State Department:

Comprehensive Strategy Needed to Improve Passport Operations

GAO-08-891: Published: Jul 25, 2008. Publicly Released: Jul 25, 2008.

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In 2007, following the implementation of new document requirements for travelers entering the United States from within the Western Hemisphere, the Department of State (State) received a record number of passport applications. In June 2009 further document requirements are scheduled to go into effect and will likely lead to another surge in passport demand. GAO examined (1) the extent to which State was prepared for the surge in passport demand and how its readiness affected passport operations, (2) State's actions to increase passport production capacity in response to the surge, and (3) State's readiness for near-term surges in demand and its strategy to improve passport operations. GAO interviewed officials from State and the Departments of the Treasury and Homeland Security, conducted site visits, and reviewed data on passport processing times and reports on passport operations.

State was unprepared for the record number of passport applications it received in 2007, leading to significant delays in passport processing. State underestimated the increase in demand and consequently was not able to provide enough notice to the financial agent it uses for passport application payment processing for the agent to prepare for the increased workload, further adding to delays. As a result, reported wait times reached 10 to 12 weeks in the summer of 2007--more than double the normal wait--with hundreds of thousands of passports taking significantly longer. State had difficulty tracking individual applications and failed to effectively measure or communicate to applicants the total expected wait times, prompting many to re-apply and further straining State's processing capacity. State took a number of emergency measures and accelerated other planned efforts to increase its passport production capacity in 2007. For example, to help adjudicate passports, State established four adjudication task forces and deployed passport specialists to U.S. passport agencies severely affected by the surge. In addition, State accelerated hiring and expansion efforts. As a result of these efforts and the normal seasonal decline in passport applications, wait times returned to normal by October 2007. According to State estimates, these emergency measures cost $42.8 million. Although State has taken steps to improve its ability to respond to near-term surges in passport demand, it lacks a comprehensive strategy to improve long-term passport operations. State previously identified several deficiencies limiting the efficiency and effectiveness of passport operations, such as reliance on a paper-based work flow and ineffective communications, and these deficiencies were exposed by State's response to the surge. While State also identified a framework to guide its modernization efforts, it does not have a comprehensive plan to prioritize and synchronize improvements to its passport operations. A comprehensive strategy for making these improvements--for example, using a business enterprise approach--would better equip State to handle a significantly higher workload in the future.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, in June 2010, State's Bureau of Consular Affairs Passport Services completed a Passport Services Strategic Plan for fiscal year 2010 through 2014. This strategic plan identifies the desired end state for passport operations - to strive to set the worldwide standard for secure passport documents and provide outstanding service to the American public ? as well as several methods which State intends to implement to transition to the desired end state. Such methods mentioned in the strategic plan include (1) strengthening information systems that support passport issuance processes to ensure the appropriate response for all levels of demand, (2) prioritizing and pursuing innovations and expanded services according to their impact on customer needs, and (3) leveraging management processes to promote accountability, effectiveness, and efficiency by strengthening communication channels among field offices, and between the field and headquarters to disseminate best practices, among additional methods.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of passport operations, the Secretary of State should develop a comprehensive, long-term strategy for passport operations using a business enterprise approach to prioritize and synchronize the department's planned improvements. Specifically, State should fully implement a concept of operations document that describes its desired end state for passport operations and addresses how it intends to transition from the current state to this end state.

    Agency Affected: Department of State

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation, State continues to work closely with the Passport Acceptance Facilities; its Agencies, Centers, and Offices; the United States Postal Service (USPS); and the Citigroup lockbox to track and reconcile every piece of mail designated for Passport Services. For example, State requires all Passport Acceptance Facilities to use traceable mail when mailing passport applications to the lockbox. In addition, State coordinates with the USPS to assist in conducting searches and/or investigations when warranted. Moreover, State strongly encourages applicants who mail in their applications directly to the lockbox or passport agency to use a mail service which provides delivery confirmation when mailing a passport application or any additional documentation to the Department of State. However, while the department encourages customers who mail their passport application to use a mail service which provides delivery confirmation, State does not currently have a system in place that begins tracking individual passport applications from the time the customer submits an application at an acceptance facility. For example, customers must wait roughly five to seven days - and up to 10 days in some instances - after the passport application arrives at a lockbox or passport agency to learn the status of their passport application.

    Recommendation: In order to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of passport operations, the Secretary of State should begin tracking individual passport applications from the time the customer submits an application at an acceptance facility, in order to maintain better visibility over the passport process and provide better customer service to passport applicants.

    Agency Affected: Department of State


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