Each year, more than 8 million applications are submitted to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for citizenship, permanent residence and other immigration benefits and services, transactions that can be life-changing for those seeking assistance but also time-consuming and complex.
To interact with the agency, customers have the option to call a contact center, get information from the USCIS website or visit a field office. Many customers stated they were treated fairly in conversations with a USCIS representative, according to a contact center survey. However, they also said it could take a long time to complete the purpose of their call.
Increased processing times for immigration applications is also a challenge for customers. For example, the average case processing time for the naturalization application was 10.3 months in fiscal 2018, up from 8.1 months in fiscal 2017. More complex forms that take longer to process, as well as an increase in the number of applications received, are two factors contributing to longer wait times, according to agency officials. Processing of immigration applications was largely unaffected by the partial government shutdown that began in December 2018, since USCIS’ services are primarily funded by applicant fees.
While customers waited to learn their status, they wanted clearer information about where their case was in the application process. They also wanted to know how long it might take to hear from USCIS, according to interviews with agency officials, who said they were working to provide customers with more transparency.
The agency has improved online assistance by providing self-service options to help people get information and complete tasks more easily, and offered understandable content that is easy to navigate, according to our review of selected web pages.
Key Services Provided to Applicants
- Information and assistance on immigration processes, including help with applications for U.S. citizenship, green cards and work permits.
- Updates on case status and processing times, and answers to applicants’ questions.
- Information, online self-service tools, account services and access to forms.
- Instruction and training on citizenship rights and responsibilities.
- Administration of grant programs, and tools and resources to prepare immigrants for citizenship.
- Process refugee and asylum applications.
DID YOU KNOW
During the past decade, USCIS welcomed more than 7.4 million naturalized citizens to the United States.1 That’s more than the population of Denmark.
People from all around the world who seek a wide range of immigration benefits and services as well as individuals who represent them (e.g., their attorneys).
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calls to the USCIS contact center
average wait time for calls that provide basic information
average wait time for complex calls that are handled by a more experienced officer
visits to USCIS.gov
approximate visits at field offices, according to the agency’s online appointment system
Social Media Presence
USCIS engages with customers on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, using these platforms to inform the public of changes to policies or processes; highlight self-service options; offer tips for avoiding scams and fraud; and stream events, such as naturalization ceremonies.
As of September 2019, the agency’s social media presence includes:
Joined: May 2008
The official Twitter account of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
Joined: January 2012
Official account of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in Spanish
Joined: December 2014
News and tips regarding the web-based service employers use to confirm new employees are authorized to work in the U.S.
While not all of the customer feedback USCIS collects is publicly available, the agency does publish results from a follow-up survey of callers to its contact center.
Callers indicated they were treated fairly by USCIS staff but did not always find it easy to complete what they needed to do over the phone in a timely manner.
USCIS Contact Center Survey Fiscal 2019 Q13
I am satisfied with the service I received from the USCIS Contact Center
It was easy to complete what I needed to do
This interaction increased my confidence in the USCIS Contact Center 1-800 number
It took a reasonable amount of time to do what I needed to do
This interaction increased my confidence in USCIS
I was treated fairly
My need was addressed
Employees I interacted with were helpful
Customer Experience Highlights
- Improvements to the website made it easier to find information and complete processes online, according to USCIS staff familiar with customer feedback. One improvement was a virtual assistant called “Emma” that helps with answering users’ questions. Our own analysis found that key USCIS web pages are easy to navigate and understand.
- Customers are treated fairly during interactions with the USCIS contact center, according to agency surveys. When customers feel they are treated fairly, it helps to build trust and confidence in USCIS and the decisions they make about immigration benefits and services.
The agency focuses on training contact center employees to be empathetic and patient when interacting with applicants. “This is a metric that jumped out to us, and we believe this is a reflection of the quality of the officers and the way they are trained to interact with applicants,” said Mary Herrmann, acting chief of USCIS’ Public Services Division.
