Navigating Citizenship Services at USCIS

This blog post is an excerpt from GovLoop's recent guide, "Tips to Address 6 Common Pain Points in Service Delivery."

There’s nothing more confusing than knowing exactly what you need but having no clue how to access it. Cumbersome, complex processes are the plague of bureaucracy and can drastically reduce a citizen’s understanding or engagement with government. To simplify services, many organizations are turning to online platforms to relay more information in a clearer, tailored and more accessible manner.

Imagine you’re trying to gain citizenship in the United States. You’re probably going to find yourself on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) website looking for information on how to go about this complex process. Despite this online resource, however, you’re also probably struggling with the complex process or legal terms and may even have some significant language barriers.

All of these challenges often seem insurmountable to many potential citizens. Fortunately, there is a govie who is dedicated to improving the website and system, one innovative program at a time. Mariela Melero is the Associate Director of Customer Service and Public Engagement at USCIS. She recently sat down with GovLoop to talk about the innovations her team has spearheaded in the immigration process.

"There are a few types of individuals who seek assistance from USCIS," said Melero. The first is the customer who knows exactly what he or she is looking for. “These individuals just want to know where to find information, so we have a set of tools designed for them that will take them to the USCIS website and the area that they are interested in,” she said.

Then, there is a middle group who might know what they are looking for but are not exactly sure how that translates into government offerings. Melero explained that for this group of individuals, “We built a digital platform called myUSCIS that is accessible across devices and helps unsure individuals navigate across options that will eventually lead to information about processes.”

Lastly, there are individuals who come into the U.S. but are not ready to take on the visa and immigration process. They need more significant help. “For these people, we have multiple access points, including the digital services, a bilingual intelligent virtual assistant, a 1-800 number and appointments at a district office,” Melero said.

A lot of these processes are innately complex on the back end and must be simplified for end users. For those users, USCIS created the intelligent virtual assistant Emma. Oftentimes, those who work for USCIS get caught up in the formal terminology and find it difficult to communicate information that customers can understand. Emma remedies this issue because she is able to understand and effectively respond to individuals coming to her with different levels of knowledge about immigration processes.

Since her debut last December, Emma has had the opportunity to evolve as an avatar in terms of popularity and use. Melero explained that Emma started out internally but now she is used by almost half the people who visit the USCIS website and answers 90 percent of questions correctly. “This is absolutely remarkable because it takes approximately three years to grow an avatar,” Melero said.

Melero and her team are also working on redesigning and improving other immigration processes. “We are creating an electronic filing experience for those seeking permanent residency,” she said. They are also improving language skills in human customer service representatives and automated representatives and systems.

Melero discussed how her team is inviting customers who have used their innovative systems to give feedback. “We want to know what we can make better, and the only way we can validate our very best is to invite customers to come and give feedback so we can co-create with them and develop the best experience,” she said.

Bringing innovation to the USCIS truly is a group effort. Melero emphasized that she wouldn’t have been able to innovate like she has had it not been for her team and the people who use their services. “We are public servants providing a service, and I am immensely proud to be a public servant and able to work in this space,” she said.

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