Lessons from SEVIS

It's a decades-old story: A government information system spews out errors, causes delays and creates headaches for those whom it serves.

The latest system to come under fire is the Student and Exchange Visitor Information System (SEVIS). The system, developed by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (folded into the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement), keeps track of foreign students studying in the United States. Congress mandated that SEVIS be built after federal investigators learned that some of the terrorists involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks had been foreign students attending U.S. flight schools.

But SEVIS has been plagued by errors, including computer forms for one college printing out at another, improperly trained contractors who collect information for the SEVIS database and lost data.

Immigration officials insist that the system is not operating as poorly as critics claim. They say they built the system under unrealistic deadlines.

Unfortunately, it's a familiar scenario in many federal agencies and one the Office of Management and Budget and congressional oversight committees are trying hard to fix. Lawmakers and OMB officials believe more training and an infusion of commercial best practices are likely solutions. Those improvements should be pursued.

But there is another concern that should be addressed: unrealistic expectations. The pressure to deploy such nationwide networks with the budgets and staffing levels that Congress gives agencies borders on unfair. Pushing program managers to meet high standards is worthy, but Congress and the Bush administration must realize when pushing becomes counterproductive.

As Justice Department Inspector General Glenn Fine, a SEVIS critic, said, immigration officials need more resources for training, oversight and fixing technical problems.

As Congress and OMB push for more improvements and reforms, they would do well to occasionally step back, listen to program managers and consider if they are demanding too much while providing too little.

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