In Fiscal Year 2016, President Obama set a ceiling of admitting 85,000 refugees into the United States. This represented a 15,000 person increase over the previous fiscal year’s ceiling, and this increase depended upon improving the efficiency of the refugee admissions process.
One of the most impactful improvements was the introduction of the digital approval process for refugee applications. Previously, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officers were only able to approve refugee registration forms using an ink approval stamp in the field where the refugee file is physically located. 57% of cases are finalized on a different day than the DHS field interview. In many of these cases the requirement for an ink approval stamp added an unnecessary delay of up to eight weeks after all security checks had been completed, as cases waited for a DHS officer to travel back to the field location where the file was located to stamp it approved.
Project Impact Summary
- In December 2015, USDS, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security established an interagency Refugee Coordination Center (RCC) staffed with representatives from each agency.
- The RCC began working on a prototype for digital approval of cases in January 2016 and launched the product for DHS use in June 2016.
- By September 30, 2016, 11,571 individuals had been digitally-approved, helping the Administration meet its refugee admissions goals while maintaining integrity in the process. Furthermore, the digital approval process codified rigorous security standards, granted DHS flexibility of when and where it can spend time doing administrative work, and saved the Department of State’s Resettlement Support Centers time and money by eliminating the need to prepare and ship case files for ink approval stamping.
- State Department Resettlement Support Centers (RSCs) processing these cases stated that the following amounts of time were reduced in the admissions process as a result of the launch of the digital approval process: Bangkok: 1-2 months; Malaysia: 1-2 months; Middle East and North Africa: 1-6 weeks; South Asia: 15 days; Latin America: 15 days; Africa: 12 days.
The digital approval process enables DHS officers to digitally-approve a refugee registration form without having to physically travel to apply an ink stamp on paper. The solution was created by granting DHS editing rights to the State Department’s refugee case management system for the first time. Filters ensure that only cases ready to be approved appear for DHS to digitally approve.
In order to convert the manual process into a digital process, the RCC worked with DHS officers to convert all of the manual steps to approve a case into the new digital approval feature. These included:
Checking security statuses
In the manual process, DHS officers are required to physically review a security report for each individual on a case and annotate the page attesting that they have reviewed each page. In this digital approval process, DHS officers electronically affirm they have reviewed all security statuses and the case file, which then enables them to click the digital approval button.
Updating the hard copy form
In the manual process, DHS officers have a paper form that is a history of all actions made on a case. In the digital process, once a digital stamp is applied, the system automatically generates a new digital file for the case, including the time and date the case was digitally-approved, and is included in the case’s physical file by the State Department.
Approving the I-590
In the manual process, DHS officers physically approve a refugee registration form (Form I-590) by applying an ink stamp to the approval block on the form. In the digital process, DHS officers click “stamped approved” and the system securely and automatically-generates an individual-level approval page with the time stamp and name of the approving DHS officer. The RSC staples this file to the front of the refugee form, which Customs and Border Protection reviews upon the refugee’s arrival at a port of entry in the United States.
In the manual process, once a case is ready for approval DHS officers initial an approval letter. State Department Resettlement Support Centers then date the letter before scanning it and then delivering to the refugee. In the digital process, the system automatically-generates an approval letter with the approving officer’s initials and the time stamp when the case was approved, and it is automatically-saved in the case’s digital file. The Resettlement Support Centers print and deliver the approval letters to the refugee.
The Role of the RCC
In addition to these process modernizations, USDS assisted with data modeling to predict the number of people who would benefit from digital approvals in order to justify dedicating engineers’ time to develop this feature. USDS also designed the system requirements, created prototypes, and coordinated agency-wide approvals for the project. USDS then worked with State Department engineers to develop the new features, and with DHS officers to test the features prior to launch. USDS assisted with the phased roll-out of the digital feature, including training of DHS officers and development of Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Finally, USDS ensured that USCIS notified all stakeholders within DHS to prepare components for these changes prior to the first digitally-approved cases arriving in the United States.
|Reduce the time between the date a case is ready for approval and the date it is approved to under two weeks.
||On track. In August 2016, of all cases that were digitally-approved, 74% were approved in five days or less and 56% in two days or less. Of the 124 cases that took more than 15 days to digitally approve, 77% did not need to travel until January 2017 or later.
|Reach 8,000 individuals approved digitally before the end of the fiscal year.
||Complete. 11,571 individuals were digitally-approved by the end of the fiscal year.
|Ensure at least 20 officers were part of the digital approval pilot.
||Complete. By the end of the pilot, more than 60 officers were trained and had permission to use the digital approval process.
- January 2016: Began prototyping and requirements gathering for the digital stamp
- March 2016: Finalized all data analysis, cost benefit analysis, completed requirements
- May and June 2016: State Department engineering team developed digital approval feature
- June 2016: Conducted user testing and fixed bugs in the system
- June 2016: Digital approval process launched
- September 30: Digital approval process pilot ends and full roll-out began
The Process and Lessons Learned
Engage stakeholders across the agency and collaborate with subject matter experts. Engaging stakeholders across the agency and working with civil servants who are subject matter experts was essential for the success of this project. In this case, the concept of digitally processing cases had previously been identified by individuals at DHS as an opportunity to increase efficiency. Identifying and collaborating with these individuals allowed USDS to make progress faster.
Keep the scope narrow for the minimally viable product (MVP). Despite pressure to expand the scope of the MVP that was prototyped, development remained focused on the most critical features for refugee officers and refugees. Throughout the development process, USDS focused on core user needs, replicating the existing physical process into a digital experience. This narrow focus ensured that work flows would remain largely unchanged for refugee officers.
Understand users’ needs by testing with actual users. The digital approval process was built with input from internal users to ensure their feedback was understood and addressed prior to launch. While quality assurance testing by Department of State engineers was critical, USDS’ time spent with DHS end users was important for uncovering a variety of issues that would not have been found through engineering team testing alone.
Rely on pilots and build up to a successful launch. USDS relied on an initial pilot period (from June 24th through September 30th) with limited users (at first only one user and by the end more than 60) to identify any new glitches. Additionally, USDS worked with DHS to develop Standard Operating Procedures and video, teleconference, and in-person trainings to ensure ease of use and clear understanding of the new digital process. Once the digital approval process was judged to be successful and stable with the small pilot group, it was rolled out more broadly to additional users. There was unanimous support to roll out the digital approval process to all trained and eligible users in Fiscal Year 2017.