How USCIS went agile and open to move application process online

A new customer management system allows the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service to digitize applications for green cards and other requests.

Fixing a ‘broken’ immigration system has not been easy.

Each year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service processes 6 million applications, and the paper-based system sometimes requires documents to change hands and locations among various federal actors at least six times, according to a recent White House report.

In 2012 the agency tried to create an electronic case management system that would address some of USCIS’s workload, but the CMS was built on architecture that was already out of date by the time of deployment.  The integration of 29 different commercial, off-the-shelf software products only complicated additional development, operations and maintenance.  A fresh start was needed – a fix that would require an overhaul the whole of the development process – from contracting to development methodology to technology.  

The first thing CIO Mark Schwartz and Kathleen Stanley, the chief of the Office of Transformation Coordination at USCIS, did was move to agile development, with agency staff taking on the role of systems integrator.  “We moved from one contractor to many contractors; it was a huge change in the acquisition strategy for us,” Stanley said in an interview.

“By using an agile approach we put the contractors in a position where they have to keep delivering finished work to us every week,” Schwartz said, rather than relying on a lengthy development cycle. “We have our people working with them side by side and that keeps the pressure on them to perform.”

USCIS also simplified the architecture for the electronic immigration system by relying on open source technology. Developers with expertise in Java, Oracle, Spring, JPA/Hibernate, MongoDB and Drools were hired to break up the system into parts and spur competition and innovation. The change in the technology suite allowed the team to more effectively implement the agile development approach.

The agency has also transitioned the development and production environment to Amazon Web Services, which will allow for scalability when needed.

“We’ve had a great experience moving to the cloud; it gives us great flexibility,” Schwartz said. “In the old days when we had to order hardware equipment and install it in the data center, it was expensive and it took us a long time to be able to set up the infrastructure. Now ... we can begin setting up the infrastructure in minutes or hours.”

In addition to the storage and flexibility the cloud provides, it has also helped USCIS better finance the project -- as using AWS saves $5 million annually when compared to their old system.

“It also has been reducing costs dramatically for the infrastructure, and it also allows us to pay by the drink or just pay for what we use exactly,” Schwartz said. “So what we can do is set up some infrastructure, use it for a while, tear it down and only have to pay for what we used. That’s going to be a very powerful model going forward.”

The first version of the CMS was released last November, and it was limited to I-90 applications only, which are for green cards replacements, renewals or name changes. The system was opened to 2,000 customers and supported USCIS’s Lockbox application that digitizes information collected through a print application.

The CMS was expanded again in March and pushed to full capacity in May. The system is not finished, however; Stanley said that she and Schwartz want to get the CMS to the point where it eliminates all paper applications.

“Our workload is about 50 different benefit types, and we support around 5 million customers; we handle about 7 to 8 million applications, petitions and requests," Stanley said. “Our overall objective is to put all of USCIS’s workload within the case management system.”

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