go to a post office, library or clerk of court. The online renewal will help the service stay involved in the customer experience, Siegmund explained.

“Making life simple for people after they’ve applied,” Siegmund said. “One of the things that we’re looking into right now is at rolling out push notifications to customers, keeping them updated on remaining processing time after they’ve applied. Our current culture is you have to pull the update from our website. It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of time, and so we want to push the updates via email, via SMS text.”

Siegmund said that last year the passport services call center received 1.4 million phone calls alone that were simply application status checks. Having a notification go directly to an applicant’s phone or email would make life easier on the customer and save money at the call centers.

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Siegmund said his office is also looking at introducing an option for renewal applicants to submit their picture “at point of acceptance.”

Fifteen percent of customers have problems with their applications, Siegmund said, and the top reason for those problems has to do with passport photos. A low quality or grainy photo can add three or four weeks to the process while the passport office sorts out the issue.

“If we’re able to take that customer’s photo at the point of acceptance, we immediately reduce the number of photo issues,” Siegmund said. “That saves money for us, that makes our process more efficient but that also makes the customer happier.”

Happy customers and more efficient processes are keys to State’s mission as it relates to passport applications.

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In an exclusive interview with Federal News Radio, Brenda Sprague, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for passport services, said the agency projects Americans will apply for 21 million passports in 2017 and 20.4 million in 2018 — up from 14.5 million in 2015 and 16.8 million in 2016.

After a backlog of applications caused by a deluge of 18.6 million applications in 2007, State is looking to proactively address the next surge.

Being agile and aware

Customer service is a priority for State’s passport services, but so is securing that customer information. That’s a balance also being negotiated at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Mariela Melero, associate director of USCIS’ customer service and public engagement directorate, spoke on the same panel as Siegmund, and she said it’s not just about moving from paper to digital, it’s about “how do you take customers through that journey and engage with them in the design, the actual design of the experiences that ultimately they are going to be adopting and adapting on behalf of the organization.”

Melero said USCIS is working on improving customer experience and strengthening security. Right now the agency is fine tuning the process for “authenticated transactional customers,” individuals who are going to the site for a specific purpose and paying a fee for a service, and ensuring they have a “world-class experience” doing everything from opening an account to managing their case.

The key to that is being agile and empathetic, Melero said.

“We need to be agile, we need to move fast, we can’t wait until we have it all together to go at it and start putting tools in front of customers, ” Melero said. “The other expectation here is that we’re going to be co-creating this, how do you co-create, giving somebody the opportunity to try something and to realize it needs a little bit of improvement and then you bring it back, and then you put it back out there and it’s just incredibly exciting and dynamic and most importantly at the end of the day what we need to be doing.”

At the same time UCIS is meeting customers’ needs, Melero said USCIS is also working to protect against nefarious users.

“Protecting the integrity of the immigration system is not even close to being negotiable, because it is that one day when we grant the wrong benefit to an individual that has not necessarily the best of intentions,” Melero said. “So protecting that integrity is absolutely critical.”

Siegmund said his office needs to be careful how many push notifications it sends to customers and being a “a little bit opaque about that,” so that people aren’t getting emails or texts about their fraud or law enforcement cases.

“Passport services plays a big role in the border security process for the country,” Siegmund said. “We are verifying identity documents, verifying citizenship evidence documents. The other thing is that people come to us, they trust us, they trust us to have a secure process. That’s really part of our brand. We really owe it to the customer to provide the highest level of security and integrity, and we are working actively to improve customer experience, to make life simpler and easier for our customers. But we also can’t lose sight of the fact that we need a secure process.”