WASHINGTON - The State Department insisted yesterday that it can handle the growing demand for passports, despite congressional investigators' findings that the agency has not overhauled the system to avoid repeating last summer's backlog fiasco.
The State Department has not developed a "comprehensive, long-term strategy" to modernize its passport application process, according to a report issued yesterday by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
Lawmakers had requested an investigation into the backlog that swamped passport offices last spring and summer, the result of an unprecedented 18 million applications. The high demand was spurred in part by new US travel rules.
"The 2007 surge in passport demand exposed serious deficiencies in State's passport issuance process," the report found. "Passport wait times reached record highs, leading to inconvenience and frustration for many thousands of Americans."
The department "needs to rethink its entire end-to-end passport issuance process, including each of the entities involved in issuing a passport, and develop a formal strategy for prioritizing and implementing improvements to this process," according to the investigators.
State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said he had not seen the report and could not comment in detail but he said the department has already made several changes meant to improve passport delivery. There is no similar backlog this year, he said.
"Everybody should know and understand we've already taken action," Gallegos said. "There was a situation last year. We worked very diligently to ensure that we developed a more efficient system in processing passports, one that had a much greater capacity."
Separately, the agency responded in writing to the GAO, arguing that they have "for many years had long-range goals and plans for improving its passport operations, and we continue to take actions to implement them."
Skeptical lawmakers disagreed.
"The failed execution of this one program has now uncovered the fact there are broader problems systemwide that the State Department must fix," said Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida, who had asked the GAO look into the matter.
The need for a top-to-bottom review is urgent, the GAO said, because the demand for passports is expected to keep soaring in coming years.
Department officials have acknowledged underestimating the high demand for passports last year, but said it was a historic change in behavior by Americans that was not predicted.
The GAO report found the passport backlog was the result of a number of crucial missteps or misjudgments:
A department study used to estimate future passport demand failed to survey a large group of likely travelers - those who travel by air in the Western hemisphere.
When the backup began in early 2007, officials did not realize how large it was. They were unaware that many applications were piling up at the offices of a private contractor handling the initial paperwork.