INS' upgrade of Web site is only half the battle

INS' upgrade of Web site is only half the battle

Agency makes major changes to site, but officials are unsure if many services can be provided online

By Drew Robb

Special to GCN

In the past couple of years, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has embarked on a campaign to transform service quality and improve its image. Bold customer-centric official utterances have been backed up by sweeping changes in the agency's Web site, as well as its call center facilities.


INS enhanced its Web site, at www.ins.gov, but the agency still has trouble delivering many of its services electronically.


'This enhanced Web site is a critical part of our ongoing efforts to put the 'S' of service back into the INS,' commissioner Doris Meissner said. 'It is designed to provide our customers with the most up-to-date information about the agency and the services we offer. This Web site is an essential part of our commitment to improved customer-friendly service.'

The need for a comprehensive site, and the value it provides to users, is demonstrated by usage statistics: In July, the agency surpassed 880,000 hits per month, up from half a million last December; roughly 500,000 forms are downloaded each month; and the average user visit lasts 17 minutes.

But the agency has barely traversed the foothills of the digital future and is facing the towering summit of electronic government.

'The Web site was an immense project that makes a large volume of information instantly accessible to our customers,' said INS spokesman Greg Gagne. 'While this is an excellent beginning, we now must face up to what is involved in delivering our services online.'

Gagne said the agency has recently formed a workgroup to investigate the questions posed by electronic commerce and to map out the path to providing online services and fulfilling Government Paperwork Elimination Act obligations.

Meanwhile, visitors continue to swarm to the service's offices to take care of INS business. At sunrise, INS offices are surrounded by long columns of people anxious to make an appointment. At the downtown Los Angeles offices, for instance, people line up all night. By 5 a.m., about 500 people are in line. Within 45 minutes, another 250 appear. Five days a week, year-round, more than a thousand people go through this early morning ritual, yet many fail to gain entry. Similar situations exist at offices in other major cities.

Horror stories

For example, one man, a senior vice president at a major engineering company, accompanies his Chinese wife, who is attempting to bring her son to the United States. Both are used to the routine. Another professional couple from England waits four hours only to be told they've come to the wrong place. Then there is the Salvadoran family that has to line up every time it wants to visit relatives.

What about Web-based applications or online appointments?

While it may be relatively easy to organize local government processes such as permit applications over the Internet, it is another matter entirely with immigration. Security concerns present a formidable barrier. As a small percentage of the agency's daily visitors deal in fake documentation, false identities and criminal intentions, dozens of hard-won security procedures based on a century of experience must be implemented.

INS isn't even sure its processes can be conducted online.

'The simple answer is we don't have it figured out yet,' Gagne said. 'After making huge strides with our Web site, we know that this is the next subject we have to work through. But we have to do it in a way that ensures the complete security of our information and procedures.'

INS has improved procedures in the past three years. For one thing, all traffic was previously directed to centralized offices that handled every inquiry. Since 1998, however, INS has opened 127 new application support centers. A green card renewal, for instance, no longer requires a trip to the office. As a result, waiting times are cut drastically for routine transactions.

Telephone accessibility has also improved. A couple of years back, there were no toll-free phone lines at INS. Long waits or busy signals were the order of the day, and the Web site was not a useful tool. People had to wait in line just to ask a question, and they often had to return the next day with their paperwork.

These days, INS customers call up the National Customer Service Center, a central toll-free call center. This service operates around the clock in English and Spanish for automated self-service options. Connection to live agents is available from 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. on weekdays. The automated options menu provides basic eligibility and how-to information, as well as the ability to order forms. Those requiring further information are transferred to customer service representatives and more complex inquiries are put through to INS officers. Currently, the center is receiving up to 50,000 calls a day.

According to a woman who called the line recently, the automatic options provide a wide range of information and the connection is almost immediate. At the next customer service tier, callers can connect to a live customer service representative. Though these representatives can handle general inquiries efficiently, they refer more complex questions to INS information officers.

But INS is not resting on its call center laurels. Plans are afoot to post all call center scripts on the Web.

'By directing routine traffic to the Web where callers can view what they would currently hear over the phone, we can provide far better response to a broader spectrum of public via our INS information officers,' INS Web manager Greg Beyer said.

Until 1996, the INS Web site consisted of a one-page placeholder hosted by the Justice Department. Two staff members built a rudimentary site. Eventually, it contained some basic data.

'In the three years since we launched that first site, we outgrew its structure and it became relatively difficult to post new information,' Beyer said. 'We spent a lot of time figuring site content and design so we didn't end up paving the cow path.'

The site, at www.ins.gov, uses Microsoft Active Server Page technology and runs under Windows NT in a load-balanced clustered environment. Six staff members work with Beyer on content, and four others work on the technical side under the webmaster, along with 20 contract employees. The site's budget surpasses $2 million a year, Beyer said.

What's new? INS has expanded from 15 content providers to 150, officials said. Data is available on all 90 field offices, and Border Patrol and overseas office material is being added. Other features have been added to help users locate data faster.

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