U.S. Passport System Comes Up Short

Despite having almost two years to prepare for a predictable onslaught of new passport applications this summer, the U.S. State Department and its information processing systems are now so backlogged that Congress is cracking the whip on the behalf of irate travelers who are waiting and waiting and waiting for their passports.

The debacle, which began in April 2005 when the Homeland Security and State departments instituted new travel regulations requiring Americans flying to nearby countries such as Canada, Mexico and those in the Caribbean to carry a passport, provides CIOs with a chilling reminder of just how wrong things can go if your organization isn’t able to ramp up both its systems and its staff ahead of anticipated, record—breaking demand.

What used to take between four and six weeks is now taking three or four or sometimes even five months, leaving travelers angry, stressed out and uncertain if they’ll receive their passports in time for their vacations.

In a letter last week, no less than 56 senators lambasted the State Department’s woeful performance and called on Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to intercede now before any more travelers are inconvenienced.

“People are angry and frustrated,” says Rick Webster, a lobbyist for the Travel Industry Association of America. “Companies have to respond to shareholders. The government has to respond to constituents. [The State Department] anticipated the demand but they guessed far too low. It shouldn’t have come to this.”

State Department analysts say the agency originally predicted about 15 million passport applications this year, up from 12 million in 2005. Then the figure was revised to 16 million. Now, they’re expecting upwards of 17.5 million or more.

Despite hiring an additional 130 passport workers and expanding the number of locations that accept applications from 7,500 to 9,500 this year, the frustrating delays continue and will likely continue though the fall.

Could something like this happen in the private sector ahead of a new product release or perhaps a new compliance or regulation deadline?

“A good CIO would have the lead members of his or her team interview key internal clients or constituents so the IT department has the clearest possible understanding of the business situation,” says Henry Harteveldt, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. “Technology is the enabler, and can do almost anything, provided the people who are responsible for the managing that technology have the clear insight from those who run the business side of the enterprise.”

For the State Department and the passport processing sites, the situation was further complicated when it turned to the private sector for help. Citicorp, which processes the passport fees for the agency, hired an additional 400 workers to an existing staff of 800 to help clear the backlog.

However, a State Department spokeswoman told the Los Angeles Times that once the new hires were trained and began processing the fees, all that paperwork was sent over in enormous batches, further swamping the overwhelmed passport processors.

Citicorp officials were not available for comment.

“On the corporate side, there are efficiencies and incentives built into the process to avoid something like this from happening,” Webster says. “In government there’s only accountability to the citizens.”

Also, unlike a Sarbanes—Oxley deadline or a new product release, the government had the luxury of relaxing the new travel requirements it had created for itself. That’s not how it works in the private sector.

One company that’s about to experience a similar deluge in demand, AT&T, announced Thursday that it had hired an additional 2,000 temporary workers to meet what’s expected to be frenzied demand for Apple Inc.’s iPhone on June 29.

As the only carrier to provide service for the iPhone when it debuts, AT&T’s sales staff received a total of 100,000 hours of training to sell and support the device, according to spokesman Mark Siegel.

However, Siegel told Baseline the company would not discuss how much of the training and additional resources were allocated for updating or improving order processing and customers service systems.

And while the State Department desperately struggles to catch up with the millions of applications it’s processing this year, travel analysts say the worst may be yet to come. In 2009, Americans traveling by land and sea—in addition to air travel—to nearby countries will also have to carry a valid passport, adding another 26 million applications to the pile.

“The State Department got caught because the normal turnaround time is six weeks,” Harteveldt says. “They should have known that human nature being what it is; people generally wait until the last minute to do things.”

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