By Heather McHugh
In support of President Joe Biden’s Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in the Government, the Bureau of Consular Affairs (CA) realized a major milestone, Feb. 16, 2022, when it launched the controlled rollout of Online Passport Renewal (OPR). During OPR’s controlled release, up to 25,000 eligible Department of State and other federal employees can apply to renew their tourist passports online through MyTravelGov. Seven passport agencies and centers are serving as OPR “ambassadors” during this trial period, and they process and adjudicate paper-free renewal applications.
The OPR ambassadors include the National Passport Center in Portsmouth, N.H.; the Seattle, San Juan, Detroit, and Connecticut Passport Agencies; the Western Passport Center in Tucson, Ariz., for adjudication, and the Tucson Passport Center for passport printing. Following the controlled release, the Department will extend the opportunity to apply online to external stakeholders and then to the public in fall 2022. CA estimates that 4-5 million people will choose to renew their U.S. passports online each year.
When the COVID-19 pandemic triggered a drastic drop in passport demand, CA was faced with a dramatic decrease in revenue while simultaneously spearheading two flagship technology projects—OPR and the Next Generation Passport. As travel restrictions eased, the Department was faced with a huge increase in passport applications. To overcome these challenges, CA leadership along with the Department’s Consular Systems and Technology Office and the Passport Services Directorate strategized ways to ensure the OPR rollout moved forward, while prioritizing the reduction of application processing times. OPR had to find ways to advance the project while dealing with the ongoing pandemic.
“There was no play book for executing a project of this magnitude during a pandemic,” said PR’s Communications Team Lead Jorge Villafañe. “We simply had to adjust to changes in demand, workforce availability, cloud-based technology, budget constraints, project schedule adjustments, and other challenges. This is a top priority for the Administration, so we had to ensure that we kept moving the project forward despite any obstacles that we encountered.”
OPR will not only simplify the passport renewal process for U.S. citizens, but also allow for remote processing—providing additional workplace flexibilities for consular employees. OPR will also open the door to additional online passport services, such as processing first-time applications for the public, in the future.
The Online Passport Renewal team included, from left: Jorge Villafañe, Online Passport Renewal communications lead. Photo courtesy of Jorge Villafañe; Heather McHugh, director of the Connecticut Passport agency. Photo courtesy of Heather McHugh; Jon Peterson, Online Passport Renewal team chief. Photo courtesy of Jon Peterson and Susanne Delaney, Online Passport Renewal project lead. Photo courtesy of Susanne Delaney.
Previously, passport applicants had to complete paper applications, obtain photos, and send their most recent passports along with checks or money orders to a third-party lockbox for initial fee processing, data entry, and image scanning before their application was shipped to a passport agency across the country for adjudication. In contrast, OPR is an entirely new digital passport process that does not require a physical application or documents. Eligible customers will be able to apply online at their convenience, upload photographs, and pay for service via pay.gov. Instant electronic receipt provides better security for customer information and saves the time and cost of mailing an application package.
“I believe OPR will provide better flexibility to our customers and employees,” said OPR Project Manager Susanne Delaney. “OPR will also provide remote access to processing our workload, which I believe will result in increased efficiency [and] employee productivity, and heightened morale.”
In January and February 2022, select supervisors and managers from participating agencies received training to learn how to process, adjudicate, and audit applications in OPR and train their teams in preparation for the phased rollout. The controlled release, which began in March and will continue through summer 2022, is an opportunity for CA to test the availability, functionality, and resilience of the system and to troubleshoot any issues that may arise with a limited number of users and applicants prior to making the full-scale OPR portal available to the public this fall.
Beth Gusler, adjudication manager at the Connecticut Passport Agency with 31 years of dedicated service to the Department, expressed enthusiasm about the OPR initiative.
“It’s exciting to be a part of something that will totally change how we do business—we have waited ten years for this.” she said. “OPR will take some getting used to on our end, but the benefits for the public and for the passport workforce are enormous. We expect that OPR will also give staff in the field the ability to adjudicate and process remotely, which will make us more resilient to interruptions in service.”
CA continues to accept volunteers to apply online to renew their passport during the controlled release period. To determine your eligibility and register to participate, please visit the OPR Hub for more details.
Heather McHugh is director of the Connecticut Passport Agency.