Although the Department of Homeland Security agency that processes new immigrants says it has adopted agile software development techniques for its huge, $3.1 billion technology transformation from paper to digital, it has only partially implemented the fashionable new management method, a congressional audit has found.
The Government Accountability Office examined U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ efforts to move its immigration services online and digitize the processing of applications — known as its Transformation Program. The failure to properly implement agile practices; challenges USCIS has faced with contract management; and the difficulties the agency has encountered in testing and deploying software are putting the huge program at risk, say the auditors.
“These management weaknesses — which at times mirror those previously reported — increase the risk that the system will continue to exceed cost and schedule goals and that it may not meet performance expectations,” they write in the report, released late last week.
The Transformation Program was launched a decade ago amid growing concern that the paper-based processes that USCIS was using made it hard to share information with the FBI and other agencies trying to stop terrorists or their supporters from gaining immigration benefits. At that time, in 2006, the effort was slated to cost $2.1 billion and finish by June 2014.
In May last year, auditors found that USCIS expected the program to cost up to $1 billion more, and take until March 2019. Auditors say they find this cost estimate, “well-documented and substantially comprehensive, accurate, and credible. “
In April this year, the agency announced it was scrapping the original version of a major component of the program, the Electronic Immigration System or ELIS — despite having spent more than $475 million developing it.
According to DHS, on an average day, USCIS completes 23,000 applications for various immigration benefits; welcomes 3,200 new citizens; answers 44,000 phone calls to its toll-free customer service line; serves 9,500 customers at 84 local offices; fingerprints and photographs 15,000 applicants at 136 application support centers; conducts 148,000 national security background checks; and processes 2,040 petitions filed by employers to bring foreign national workers to the U.S.
USCIS said that, when it was abandoned, ELIS 1.0 was only able to process about 31 percent of the agency’s workload.
Regarding the use of agile techniques, the auditors say that “software development and systems integration and testing … have not consistently been managed in line with the program’s policies and guidance or with leading practices.”
Of the eight key practices that make up agile management, the Transformation Program has fully implemented one key practice “prioritizing user stories,” failed to implement another “setting outcomes,” and “partially implemented” the other six, according to the report.