Our scan of approximately 11,000 social media comments about citizenship and immigration services found many examples of posts that can help understand the customer experience, such as people complaining about difficulty in getting their issues resolved at the USCIS contact center and expressing praise for staff after being approved for citizenship or a green card. Here, we provide one example of a post that reinforces a theme in customer feedback identified in this profile. Along with other topics, our scan found many instances of customers asking questions and expressing confusion about case processing times.
“@USCIS can you confirm the processing date for K1 visa, in Cali processing office? The website confused me.”
Opportunities to Improve the Customer Experience
- Customers want better, more frequent information on the status of their cases and when they will be resolved. “More than half of the feedback we get from customers is about processing times. People often reach out to us about concerns because the process is taking a while, and they think their case must have been lost,” said Allison Posner, chief of casework at the Office of the Citizenship and Immigration Services Ombudsman. This desire for updates was reflected in USCIS’ website statistics—the online tool for checking the status of immigration cases is consistently among the most visited government websites, according to data published on analytics.usa.gov.
By providing people with easy access to updates on processing times for their case, USCIS can address a major concern and show customers it values their time. In 2018, USCIS began offering customers a specific date after which they can call to inquire about their case, rather than providing them with a broad range of estimated processing times, which can be confusing. The agency also began providing case status information to the first line of contact center representatives, rather than requiring those agents to escalate the call to more experienced USCIS officers. This change can help callers get the information they need more quickly.
- Processing times for many immigration applications have increased. The amount of time customers wait for USCIS to process their immigration case is also a challenge, according to agency officials. For example, the average processing time for the application for naturalization was 10.3 months in fiscal 2018, up from 8.1 months in fiscal 2017, according to USCIS data. More complex forms that take longer to process, as well as an increase in the number of applications received, are two factors contributing to longer wait times, according to agency officials. For example, the agency processed 850,000 naturalization applications in fiscal 2018, an 18% increase from 2014.
- Customers want an easier way to secure office appointments online. An immigration attorney with more than 20 years of experience working with applicants shared that he frequently tries to use the agency’s online system to book appointments for his clients and it requires some effort. “I’ve spent a lot of time in the system fruitlessly trying to get an appointment,” he said.
USCIS officials said they are aware of the issue and, as of August 2019, implemented a new process to improve the agency’s ability to resolve applicants’ inquiries through its contact center. Instead of scheduling appointments online, applicants can call the contact center to schedule appointments. The agency found agents can often resolve callers’ questions or concerns by phone, citing that only 2% of all inquiries to the contact center require an appointment at a field office. The agency also provides information on its website to help visitors understand the actions they can complete without an appointment.
USING VIRTUAL ASSISTANTS AND A CHAT FEATURE TO ANSWER CUSTOMERS’ QUESTIONS
In 2015, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services launched “Emma,” the agency’s first virtual assistant. The Emma avatar sits at the top right corner of the USCIS website and provides answers to users’ questions, potentially saving customers from having to comb through the website or call contact center for information.
In fiscal 2018, the English-language Emma responded to more than 9 million inquiries from people who started more than 3 million “conversations.” A Spanish-speaking version responded to 2 million inquiries from people during more than 620,000 “conversations.” Emma has a success rate of 91% for answering questions posed in English, and 89% for answering questions posed in Spanish.
USCIS staff have continued to improve Emma and other aspects of the website. In 2018, for example, the agency launched a limited chat feature so customers who cannot get an answer from Emma can be connected to an agent immediately, without having to find a phone number and call the agency. USCIS also is considering more advanced ways to use Emma, such as having the virtual assistant help customers create online accounts allowing them to access personalized information and services.
- Customers would like to complete what they need to do over the phone in a more timely and efficient manner, according to USCIS’ contact center survey. More than 35% of callers indicated it was difficult to do what they needed to do, and more than 40% did not think it took a reasonable amount of time to take care of their task.
