It’s no state secret that the government is slow to do just about anything. No one is eager to spend a day in line at the Department of Motor Vehicles. Similarly, the prospect of a long Transportation Security Administration wait at the airport can dampen the hype of any vacation.
President Joe Biden showed his eagerness to change the government’s long-held reputation for slowness by recently signing an executive order designed to get things moving. The document contains a far-flung list of ideas, mostly centered on the digitization of applications and greater research into line management. But if Biden really wants to speed things up, he’ll have to look beyond these half-measures and embrace more wide-reaching reforms.
One promising area for reform identified by Biden has to do with passport renewals. The president has directed the secretary of state to “design and deliver a new online passport renewal experience that does not require any physical documents to be mailed.” That’s certainly not a bad idea, but there’s currently a workaround on the books that doesn’t require an exhaustive mailing process. If you shell out more than $200, FedEx and a company called RushMyPassport will hold your hand through a mostly digital process that could be completed at a FedEx location fairly quickly and painlessly.
The problem that most people have with the process is the onerous cost associated with that streamlined service and the time (typically more than six weeks) it takes the government to issue a new passport. A large part of the slowdown stems from the Bureau of Consular Affairs’s Passport Services Directorate’s inability to modernize information technology systems. According to the State Department’s inspector general, the directorate “was unable to achieve its IT modernization goals … [and lacked] project management processes, including a collaborative performance evaluation plan, communication plan, and risk management strategy for the directorate’s IT modernization projects.”
This failed modernization not only confines operations to a paper-based environment but also complicates efforts to replace the printers used to print passport books. These printers are at the end of their useful life, yet the directorate has proven woefully incapable of developing the new software required to interface with new printers. Unless this back end of the passport renewal experience is fixed, the passport renewal experience will still take far too long, and consumers will be forced to turn to costly expedited services.
The language in the executive order provides similarly limited assurances for travelers braving long security lines. Biden wants the secretary of homeland security to “test the use of innovative technologies at airport security checkpoints to reduce passenger wait times” and (yes, really) improve online chat communications with the TSA. These half-measures mask a larger, inconvenient truth that Biden seems afraid to acknowledge. The TSA has long outlived its usefulness. As the Heritage Foundation noted in 2017, “TSA screeners failed to detect weapons, drugs, and explosives almost 80 percent of the time. While the exact failure rate is classified, multiple sources indicate it is greater than 70 percent.” Meanwhile, privately contracted services seem to do a far better job at keeping lines moving and passengers safe.
Biden is right in his insistence that the government can be sped up. But, it’ll take more than small, incremental changes on the front end to get things moving. By working with lawmakers to end the TSA and reform the black box that is the passport application/renewal process, Biden can quicken the pace of government.
If these issues can be fixed, maybe, at some point, the DMV needn’t be a tired metaphor for the entire government.
Ross Marchand is a senior fellow for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance.