Tech decisions looming for CIS

In disarray, agency plans multipronged IT upgrade

Fires of Foreign Origin

The Homeland Security Department's immigration benefits agency, long a target of scorn from congressional offices, has also drawn fire from the department's own investigators.

In a November 2006 report, DHS' Office of Inspector General singled out Citizenship and Immigration Services' poor technology management as
the root of many of its transformation delays and failures.

"Specifically, [the agency's] processes were largely manual, paper-based and duplicative, resulting in an ineffective use of human and financial resources to ship, store and track immigration files," the auditors wrote.

"Adjudicators used multiple and nonintegrated IT systems to perform their jobs, which has reduced productivity and data integrity," the IG report states. "IT software and hardware systems also were not well configured to meet users' needs."

' Wilson P. Dizard III

Simon Smith

Just as Bob Cratchit labored over paper files under the domination of Mr. Scrooge in Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol,' immigration benefits adjudicators at the Homeland Security Department still rely on papers in manila folders filled with applicant data.

But two major acquisitions promise to reshape the agency's technology. One is a long-delayed Citizenship and Immigration Services technology transformation. The other is a recompete of the contract for DHS' four immigration benefit processing centers.

CIS technology experts have struggled to gain control over the antiquated system of about 70 million paper Alien files, or 'A-files,' held in manila envelopes that contain key information about the agency's clients.

CIS tracks its A-files by, for example, building databases to pinpoint the desks where each A-file is physically located within about 250 agency offices around the world.

But that approach has extended the life of an outdated business model, immigration technologists say, as if the Pentagon had deployed Global Positioning System transponders to track horse-drawn war chariots.

CIS' two acquisitions are intended to recompete its existing contract with JHS for operating four service centers and then to bring in a systems integration vendor to implement a technology transformation.

It's as if the Pentagon has deployed GPS transponders to track horse-drawn chariots.

The technology transformation acquisition has its roots in a long-delayed process that launched in June 2004 with a request for information that described the agency's shambolic systems. The RFI said the existing technology was 'costly, inefficient and nearly obsolete.'

'The IT environment consists of a nonstandard, outdated infrastructure supporting more than 60 minimally integrated applications, is batch-processing-oriented, and makes limited use of Web-based tools and applicant self services,' the RFI states.

CIS has made some technological progress in the three years since it issued that critique. For example, last August, the agency hired Datatrac Information Services to build a Records Digitization Facility in Williamsburg, Ky. The contract's first task order called for Datatrac's staff of some 250 workers to digitize more than 1 million A-files in 12 months (GCN.com/765).

Despite the digitization contract and similar incremental efforts, CIS' overall technology transformation stalled between mid-2004 and late 2006, amid rivalry between the agency's technology and operations divisions, according to immigration benefits technology specialists.

The agency's latest stab at technology transformation is taking the form of an acquisition under the department's Enterprise Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge Solutions, or EAGLE, an umbrella contract for IT services.

DHS' Procurement Operations Office issued a notice April 10 to EAGLE vendors asking for comments on a draft proposal request and calling for a meeting to discuss how the immigration benefits agency could reshape its technology.
The agency's Transformation Program Office wants to see results from the project beginning in fiscal 2008 and to complete it within five years under a one-year contract with four option years.

Even as CIS is developing the plan for its transformed technology, the agency is reviewing proposals from vendors to operate its four service centers.

According to acquisition documents, each of the two planned service center contracts would reach a guaranteed minimum value of $15 million and an estimated maximum value of $225 million.

CIS issued the proposal request last November to find vendors to operate service centers in Laguna Niguel, Calif.; Lincoln, Neb.; Dallas; and St. Albans, Vt.
The vendors will run the centers under the old process while the new one is being
developed.

'We need to look at this process as working one system into the ground while we are standing up the new one,' CIS spokesman Chris Bentley said. 'We will have to use the existing system in a diminished level of activity as we ramp up the new system. There will be no actual point in time where we flick the switch and go with the new one while we turn this [existing] one off.'

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