One challenge for customers is navigating the interactive voice response system to complete basic self-service tasks, according to agency representatives and our review of social media comments. “Improving the experience of the callers to our contact center continues to be a priority and a challenge,” said Vashon Citizen in April 2019. “Survey data and other feedback from the public cite the current IVR [system] experience as a key driver.” Citizen is the chief of the contact center solutions branch in USCIS’ Public Services Division.
The agency plans to launch a new IVR system by the second quarter of fiscal 2020, according to USCIS officials. The system will recognize English and Spanish, enabling speakers of either language to ask questions verbally rather than select from a fixed menu of options. The system will also be able to send customers emails or texts with USCIS website links for further information.
Website Experience: How Easy Is It to Navigate and Understand Online Information?
In April 2019, the Partnership and Accenture partnered with the Center for Plain Language, a nonprofit organization that champions clear language, to conduct an analysis of selected USCIS web pages to determine how easy it would be for customers to navigate the website and to find, understand and act on information. Reviewers looked at the pages from the perspective of people with two different needs: applying for citizenship and applying for a green card with the intent of getting a full-time job.
Note: In a separate study, the center examines a range of government websites annually and issues a Federal Plain Language Report Card. The average grade in calendar year 2018 was a “C.”
What the Analysis Found
The web pages provide clear, well-described, chronological steps that effectively guide users through the complex process of applying for a green card and citizenship. For the most part, the pages are well-written, using short sentences and active voice. The web pages’ links are clearly marked and presented, helping the site to remain uncluttered and making it easy for customers to understand what they should click to find more information.
At the same time, application processes need to be fully explained to give users the full confidence they need. For example, on the “Citizenship” page, the “what to do” steps (Figure 2) seem almost deceptively simple. Each could have more information that would give users a full answer to their questions and concerns. Additionally, some complex terms such as “biometrics” are not defined.
Figure 1: Good application of tools to help readers click for more information and not overwhelm them with text
Figure 2: Clear, engaging, easy-to-follow structure highlighting the application process, although the “what to do” sections could provide more information, such as defining “biometrics.”
Indicators that the Customer Experience is a High Priority
The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of indicators to understand how agencies are prioritizing customer experience and the steps they can take to improve. The list is based on research about effective customer experience practices in both government and the private sector and aligns with practices in a customer experience maturity self-assessment for agencies developed by the Office of Management and Budget. Leaders who participate in the Partnership’s federal customer experience roundtable provided input.
Commitment to customer experience
Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.
The agency’s strategic plan includes an objective to improve satisfaction with the delivery of information to the public. However, that objective focuses narrowly on the delivery of information rather than the full customer experience.
Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance.
The percentage of respondents satisfied with the support received from the USCIS Contact Center is a key performance measure.
Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve customer experience across the organization.
However, leaders in the Office of Citizenship and Applicant Information Services are responsible for efforts to educate and assist applicants.
Has a process for standardizing across channels the information and guidance provided to customers.
Efforts are in progress.
Shares meaningful customer feedback with the public.
Customer Service Basics
For the most common services provided, customers can:
Complete frequently used transactions online.
For example, customers cannot submit green card applications online. Agency officials say they are working to make it possible to file more forms and applications online, including those related to green cards.
Easily find information to call an appropriate USCIS representative.
Schedule in-person appointments.
USCIS requires that all field office appointments be made by phone, so representatives can address issues that do not need to be resolved with an appointment.
Obtain status updates.
Customers can check the status of their cases online; however, the information available about how long processing will take is sometimes limited and difficult for customers to interpret.
The agency collects and analyzes data and information on customer perceptions:
Of specific interactions, including website visits, phone calls and in-person appointments.
Of the customer journey through a series of interactions or multistage processes that build toward a specific goal.
Efforts to collect this information are in progress.
Of the overall service the organization provides.
Through qualitative research, such as customer interviews, focus groups, analysis of social media comments or direct observation.
