Converting a bureaucratic government paper process to a paperless one is not necessarily easy, or cheap. Nowhere is that more evident than in the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

According to Aliya Sternstein in Nextgov, an estimated 13,000 full-time officers and 5,000 contractors process about 6 million immigration benefit applications annually. As you may recall, when we wrote about this agency in 2014, the new electronic process actually took more than twice as long as the existing paper process.  Unfortunately, it isn’t much better now.

“A decade in, all that officials have to show for the effort is a single form that’s now available for online applications and a single type of fee that immigrants pay electronically,” writes Jerry Markon for the Washington Post. “The 94 other forms can be filed only with paper.”

And very inefficient paper at that, adds Markon. “Processing immigration applications now often involves shipping paper documents across the country, and delays are legend,” he writes. “A single missing or misplaced form can set back an approval by months.”

What makes this issue especially critical now is potential for changes to the immigration system, which could result in millions of new immigration applications, Markon writes. In addition, there is the concern that security issues could fall through the cracks in a paper-based system, he adds.

In 2014, the USCIS said the costs would have ballooned from an original $491.1 million to an estimated $3 billion if the USCIS hadn’t changed course. Those changes, which included a switch from waterfall to Agile development, were expected to bring the final cost of the project to $1 billion and to be completed by the end of 2014, after being started in 2007.

But the USCIS estimated in May that the project wouldn’t be complete until 2019 and would now still cost $3.1 billion. Moreover, in June, the USCIS discontinued support for two of the three electronic forms it had developed, due to what it called “challenges” with the system.

In response, President Barack Obama assigned his skunkworks U.S. Digital Services (USDS) IT team to the project. There, they reportedly were “floored by much actual legwork goes into getting a visa, from applicants shuttling their documents around to different agencies to consulates, themselves, hand-mailing stacks of documents to government agencies,” writes Issie Lapowsky in Wired. “As a group of technologists, that stuff just killed us,” a White House official told her. “It’s insane we would do that in 2015. We invented these things called computers.”

The good news is that working with USDS has helped steer development. “USCIS had already changed course and made great progress; they were using an agile development approach, had a generally sound technical base including many open source components, and split development up among several small contractors instead of one massive one,” writes Vivian Graubard of the USDS.

With the help of the USDS, Graubard writes, USCIS also:

  • Moved to the public cloud
  • Implemented application monitoring
  • Established a regular release process
  • Researched the user process to develop a workflow
  • Released a portal, myUSCIS, that will eventually help immigrants navigate the process through electronic forms

In July, the USDS released a report on the USCIS project, Modernizing & Streamlining Our Legal Immigration System for the 21st Century, which suggests redesigning the visa process as a workflow based on who the applicant is—not which government agency the applicant is dealing with and which form the applicant is filling out.

“In other words, a current green card holder should receive a roadmap of the visa process that’s different than, say, a foreign national seeking to come to the U.S. for the first time,” Lapowsky writes. “Government can do more to ensure that once on that site, applicants aren’t forced to enter and re-enter the same information for different agencies. That entails better collaboration between agencies and instituting new backend technology that can enable that collaboration.”

In the meantime, USCIS is piloting 20 other applications at a half dozen consulates around the world, and the organization hopes it will soon be able to release them, as well as continuing to develop new applications and otherwise streamline the immigration process.

The USDS report also included a number of other takeaways that could apply to any workflow process:

  1. Understand user needs.
  2. Address the whole experience, from start to finish.
  3. Make the process clear, simple, and intuitive.
  4. Use the same language and design patterns when building digital services whenever possible.

It sounds like the Immigration Service is well on its way to being able to take advantage of the workflow optimization benefits that going paperless can provide.


Simplicity 2.0 is where we examine the intricate and transitory world of technology—through a Laserfiche lens. By keeping an eye on larger trends, we aim to make software that’s relevant to modern day workers, rather than build technology for technology’s sake.

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