Oversight

IG: State's consular tech upgrade is slow going

Shutterstock image: United States passport with an unidentifiable credit card resting underneath it. 

Despite improvements in management, the State Department's efforts to modernize disparate consular IT systems are lagging, and the office that manages these legacy systems is understaffed, according to a recent inspector general audit of the Bureau of Consular Affairs' tech office.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs is State's arm in charge of issuing visas and passports, and the Office of Consular Systems and Technology manages its IT operations, including State's massive worldwide passport verification system, which contains more than 100 million visa cases and 75 million photographs and grows daily.

Following the system's July 2014 crash, the office announced renewed efforts to modernize, but less than a year later, the system suffered another crash, which IG called "the more serious of the two because it resulted in a complete unavailability of a critical portion of the system" for about 13 days.

These failures underscored the need to upgrade bureau IT systems, which, according to auditors, "are functioning well beyond their designed life span."

The office's modernization program, Consular One, seeks to consolidate nearly 100 systems into one, including an online passport renewal service.

While employees expressed confidence in new CST director Kenneth Reynolds, who has helped to stabilize the current legacy systems, "such challenges as staffing vacancies and tensions with other CA offices" remain and have delayed Consular One's launch.

The initial target date for Consular One's rollout was the end of fiscal year 2017, but as of June 2016, no parts of the program had been deployed, and the current timeframe for its completion is estimated for 2020.

Auditors also noted that Consular One lacked security and contingency plans, which risks unauthorized access to State systems and does not account for protocol in the event of a system disruption.

According to the review, CST staff consists of 135 employees, and the tech office has 42 vacancies, which have increased over time and include several "high-priority" positions, such as a deputy director, a computer scientist and a financial officer. Auditors reported that because managers do not have enough time to commit to the lengthy recruitment and hiring process, the office relies heavily on contractors.

Due to staff shortages that threaten the success of Consular One, auditors suggested employing a shared services model wherein all eight offices within the Bureau of Consular Affairs dedicate staff to its development.

These staff shortages also contributed to weak or nonexistent internal controls, and forced certain divisions to take on responsibilities that should be handled by separate ones. For example, auditors found that the financial management division took on acquisition and contracting responsibilities.

Additionally, auditors pointed out that the Service Transition Division, which is in charge of Consular One's implementation, lacks the authority to manage the program throughout its lifecycle.

Other IT management issues included an ineffective troubleshooting website, incomplete security checks and information security officer duties, lack of routine maintenance procedures, lack of an office records management program, insufficient communication between and within bureau offices, as well as insufficient management controls.

Auditors also found that the bureau failed to track unliquidated obligations, which resulted in the failure to use$18 million allotted to the bureau.

IG ultimately made 26 recommendations to address staff shortages and IT modernization efforts. State's response was not included in the report, and the department was unable to supply comment to FCW by press time.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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