Footnotes and Methodology
1 U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “Naturalization Fact Sheet.” Retrieved from http://bit.ly/302gYBz
2 Data provided by USCIS for fiscal 2018.
3 Response rate: 20%; Survey scale: five-point Likert scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” The percentages for each question represent the percentage of customers who responded “agree” and “strongly agree.”
Social Media Methodology
Accenture conducted the social media scan using a social media intelligence platform. Using keyword searches, the team identified comments posted from November 2018 through February 2019 about each federal service on popular social media sites such as Twitter, Reddit, Instagram, Yelp, Google and other online forums. The majority (61%) of the posts ultimately included in the analysis were from Twitter.
The team excluded posts primarily containing political commentary and grouped posts to identify themes in customer feedback for each federal service. The methodology allowed us to identify common trends in posts about each service and identify potential issues customers face but cannot be used to draw firm conclusions about the experience of the full range of its customers.
Web Experience Methodology
For each agency, we selected for review a set of web pages that provided information on how customers apply for or access one of the agency’s highest-volume services.
We partnered with the Center for Plain Language to conduct this review. The center followed the same methodology it uses to assess plain language for its annual ClearMark awards for a range of organizations and its annual Federal Plain Language Report Card for the government. This process involved developing two profiles of typical users for each set of agency web pages. The user profiles helped focus reviews on typical tasks, for example, an individual applying for a green card for the first time.
Two plain-language experts individually and independently reviewed and scored each set of pages, using five plain-language criteria to assess each site. They rated each criterion on a five-point scale:
- Information design and navigation.
- Pictures, graphics and charts.
- Style or voice.
- Structure and content.
- Understanding of audience.
The reviewers then met to reach consensus on strengths and weaknesses of each site and to assign a letter grade based on their ratings.
Detailed Methodology for Our Review of Indicators That Customer Experience Is a High Priority
We reviewed each agency and service against indicators that customer experience is a high priority using the following criteria.
Commitment to customer experience
The agency, subagency or bureau:
1. Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.
Criteria: 1) Customer experience with the agency’s services is listed in the strategic plan as one of the organization’s top priorities, or a supporting goal of one of the priorities; 2) the strategic plan provides specific actions the agency will take to improve customer experience.
2. Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance.
Criteria: There is a performance measure included in the agency’s strategic plan, annual performance report or on performance.gov that is based on feedback directly from customers.
3. Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead customer experience efforts.
Criteria: Based on a review of the agency organizational chart and online descriptions of leadership positions, the agency has an executive who meets the following criteria: 1) customer experience is their primary responsibility; 2) they report to the head of their organization, or a deputy; 3) their work spans all major service delivery channels (e.g., online services, contact centers, face-to-face services).
4. Has a process for standardizing across channels the information and guidance provided to customers.
Criteria: At least two service delivery channels have integrated knowledge management systems so that when content for customers on one channel is updated, it is updated on the other channel.
5. Shares meaningful customer feedback with the public.
Criteria: In alignment with the Office of Management and Budget’s guidance on CX measurement, the agency makes public customer feedback that: 1) represents multiple service delivery channels; 2) provides details into different aspects of the experience (e.g., beyond overall customer satisfaction).
Customer service basics
For the most common services provided, customers can:
1. Complete frequently used transactions online.
Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s website, customers can complete all major services or
2. Easily find information to call an appropriate representative.
Criteria: The agency’s website provides a clear explanation of which number to call for specific issues or provides one number that customers can call to get routed to the appropriate person.
3. Schedule in-person appointments.
Criteria: Based on a review of the agency’s website, customers have the ability to schedule appointments for in-person services.
4. Obtain status updates.
Criteria: Customers can get real-time updates through an online or self-service channel.
The agency, subagency or bureau collects and analyzes data and information on customer perceptions:
1. Of specific interactions, including website visits, phone calls and in-person appointments.
2. Of the customer journey through a series of interactions or multistage processes that build toward a specific goal.
3. Of the overall service the organization provides.
4. Through qualitative research, such as customer interviews, focus groups, analyzing comments on social media, or direct observation.