DHS: Post story missed progress on immigration modernization

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A Washington Post story about the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ failed efforts to modernize ELIS, its electronic immigration system, fails to recognize a host of pivots the Department of Homeland Security has made to the project, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson said Wednesday.

The statement comes after the Post published a lengthy story earlier this week, which quoted several former officials criticizing the bloated ELIS modernization plan. Once expected to digitize nearly 100 immigration forms, the story says only one form is currently online, despite more than $1 billion spent on the project.

Johnson said in a release Wednesday that the project had been bogged down and once faced a host of problems, but it was re-tooled in 2012 and has since been under the direction of a team of people staffed by the U.S. Digital Service.

“Without a doubt, USCIS’s 2006 digitization program, with its original contractor, was over budget and behind schedule,” Johnson said in the release. “But, rather than deem the original program ‘too big to fail’ and continue further down the wrong path, DHS made the hard decision to fundamentally reboot the program around the latest industry best practices and approaches.”

The story chronicles a number of issues that plagued the process of bringing immigration forms online. Various sources told the Post of terrible procurement procedures, too much reliance on “waterfall” development practices, and unusable iterations that made obtaining and paying for a green card online extremely tedious. It also cited a June Government Accountability Office report that said the changes made in 2012 were increasing the program’s cost due to poor decision-making.

Since November 2014, the U.S. Digital Service has been working to overhaul the system, launching a revamped site in March that allows people to fill out an I-90 — the form needed to replace a green card — through a USCIS website.

In his statement, Johnson said more than 500,000 filings are being processed in this rebuilt system, which represents 16 percent of all immigration processing.

“While we wish we could make these changes overnight, this type of lasting work takes time, and we look forward to continuing to build on this important progress in the months and years to come,” Johnson said.

Furthermore, the secretary said the transformation of this project fits in line with the broader reforms he is working to implement.

“We’ve taken steps to deliver capability faster and reduce costs. We adopted industry best practices including agile development, open source technologies, and continuous delivery,” he said. “We now have headquarters-level oversight of acquisition programs, to establish the right requirements on the front end, and to oversee the program along the way. We look for the latest information technology solutions. And, we are broadening our outreach to industry. “This is just the type of turnaround story in technology that we should be pioneering across the entire government.”

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Government IT News, Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, U.S. Digital Service, White House
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