Border Security:

Long-term Strategy Needed to Keep Pace with Increasing Demand for Visas

GAO-07-847: Published: Jul 13, 2007. Publicly Released: Aug 2, 2007.

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After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Congress and the Department of State (State) initiated changes to the visa process to increase security, but these changes also increased the amount of time needed to adjudicate a visa. Although maintaining security is of paramount importance, State has acknowledged that long waits for visas may discourage legitimate travel to the United States, potentially costing the country billions of dollars in economic benefits over time, and adversely influencing foreign citizens' opinions of our nation. GAO testified in 2006 that a number of consular posts had long visa interview wait times. This report examines (1) State's data on visa interview wait times, (2) actions State has taken to address wait times, and (3) State's strategy for dealing with projected growth in visa demand.

According to State, the amount of time that applicants must wait for a visa interview has generally decreased over the last year; however, some applicants continue to face extensive delays. State's data showed that between September 2005 and February 2006, 97 consular posts reported maximum wait times of 30 or more days in at least 1 month, whereas 53 posts reported such waits for the same period 1 year later. However, despite recent improvements, at times during the past year, a number of posts reported long wait times, which could be expected to reoccur during future visa demand surges. In 2007, State announced a goal of providing applicants an interview within 30 days. Although State's data is sufficiently reliable to indicate that wait times continue to be a problem at some posts, GAO identified shortcomings in the way the data is developed that could mask the severity of the problem. State has implemented steps to reduce wait times at several posts including using temporary duty employees to fill staffing gaps at some posts and repositioning some consular positions to better utilize its current workforce. However, these measures are not permanent or sustainable solutions and may not adequately address the increasing demand for visas worldwide. In addition, State has made improvements to several consular facilities and has identified plans for improvements at several other posts with high workload. Some posts have utilized procedures that enable them to process applications more efficiently. However, not all of these procedures are shared among posts in a systematic way and, therefore, not all posts are aware of them. State has not determined how it will keep pace with growth in visa demand over the long-term. State contracted for a study of visa demand, in select countries, over a 15-year period beginning in 2005, which projected that visa demand will increase dramatically at several posts. However, at some posts, demand has already surpassed the study's projected future demand levels. State has not developed a strategy that considers such factors as available resources and the need for maintaining national security in the visa process, along with its goal that visas are processed in a reasonable amount of time. Given dramatic increases in workload expected at many posts, without such a strategy State will be challenged in achieving its current goal for wait times.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In response to the recommendation, State claimed that the Department uses several tools to monitor seasonal demand, wait times, and backlogs using the Consular Consolidated Database, the Consular Workload Statistics System, and the Consular Package. In addition, the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) reviews and monitors trends to adjust the numbers of necessary staff to manage available resources. The Bureau also worked with other Department bureaus on a project to examine the future of consular work five and ten years out. However, State did not develop a strategy to address worldwide increases in visa demand. While the steps taken by the Department may improve the ability to manage their workload and resources on an as-needed basis, it will not address the long-term challenges associated with increasing and changing visa demand.

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau of Consular Affair's oversight and management of visa-adjudicating posts, the Secretary of State should develop a strategy to address worldwide increases in visa demand that balances the security responsibility of protecting the United States from potential terrorists and individuals who would harm U.S. interests with the need to facilitate legitimate travel to the United States. In doing so, State should take into consideration relevant factors, such as the flow of visa applicants, the backlog of applicants, the availability of consular officers, and the time required to process each visa application. State's analysis should be informed by reliable data on the factors that influence wait times. State should update any plan annually to reflect new information on visa demand.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the recommendation, State has taken several steps to improve the collection of data for visa wait times. According to State, the Bureau of Consular Affairs is in the process of awarding a performance-based contract for overseas support services to visa operations, known as the Global Support Strategy (GSS) contract. GSS will bring greater uniformity to appointment services and improve oversight by Washington. Through GSS, management information will be submitted daily and will permit Washington, D.C.-based staff to monitor which posts have appointments available, and which might serve to assist others during seasonal surges. Our intent is to monitor those statistics to ensure that posts are making appointments available as needed and accurately reporting the number of applicants in the queue/backlog. In addition, State has taken steps to publish this information online for its applicants.

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau of Consular Affair's oversight and management of visa-adjudicating posts, the Secretary of State should improve the reliability and utility of visa waits data by defining collection standards and ensuring that posts report the data according to the standards.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the recommendation, State indicated the Bureau of Consular Affairs is improving its ability to disseminate and foster the use of successful practices. The Bureau's intranet site has a permanent, dedicated "Management" section that highlights innovative management practices, and management encouraged staff to use the site to share best practices. Regional Consular Leadership Development seminars are held annually in each region of the world. Consular Management Assistance Teams visit consular section and work intensively with the consular officer, and have increased focus on improving the management of a section to help reduce wait times. Thirteen Consular Management Assistance Team visits were made to consular section in FY 2009. Consular Issues cables, which are transmitted to all overseas consular personnel, regularly highlight successful practices, as does the Visa Office's E-zine.

    Recommendation: To improve the Bureau of Consular Affair's oversight and management of visa-adjudicating posts, the Secretary of State should identify practices and procedures used by posts to manage workload and reduce wait times and encourage the dissemination and use of successful practices.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

 

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