GAO: Immigration agency must rise to electronic challenge

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is not doing an effective job managing the initial phase of its move from a paper-based filing system to paperless electronic records, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

The agency, which manages records for immigrants, currently relies on more than 55 million paper files to make decisions about immigrants' applications for citizenship and other benefits. The "alien files," known as A-Files, are kept for 75 years and are shared with state and local agencies. A single file can contain anywhere from one to several hundred pages.

To transform the A-files to an electronic record system, the agency has begun the Integrated Digitization Document Management Program (IDDMP), which it estimates will cost $190 million over eight years. Five contracts were awarded for pilot projects totaling more than $20 million to test a digitization concept of operations.

However, based on the GAO's review from August 2005 through February 2006, the agency has not defined the "scope, content and approach" of its near-term effort to move to a digitized system. Furthermore, the immigration agency is now re-examining its long-term strategy for paperless records in light of an agencywide business transformation strategy in development.

"USCIS is not effectively managing key planning activities associated with its near-term A-files automation effort known as the IDDMP," the GAO said. "In particular, it has not yet developed a plan governing how it will manage this program and the contractors working on it."

"Without a defined program scope and adequate program planning, IDDMP is at risk of falling short of expectations," the GAO said.

The GAO advised the agency to ensure that a program management plan and pilot evaluation plan are immediately developed for IDDMP, along with an estimate of needed funding. It also recommended elements for the business transformation plan.

In written comments, the Homeland Security Department agreed with the findings and with the GAO's recommendations.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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