Our objective was to assess the Postal Service’s passport application acceptance operations and identify opportunities for improvement.
Since 1975, the Postal Service has leveraged its expansive retail network to accept passport applications on behalf of the U.S. Department of State (State Department). The State Department is primarily responsible for nationwide passport services. This includes designating entities to accept passport applications, providing passport information to the public, issuing U.S. passports, and ensuring program integrity. The Postal Service’s role is to accept passport applications at designated facilities, ensure all application documents are correct, and submit documents to the State Department. The Postal Service and State Department have an interagency agreement that governs passport acceptance.
As of December 2020, the Postal Service had over 31,000 retail offices, of which 4,834 processed passport applications. During fiscal year (FY) 2020, the Postal Service processed approximately 4.4 million first-time passport applications, generating $197.3 million in acceptance and photo fee revenue. Compared to FY 2019, this was a 34 percent decline in volume and $101.4 million decline in revenue, both of which were likely attributed to a decrease in international travel during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Due to the pandemic and following safety guidelines, in March 2020, the Postal Service no longer allowed walk-in appointments and began conducting passport transactions by appointment only. Management began to allow walk-in appointments again in May 2021, at the discretion of local facility management.
Customers can schedule appointments through four channels: USPS.com website, customer care phone line, self-service kiosks, or in-person at a post office. Scheduled appointments are recorded in the Retail Customer Appointment Scheduler (Scheduler). Postal Service retail employees and supervisors view and manage upcoming appointments through the internal My Post Office application. Appointments are also monitored by Postal Service Headquarters staff using the “Passport Dashboard.” Prior to the implementation of the Scheduler in 2017, a customer had to call or visit a post office to schedule an appointment.
Passport application acceptance operations nationwide were generally compliant with State Department standards. However, the Postal Service has opportunities to improve program quality and effectiveness related to appointment scheduling, data accuracy, coordination with State Department stakeholders, and performance goals. Specifically:
- Appointment Scheduling Irregularities: We identified several instances where large numbers of passport appointments were unused, altered, or improperly scheduled by employees. For example, a customer used the same email address to reserve 629 appointments at a passport site and utilized just one of the appointments. The customer cancelled 613 of those appointments, on average, two days before the appointment dates and did not cancel the remaining 15. In other instances, we noted Postal Service employees improperly blocked appointment times or used an incorrect email format when reserving appointments on behalf of customers. These issues occurred because the Postal Service did not have mechanisms in place to prevent and detect these practices. While these instances represent less than 1 percent of total passport appointments, unavailability of appointments could negatively impact customer satisfaction and perception of the Postal Service’s brand.
- Reconciliation and Appointment Data Accuracy: OIG analysis noted that completed appointments in the Scheduler did not reconcile with passport data recorded in the Retail Systems Software (Retail System). From October 2020 to March 2021, there were 491,248 discrepancies between appointments marked “complete” in the Scheduler compared to the number of transactions recorded in the Retail System, a difference of 19.8 percent. This occurred because supervisors did not correctly record the completion of appointments in the Scheduler and the two systems do not interface. Management stated they plan to implement a system interface in FY 2022. However, until this is in place, there is reduced assurance that data is accurate.
- Coordination with State Department Stakeholders: The Postal Service could benefit from insights contained in additional State Department reports. We identified at least four pertinent reports that could provide management with additional insight in identifying areas of improvement. The reports include instances of suspended passport applications due to Postal Service agent error, occasions where transmittals of applications to the State Department may not have been prepared correctly, and two reports related to customer complaints. Postal Service management was not aware of the reports but was interested in receiving them based on our discussions. The additional reports could enable the Postal Service to better monitor operations, improve service, and enhance the customer experience.
- Program Performance Measurement: The Postal Service’s performance goals for the passports program could be improved to measure and drive desired outcomes. For example, management monitors blocked appointments in a Passport Dashboard, but there is no goal to determine an acceptable number of occurrences. Management stated that the current program review mechanisms, although lacking documented and established goals in some aspects, were sufficient to evaluate program performance. However, not having measured and documented performance goals could limit management’s ability to identify areas in need of improvement, measure overall program performance, and grow the program.
During our audit work, we noted the Postal Service’s technology, both currently used and in development, could enhance passport acceptance operations as well as other services the Postal Service may consider offering. Such technology, including biometric fingerprinting for identity checks, is currently offered at select post offices as part of a pilot program. We encourage the Postal Service to explore these options to enhance the customer experience and facilitate operations for other government services.
We recommended the Vice President, Retail and Post Office Operations:
- Consider developing automated mechanisms to detect and alert management of potentially invalid or improper appointments.
- Reinforce procedures to record the correct appointment outcome in the My Post Office application until an automated system interface is established.
- Coordinate with State Department stakeholders to explore opportunities for sharing information that could improve passport operations.
- Enhance performance metrics to include clearly defined measures and goals to better evaluate program performance and drive growth.