Immigration System, Meet the Digital Age

Immigration System, Meet the Digital Age

For the past few months, I’ve had the honor of conducting user research on behalf of the United States Digital Service.  Born from the recognition that solid policy implementation in today’s age requires stellar digital service delivery (ahem, healthcare.gov), the White House has assembled a crack team of of digital experts to work on priority policy issues in collaboration with agencies across the federal government.

Last November, President Obama enacted a set of Executive Actions meant to improve the immigration system. In one, he requested that the federal agencies that administer our legal immigration system explore ways to modernize and streamline the activities, processes, systems, and service delivery. The goal was to “develop recommendations to bring the system into the 21st century.”

As an ethnographer, I was asked to help illuminate what it is actually like to apply for an immigrant visa to the United States.  People who seek to reunite with family, start a new career, or simply pursue a crazy dream need to secure this kind of visa – and depending on where you live, it can be a very challenging process.

So what did USDS do?  They – and the State Department – sent me to the places where people are actually applying for these visas to learn directly from the source what their experiences are.  In essence, our government conducted user-centered policy making – the first time in my career that I’ve seen the U.S. Government use this approach.

Now, this is a process that has a lot of different “users,” including all of the dedicated public servants whose responsibility it is to keep the trains on the track.  In addition to talking to people who are applying for visas, I spent time with the people who adjudicate their requests, examining their technical systems, service delivery mechanisms, and organizational structures.  As the report describes, I got to spend an equal amount of time shadowing visa seekers during their consular interviews, and interviewing them at their homes about their experiences.

The recommendations represent what the key agencies have committed to addressing moving forward, but I am particularly proud of the principles that informed these recommendations, highlighted on page 21 of the full report.  While they may seem obvious to the private sector, these ideas have only recently taken root in the public sector and it is significant that the Executive Office has chosen an approach that embodies a core human lens.

First, understand what people need. USDS began an assessment by exploring and pinpointing the needs of the people who use immigrant visa services, and the ways the service fits into their lives. Additionally, USDS looked at government collaborators as “users” of their own processes, and asked for insights about what could be improved. The needs of these users will inform technical and design decisions. 

Second, address the whole experience, from start to finish. Applicants are often overwhelmed by the multiple agencies that play a role in their immigration process. Integrating the activities of all the relevant agencies serves to minimize confusion for the user while streamlining the adjudication process to eliminate redundancy and increase efficiency. 

Third, make the process clear, simple, and intuitive, so that users succeed the first time, unaided. It is necessary to make our process as clear and simple as possible so that individuals understand the process, are fully prepared when they make their request, and can apply for the immigration benefit for which they qualify. 

Finally, be consistent by using the same language and design patterns when building digital services whenever possible. By creating consistency within design patterns, users become familiar with the services offered and can make reasonable assumptions and guesses regarding their next steps in the process. This is a principle that our peers in the United Kingdom Government Digital Service have emphasized and that is particularly relevant for the global nature of the responsibilities of State and DHS. Setting consistent goals as a government will empower agencies and consular posts to customize their process to meet local circumstances.

A blog post about the work from the White House is available here, and the full report can be read on a commute home from work.  Finally, here’s an easy-to-read overview from Wired (making the immigration process “suck less” seems like an accurate description of the goal).

I look forward to the phase in which we see these recommendations implemented, so that we might truly realize an immigration system that fully enables human potential and builds a better United States of America. 

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