INS puts its customers first

When the Immigration and Naturalization Service became part of the new Homeland Security Department earlier this year, agency officials faced the problem of providing customer services without disruption.

The issue was even more complicated because INS split into three newly named components for services, enforcement and border protection.

When people called INS' hot line for citizenship information, they might have heard a recording from the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services. Now when a customer calls the hot line, the recording describes the changes, identifying the agency as the "former Immigration and Naturalization Service."

"It is unbelievable how you can take an organization, break it [into] three parts, create a new department, reroute the three parts into the new parts and maintain continuity of service every day of the week," said Joseph Leo, former chief information officer at the Agriculture Department who is now corporate vice president for Science Applications International Corp., a systems integrator that worked for INS.

In the past, the General Accounting Office and Congress criticized INS for its poor management and customer service. The agency had only two call centers nationwide. In many parts of the country, a person could not even reach the immigration service.

After working to improve its service, immigration officials called on Pearson Government Solutions last year to continue the progress with a seamless transition for BCIS, the agency that handles citizen and customer service issues. The number of calls from the public seeking answers to immigration questions tripled during the past five years and is projected to nearly triple again this year to 13 million.

Under the five-year, $140 million outsourcing contract, Pearson trains and places 400 employees at four call centers nationwide. The contract also covers the software needed to switch calls to their destination.

So rather than see service degrade, the department saw some measurable gains, said Henry Brattlie, Pearson's project manager for the program.

"We were able to reduce costs, increase technology and leverage what the INS already had," Brattlie said.

"We're using a lot of technology that works for us. The idea is to shorten the line at the service centers across the country," said Mac Curtis, Pearson's president.

Pearson is experienced in helping agencies handle communications with the public. It handles 12 million calls a year for student aid at the Education Department and wanted to model the immigration service on that success.

There are still many challenges ahead for DHS, said Harold Gracey, vice president for systems integration at PEC Solutions Inc., which transitioned the multiple agency e-mail systems into a new e-mail and directory system for 180,000 employees in just 45 days.

"Rather than rebuild everything, we built a system that integrated their legacy systems," he said. The contract was only $2 million.

Gracey said the new e-mail system overlaid the old one, where it was molded into one Web address. "There was no disruption of the old going away and the new starting, and it was seamless," he said.

Although DHS faces many challenges ahead, from creating a new human resources system to payroll, at least some tasks have been easy.

"The transition from INS to Homeland Security was a very easy transition," Brattlie said.

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The former Immigration and Naturalization Service was divided into three parts when the Homeland Security Department was created. One of the issues facing INS was how to maintain services during the transition. Now called the Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency worked with Pearson Government Solutions to ensure that calls seeking information about citizenship status were answered.

The bureau and the company established a toll-free number that automatically places the call into a voice routing system. More than 90 percent of the calls are answered through an automated process, and workers handle the rest. They work for the contractor and are trained to answer immigration questions in English or Spanish.

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