re: "Passport Update: What’s In Store for 2008" continued
My responses interspersed below:
"Consul-at-Arms: Thanks for your inside view of the passport situation and correction on who adjudicates passports domestically(GS vs FS). Most appreciated."
"I think it's an excellent idea for FS Consular Officers to serve a tour at a regional agency and vice versa. I encouraged GS employees working for me to serve in excursion positions overseas - both GS and FS benefitted."
Likewise. Even having worked in what, for overseas, is a passport section that is considered something of a major producer, that doesn't even come close to the through-put that a domestic passport office faces on a daily basis, even during normal times. The domestic passport offices have to work on what is essentially an industrial basis, whereas overseas passport services can still give more personalized attention to individual cases.
"I guess I'm not as optimistic as you are as to the short term future of passport processing by the USG except that Congress bailed State out once again and that Kennedy is probably the only person around who could make State function administratively. He certainly was instrumental in dealing effectively with last summer's backlog. (Remember both PLS and I know the Department rather well and from the inside too.) Unfortunately, I have never seen State function administratively smoothly."
While I don't know U/S Kennedy myself, he seems to have a good reputation.
"Frankly, I see no reason that the printing facilities could not have been upgraded at the two major mail-in centers particularly New Hampshire - please note that I did not say agencies like DC, NYC, or San Francisco where rent/space is a premium although I'll bet Colorado could have been increased - and I continue to see no reason for opening new plants in Arizona or Arkansas except for political reasons. Regardless of new technology, mailing documents three different times and from three different places internally adds glitches that need not be there. Then they just add more places that need CA supervision."
I have to wonder how this administration could possibly benefit politically from passport centers in Arkansas and Arizona. I'm just not going to go there.
Since it's been a while since I was in "the loop" on this, I can't say for certain, but I would be unsurprised to learn that while new printing facilities were coming online in Arkansas (and now Arizona), capacity was being increased at existing centers. It wouldn't have done, on the other hand, to interrupt working facilities with possibly disruptive construction, &tc., in the midst of the passport surge. The increase in passport production capacity will be permanent, however. Given the upcoming "passport card" and the need for adjudication/production, that should prove helpful in the near/short-term.
Without talking too much "out-of-school," I would recount something I heard second-hand, about a budgetary concern that the Consular bureau was possibly establishing too much of a production capability, that the surge would end and we'd be stuck with with excess production capacity. There are two answers to that, both the one that notes contractor staff can be reduced with much greater ease than civil service (which is one of the primary reasons for its use government-wide), and the one A/S Hardy is reported to have said, something to the effect of a resulting situation where passport wait times were reduced below the "normal" four-to-six weeks could hardly be described as a bad thing. My words, not hers.
"Reading between the lines in your comment, it sounds to me as if a major long term glitch could be in number of adjudicators available particularly beginning summer 2009. If one is looking at a quadruple increase (guestimate)does State have 1) permission to add that many more positions; and 2) agreement to pay for them? You did not mention that last summer retired FSOs with consular experience were also being recruited for short term hire as well as FSOs and others being pressed into service temporarily. Will State have the additional staff to handle the surge expected summer 2009?"
I probably should have expanded on this a little bit more. Let me try again. On a bureau-wide basis, Consular Affairs was "bootstrapping" its adjudicational capability in a manner similar to what was done on a local basis during the surge. Experienced consular adjudicators were dispatched to passport offices around the country, along with newly-trained adjudicators pulled from State's Presidential Management Fellow (PMF), intern, and recently-hired Civil Service staff. The experienced officers provided the exo-skeleton of leaders, supervisors and mentors to the PMF-ers, interns, and CS adjudicators while they got "up-to-speed."
On a more systemic basis, a large number of brand-new adjudicators were being hired and trained at the same time that retirees and other experienced adjudicators were being brought back. State even got a waiver (similar to the one DoD uses routinely) that allowed retired State personnel to come back without taking a financial hit on their retirement benefits. That experienced cadre will be available to lead and develop the new adjudicators during the remaining work years that they have available.
So to answer your questions, 1); yes, I think so. As for your second, I don't recall the dollar amounts at the moment, but Consular was authorized to retain a few more dollars of the passport processing fees that would ordinarily have gone (I think) to the treasury general fund. The idea is that money will pay for the capital improvement (increased production capacity such as new printing facilities) as well hiring more adjudicators.
"I agree with you that new contractors often hire trained staff from whomever had the contract before - but regardless, this didn't seem to deal with the Citibank problem last spring. And I've never seen a change in contractors proceed seamlessly (and I too dealt with contractors and changing contractors during my FS career.)"
My personal involvement in the passport task force came after any problems involving Citibank. I don't know the details, don't care to repeat rumor, and am relieved that the problems had been resolved by that time.
