Immigration Services:

Better Contracting Practices Needed at Call Centers

GAO-05-526: Published: Jun 30, 2005. Publicly Released: Jun 30, 2005.

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The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) bureau within the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) provides toll-free telephone assistance through call centers to immigrants, their attorneys, and others seeking information about U.S. immigration services and benefits. As the volume of calls increased--from about 13 million calls in fiscal year 2002 to about 21 million calls in fiscal year 2004--questions were raised about USCIS's ability to ensure the reliability and accuracy of the information provided at call centers run by an independent contractor. This report analyzes: (1) the performance measures established by USCIS to monitor and evaluate the performance of contractor-operated call centers; (2) how performance measures were used to evaluate the contractor's performance; and (3) any actions USCIS has taken, or plans to take, to strengthen call center operations.

USCIS developed seven performance measures intended to assess the performance and overall quality of responses provided by customer service representatives at contractor-operated call centers. These measures include how quickly calls were answered and the accuracy of information provided. The contract between USCIS and its contractor stipulated that the contractor could earn financial incentive awards if the average monthly performance met or exceeded the standards on a quarterly basis at each of four call centers. Conversely, financial deductions could be made if the standards were not met. USCIS did not finalize the terms regarding how the contractor's actual performance would be calculated, or scored, before awarding the contract. This limited USCIS's ability to exercise performance incentives (positive or negative) because the parties could not reach agreement on performance terms. USCIS suspended the use of financial incentives while the parties negotiated the issue. Agreement was not reached after 16 months, however, USCIS determined that the contractor had failed to meet standards for 4 of the 7 performance measures in the fourth quarter of 2004 and took action to reduce its payments for services. The contractor objected, citing the lack of agreement on the performance measurements and the impact of workload increases, but USCIS disagreed and stated it would reduce payment. In a separate but related matter, USCIS failed to meet contractual, regulatory, and GAO standards pertaining to how the contractor's performance would be documented--especially with respect to any deficiencies. Finally, USCIS exercised its option to extend the call center contract through May 2006, to allow time to solicit and award new call center contracts. USCIS said it intends to finalize performance measurement terms in the new contracts. USCIS used contractor performance data it collected over the course of the contract to identify opportunities to improve customer service and call flow, among other things. Several initiatives were launched as a result.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: CIS has provided a performance work statement and a list of performance measurement requirements that are responsive to the recommendation.

    Recommendation: To improve USCIS's efforts for evaluating contractor performance and encourage quality services at call centers, the Secretary of Homeland Security should require the Director of USCIS to finalize contract terms related to specific performance measurement requirements before awarding new performance-based call center contracts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In June 2005, we reported that the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) developed seven performance measures intended to assess the performance and overall quality of response provided by customer service representative at the contractor-operated call center. The contract between USCIS and its contractor stipulated that the contractor could earn financial incentives awards if the average monthly performance met or exceeded the standards on a quarterly basis at each of the four call centers. Conversely, financial deductions could be made if the standards were not met. In not finalizing the terms regarding how the contractor's actual performance would be calculated or scored before awarding the contract, USCIS's ability to exercise performance incentives positively or negatively was limited. USCIS did not maintain a complete and reliable record of the contractor's performance needed to ensure accountability. Consequently, USCIS failed to meet its contractual and regulatory standards pertaining to how the contractor's performance would be documented. We recommended that USCIS maintain readily available written records of performance assessments and performance evaluation meetings with the contractor. In response to our recommendation, USCIS placed in their performance work statement measures stating that the USCIS contracting officer (COTR) may require the contractor's program manager to meet with USCIS procurement officials and other personnel as necessary and that the contractor shall prepare and provide written minutes of any such meetings to the COTR for his or her signature. As a result, USCIS' call center management team, COTR, and contracting teams hold independent performance review meetings with each of its call center vendors on a monthly basis. USCIS officials also meet on a quarterly basis to review each vendor's performance metrics and submit recommendations for performance incentives or penalties. According to USCIS' Acting Chief of Information and Customer Service for Domestic Operations, records of these meetings and recommendations are also maintained by the call center program manager. As a result, USCIS is now in a better position to evaluate contractor performance and award financial incentives or assess financial deductions, as appropriate.

    Recommendation: To improve USCIS's efforts for evaluating contractor performance and encourage quality services at call centers, the Secretary of Homeland Security should require the Director of USCIS to maintain readily available written records of performance assessments and performance evaluation meetings with the contractor.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services

 

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