With an IT overhaul, State beefed up the first line of border defense
- By Brian Robinson
- Oct 20, 2011
When Kirit Amin became CIO of the State Department’s Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) in June 2007, the IT systems used to process around 2 million visa and passport requests a month were old and not automated, infrastructure was outmoded, applications were inadequate, and the entire organization was stovepiped.
It was obviously not something designed to operate in a post-9/11 environment.
State Department looks to biometrics for border security
Since then, a new infrastructure has been ordered by the Office of Consular Systems and Technology, which is responsible for round-the-clock operations of IT systems used at some 300 State Department visa and passport offices worldwide. Non-integrated systems have been eliminated, previously scattered data are centralized in a single database, and virtualization technology has been used to squeeze applications that were spread across 185 servers into just 17 machines.
The CST is also developing one of the world’s most advanced biometrics programs, which uses face, fingerprint and iris recognition technologies to verify the identities of visa and passport applicants. It’s already caught thousands of fraudulent requests from people trying to get into the U.S.
“It’s good that we started the modernization when we did,” said Amin, who is also the director of the CST. “Today we’re facing an issue with emerging countries such as China, India and Brazil from which visa demands this year alone are around 20 percent higher than last year. If that had happened four years ago, we would have been in big trouble.”
When Amin arrived at the CST after more than 37 years in industry, he found a chaotic situation he was unfamiliar with. Operations were conducted in an ad hoc fashion, costly and aging systems were struggling with their loads, and there was no strategy in place to help move things forward.
“There were no plans to show where they wanted to be, which in government is typically what seems to happen,” he said. “If you do that in industry, you’re going to be out of business in a hurry.”
First 5-year plan
So Amin developed a five-year strategic plan, the first in CST’s history, and then embarked on a modernization that would completely reform the Bureau of Consular Affairs’ IT. And he decided on a process that would do that simultaneously from both the bottom up and top down.
In other words, he said, since there was no way CST could simply rip-and-replace, the process had to begin with those systems that were already in place and gradually modernize those.
At the same time, agile practices were introduced to develop and deploy appropriate solutions quickly, an enterprise architecture was defined to link the infrastructure more closely with annual IT funding, and service-oriented architecture principles were used to select the best technologies and to help share application and database services.
“We are in a world where data is the key, so once we developed that central database we could build a nimble, agile platform,” he said. “We came up with an architecture of a data layer, application layer and presentation layer and superimposed on that the service-oriented architecture, what we call the enterprise service bus.”
CST was also one of the first organizations in government to support the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM), a data exchange standard that the Office of Management and Budget has required all agencies to consider to help with interagency data sharing.
The infrastructure and systems were only part of the problem, however, as Amin found the organization he had inherited was just as stovepiped. One of the first things he did as CST director was to break his staff into four groups, each with a team leader, and to send them on a two-day off-site meeting. Each of the groups was to come back with an idea of what the CST would look like if the modernization didn’t happen.
When they came back and sat down with each other and pulled together the common threads of what they’d found, Amin said, they could work out where the organization needed to be. Surprisingly, all the groups saw things pretty much the same way. “They were shocked themselves,” he said. “They realized they were all thinking this way all the time, but they’d never had the chance to express that.”
Adjusting team mixture
That helped to bring the CST rank-and-file into the modernization efforts from the outset. It also showed them and Amin exactly what was missing in terms of the expertise and vision needed to carry through with the modernization, which in turn led to the hiring of some new blood and an overall recast of the CST organization.
“That’s how we’ve achieved the success we have had with the modernization,” Amin said. “Changing the mixture of the team, and also fundamentally changing the way we operated, the way we thought about things and how we went about doing things.”
It wasn’t a smooth process by any means. Amin said he ruffled quite a few feathers with his approach, which led to pushback. Some of the CST staff viewed the changes he as stimulating and challenging, while others resented it. Even now there are people in CST’s development division who don’t understand why they are taking such risks to accomplish all of this, he said.
But Amin said he feels the approach has been justified. He recently canceled one contract involved in the modernization, to replace one part of the immigrant visa system, because the contractor wasn’t meeting expectations. He recently delivered a backup plan to the assistant secretary in charge of the visa system.
“He looked at me and said ‘My God, why didn’t we just do this to begin with?’ ” Amin said. “I told him that when we embarked on this three years ago, we weren’t where we are today. Two years ago we couldn’t do this, but now I can show you how we’re going to do this in a far shorter time, for much less cost, and how we’re going to achieve much better results.”
The success of the CST/CA modernization also shows how effectively the CA collaborates with other agencies, he said. As the “first line of defense in border security” through its review of visas and passports, the State Department relies on the Homeland Security Department and other agencies to provide good information. The consolidated database that CST developed is used by around 11,000 State Department managers, Amin said, but now also by more than twice that number of DHS and intelligence agency users.
Getting to that point hasn’t been easy, Amin said. But that process is just another example of the progress the CST has made toward the goal he’s set for it — to be a model IT shop for the rest of the government.
Brian Robinson is a freelance technology writer for GCN.