Millions of people around the world were glued to news and social media last August, tuning in for the latest on the Afghanistan evacuation efforts. With startling images and first-hand reports, media shared the stories of individuals and families seeking to board planes out of Kabul in advance of the August 31, 2021 withdrawal.
Like so many, I was gripped by the images of evacuation flights carrying thousands of Americans and Afghans out of harm’s way. The urgency etched on each face told an inherently complex, very human story.
Behind the scenes, there was another story to tell – how technology can help bring organizations together in times of crisis to support a critical humanitarian effort. At the November 2021 Association of Government Accounts (AGA) Technology Transformation Summit, I proudly shared the virtual stage with Jake Braun, Senior Counselor at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, who offered his insights on technology’s role in the effort.
Mr. Braun highlighted four key elements:
- Technology coordination to support evacuation and resettlement;
- The importance of building out new capabilities to effectively share data;
- The criticality of interoperability, and;
- The dedication of government and contractor staff in overcoming technology challenges.
Since August, I have had opportunities to speak with multiple CGI Federal colleagues, many of whom were on the ground in prior evacuation efforts, such as the 2006 Beirut evacuation. Mr. Braun’s insights reinvigorated our conversations regarding the role of technology in responding to the Afghan crisis.
Looking to the PMA for guidance
The recent publication of the President’s Management Agenda (PMA) Vision enabled me to make additional connections between these conversations and administration priorities. I strongly believe that current government actions and priorities as described in the PMA Vision set a strong foundation for an improved response to the next U.S. or international emergency. With that context, I offer up three considerations for federal agencies as they look to the role technology can play in planning for future crisis response:
Collaborate across agencies. Significant progress has been made in cross-agency collaboration across several domains, particularly in law enforcement to emergency response. However, opportunities exist for continuous improvement. I am encouraged by government investments in breaking down organizational silos across agencies, such as the federal CIO Council’s collaboration and calendaring pilot, allowing staff from different agencies to more readily share documents. This type of cross-agency interaction will increase collaborative activities on the ground for time-sensitive situations, such as evacuation, resettlement or natural disasters.
In addition, agencies should continue to focus on secure data sharing across agency case management systems. PMA Vision Priority 2, Strategy 1, addresses the need to improve customer experience among federal High-Impact Services Providers (HISPs). The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is recognized as an HISP for its work in Citizenship and Immigration Services. DHS closely collaborates with the Departments of State, Justice and Defense to fulfill various immigration and citizenship processes.
In speaking with colleagues and representatives from non-profits aiding in the Afghan humanitarian effort, I learned that one of the largest challenges of the evacuation effort was the adjudication of the Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs).
Of course, case review and adjudication is critical to ensure that we identify individuals who could present a risk to the U.S. However, in some cases, DOD or DOJ personnel might have information regarding an individual’s work in support of U.S. efforts that could mitigate negative background information. Providing outside agency personnel with secure access to SIV case adjudication files could provide a more thorough understanding of a case earlier in the process.
Improve communication with citizens overseas. During the evacuation, lack of insight into where U.S. persons were in Afghanistan – or even how many were seeking to evacuate – introduced significant challenges. My CGI colleagues and I have discussed the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) program – a free service that allows citizens traveling or living abroad to receive security updates from the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate – and how to integrate sign-ups for STEP into the international travel booking process. For example, airline and cruise line booking systems could include information about the STEP program and a link for automatic sign-up. This simple connection would provide greater visibility into the number of U.S. citizens within a given country.
Expand digital processes. During my chat with Mr. Braun, I was both excited and surprised to hear about the government’s digital capabilities for biometric data collection on the ground in Afghanistan. Based on my conversations with resources close to the SIV process, I learned that many aspects of the process were not yet digital – for example, applicants could be required to provide hard copies of certain documents, such as proof that they are or were employed in support of U.S. interests.
As evacuation became vital and those individuals seeking SIV status made their way across the country to the Kabul airport, being found with that paper documentation by the Taliban could prove life-threatening. At the same time, the U.S. Embassy (which had severely limited capabilities in August, due to COVID) often used manual and paper-based procedures. Paper-based processes introduce inherent data-sharing limitations.
As I read the PMA Vision Strategy 2, Priority 2, which calls for aligning government service delivery with key life experiences that cut across federal agencies, I immediately thought of these conversations. For these Afghan nationals who had directly supported U.S. interests and enabled the U.S. mission in Afghanistan, the need for evacuation was not merely a life event, but a life-or-death event. To enable greater collaboration across agencies and support the needs of these individuals and their families, the federal government should conduct a thorough analysis of currently manual processes within and across agencies.
I was excited to see the “time tax” associated with the immigrant experience, called out in the December 13 Executive Order on Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery to Rebuild Trust in Government. The time to identify areas for digitalization and enhanced customer experience is now, before the next crisis. A proactive approach positions agencies, vital to the immigration process, to collaboratively consider options for improving customer experience and for better understanding the implications on the immigrant customer experience.
Taking a measured look at the immigration and international travel process now – particularly for those seeking a humanitarian- or security-based refugee status in the future – helps the U.S. government meet its commitments to these individuals and families who have demonstrated their dedication to U.S. mission priorities.
Working alongside public sector leaders, CGI helps agencies digitally transform and improve the customer experience. Learn more about CGI’s digital experience capabilities here.