DHS launching app for online citizenship

DHS Digital Services Executive Director Eric Hysen speaks at FedScoop’s sixth annual MobileGov Summit. (FedScoop)

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The Department of Homeland Security plans to launch an online app in the next few weeks for people applying to become U.S. citizens, said agency Digital Services Executive Director Eric Hysen.

As it stands, the process to apply for naturalization can be labor intensive, paper-based and confusing, he told a standing-room only crowd at FedScoop’s sixth annual MobileGov Summit Tuesday. Hysen said the agency has been working on redesigning and digitizing existing documents to make it is easier for the 700,000 people each year who choose to apply for citizenship to get their forms filed and processed.

“We’ve launched online forms before, but for something of this significance, we realized we had to redesign this process from the ground up,” he said.

To start, the team looked at the current application: Applicants currently can navigate online to a densely written government information page. From there, they can study an eight-page PDF flow chat to determine whether they are eligible for citizenship. Then, they have to read 18 pages of instructions before filling out the required N-400 form, which is 20 pages long.

Once they’re finished, applicants have to print their application, sign it, attach the right evidence, write a check for the nearly $700 fee and mail the whole package.

“If you’re anything like most people we talked to, that’s quite a lot to do on your own,” he said.

An immigration lawyer might offer additional help, he said, but too often immigrants who are confused by the process fall victim to scams and lose hundreds of dollars to fake immigration advisors.

The new agency’s app translates the PDF flow chart into a few questions, and directs applicants to the current form based on their answers. It provides an overview of the process and indicates what materials an applicant might need to gather.

Then, it guides users through the application, reusing information so applicants don’t need to enter the same things multiple times. For example, he said, applicants have to re-enter their address on two pages’ worth of space within the 20-page paper application. This app automates that step.

Hysen said it’s built on an open source stack and resides on a commercial cloud, allowing the agency to scale up and down, depending on the site’s traffic.

“Given the news cycle lately I think resource elasticity around the naturalization application is probably going to be pretty important as we get closer to November,” he joked.

The naturalization app is part of a larger effort to transform online offerings from the department. Currently, a quarter of the immigration system is processed electronically, he said, and that number is due to increase to 40 percent by the end of the year.

Now, the team is focusing on digitalization — rethinking what the forms themselves should look like in the new digital era. With that in mind, the agency last year launched MyUSCIS, a portal to streamline U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ offerings. Currently, the portal allows users to prepare for civics exams online, navigate the agency’s benefits options and perform a few other tasks.

More than a million people have used MyUSCIS on smartphones, tablets and desktops in the year since it launched, he said.

Hysen mentioned that DHS has worked on modernizing its services for several years and recently ramped up its efforts. Indeed, DHS came under fire late last year when the Washington Post reported the agency had spent $1 billion to digitalize its 100 immigration forms and, at that point, had only digitized one. At the time, DHS hit back saying the story hadn’t factored in its more recent work, including its efforts to team up with U.S. Digital Service in 2014. Hysen himself started working with DHS as a member of USDS before coming to the agency full time.

Looking ahead, ideally the government won’t need massive roll outs like the one he’d just described, Hysen said. That’s because the government should be continuously updating its systems to respond to users’ needs.

“While immigration reform is a deeply political issue, what shouldn’t be politically at all is that those … people deserve a system that is effective an efficient,” he said.

Contact the reporter on this story via email Whitney.Wyckoff@fedscoop.com, or follow her on Twitter @whitneywyckoff. Sign up for all the federal IT news you need in your inbox every morning at 6:00 here: fdscp.com/sign-me-on.

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Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Departments, Eric Hysen, Government IT News, Immigration, U.S. Digital Service, USCIS, White House
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