"Yes, WV did function as a clearing house for information sharing during the crisis last spring and summer. I'm surprised you hadn't seen our site at the time. Turned out we had better information - thanks in good part from very frustrated readers who were willing to help each other - than that dished out by CA/PA (unhelpful, inaccurate and unresponsive) or published in much of the press. In fact, had the PA operation been handled smarter (and this would not have taken rocket science to figure out), we would not have needed to provide a clearinghouse. It got so bad, that in June we had major US media coming to us for advice and stories."
At the time your site was serving as an information clearing-house, I was personnaly (and fully) engaged on the passport surge task force myself. So you can understand that I missed it. Being hip-deep in passport adjudications, I didn't feel the need to google around the blogosphere on the subject. I'm delighted you two were able to provide guidance to so many American citizens who needed it and who, at the time, probably couldn't get anyone in the passport or consular racket to answer their phone. It's not that they took their phones off the hook, mind you, but they were probably somewhere around the country in a passport office or similar facility adjudicating passport applications as fast as they can instead of sitting in their usual offices.
The primary reason I chose consular work as my current profession is so that I would be in a position to help American citizens who needed that help. Sometimes, most often in fact, that's a relatively simple matter of giving professional guidance in navigating visa or passport regulations and forms that they've never had to negotiate before. Before the end of my very first day on the passport task force I was remind of one simple truth related to that aspect of consular work. People often make quite simple mistakes on their application forms. As I explain when I'm training new vice consuls (or passport adjudicators), most people are completing these forms and entering these processes for the first time. They're not good at it. There's no learning curve for them. So they screw-up what to us seem perfectly transparent forms, questions, and answers.
The second part of that is that sometimes the quickest way to cut the Gordean knot is to pick up the phone and ask the applicant to clarify what they were trying to say. My first day on the passport task force, I was in a room with more than a dozen officers adjudicating passport applications for hours when I ran into an issue on a particular application. I realized I could simply flag the application and have it returned to the applicant with a form-letter explaining what was needed. Or I could simply walk over the government phone in the front of the room, call the applicant, and ask him myself. Which is what I did. Question answered. Problem solved. Passport adjudicated. And the applicant didn't lose weeks or months resolving the question by mail. I made sure the new adjudicators with whom I worked on the passport task force knew that they weren't being held incommunicado and if they felt they could quickly resolve an application issue with the judicious use of a government-funded long-distance call, that they didn't need my permission to do so. If we trust them to adjudicate matters of citizenship, I certainly trust them to make a long-distance phone call in the performance of the mission.
One of the things we also quickly noticed was that many people who had never had a passport before, and who had no plans to travel, suddenly decided to apply. I mean quite elderly folks. It's been suggested that the U.S. passport is the de facto national I.D. card. There's some truth to that, just as there's the simple fact that the U.S. passport is simply the "gold standard" when it comes to personal identification. Accept no substitutes, after all, and a lot of people suddenly decided they wouldn't anymore.
It's my understanding that the normal avenues for customer service, like call-in phone numbers and email addresses were very quickly overwhelmed. That's since, I understand, been addressed. It became nearly impossible to reach someone involved in the normal passport production process, let alone working on the individual passport task forces themselves. That left congressional intervention as virtually the only option for passport customers whose travel plans were in jeopardy.
Anyone who's worked in government knows how congressional inquiries are handled. Which is to say they get prompt attention and swift resolution. They also mean, invariably, that staff who could otherwise be engaged in productive work get sidetracked and lost to the primary mission. We all know that its every citizen's right to appeal to their congressional representatives for constituent services; in terms of a larger operations it requires that several staff members be detailed on a permanent basis to handle them.
Professionally, I'm resigned to this. It's possible, in an operation with sufficient staff, to design the work-flow to even take advantage of it, that is, once a "missing" case is located, it is brought to the attention of a adjudicator supervisor for him or her (or me) to personally resolve. That way it doesn't distract a "line" adjudicator. That's what team leaders, &tc., are for, among other things. The only time I would bring a "congressional" case to the attention of "line" adjudicators was when I saw a possible "teaching point" value in it.
You're probably right about the PA aspects of the passport surge. CA needs to stay in front of situations like this. We've got a year's reprieve with regards to the land border aspects of the WHTI, plus some more time on the "passport cards." Hopefully that will be enough time for CA to have its increased capacity fully online.
Things I worry about in this regard and related areas are the Border Crossing Cards (BCC) the first of which are now reaching the end of their 10-year validity, the "passport card" still under development, 2012 when all the children's passports issued during the 2007 passport surge will be expiring, and 2017 when all the adult's passports issued this past year will reach their 10-year expiration dates.