Working from home has led to passport office delays that have jeopardized the travel plans of at least 360,000 Britons, according to a survey by the government’s spending watchdog.
The National Audit Office (NAO) said allowing HM Passport Office (HMPO) staff to work from home helped delay the completion of a new digital application processing system, which was due to be completed by March of this year before the crisis hit on.
This meant that the system was unable to handle the sudden post-pandemic surge in applications from millions of holidaymakers and business travelers looking to renew their passports in the spring and summer.
It forced passport office staff to manually process applications on paper, which was slower and less efficient. This helped 360,000 people miss officials’ 10-week deadline to return documents, jeopardizing their vacation and travel plans.
The report states: “HMPO originally planned to complete its transformation program by March 2022. When the COVID-19 pandemic began, HMPO expanded the scope of the program to allow staff to work from home, making it easier to continue processing questions. However, this has contributed to delays in completing the programme. HMPO now expects to complete its transformation in 2024-25.”
‘Red-rated’ by Whitehall chiefs
The disclosure, in a report released Friday, contradicts claims by senior Passport Office executives over the summer that having staff work from home had no impact on the delivery of its services.
The Passport Office has now admitted that the digital application system may not be fully operational until 2025/26, although the number of passport applications next year could be even higher than what caused this summer’s chaos.
The NAO also revealed that the passport’s digital ‘transformation’ program has been ‘red-rated’ by Whitehall bosses, meaning ‘successful delivery of the project appears to be unfeasible’.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said the passport office needed to learn lessons to avoid a repeat even as it processed a record number of applications amid unprecedented demand.
“The limitations in its systems, coupled with difficulties keeping up with above-average customer numbers, have contributed to delays for hundreds of thousands of people, creating anxiety for those with travel plans, and hampering people’s ability to prove your identity,” he said. .
“HM Passport Office must now learn this year’s lessons and prepare for demand levels similar to those expected in 2023.”
The Passport Office estimates that there are still at least three million applications to be expected from people who have not renewed or applied during the pandemic. This will push the number of applications this year to 9.8 million, a third higher than normal and above this year’s 9.5 million.
Thomas Greig, director of passports, told MPs in July that he was “very confident, having seen the way our work has progressed over the last few years and months and having seen our productivity, that working from home has not been a problem in our provision of services.”
However, the NAO report states that the decision to allow staff to work from home at the onset of the pandemic “has contributed to delaying the completion of the [digital transformation] program”.
Telephone support overwhelmed
The NAO said the passport office was relying on the new digital system to deal with the expected increase in applications, but the delay meant it could not handle demand.
“Between January and September, limitations in the digital system forced HM Passport Office to move 134,000 applications to the less efficient paper system,” the NAO said.
Not only was it slower, but it also meant that staff didn’t know how long the downloaded applications had been in the system. In some cases, this meant that applicants, who had already been waiting for four weeks, were brought back to the front of the queue.
“This has created confusion and frustration for customers who phoned in for updates, when they were incorrectly informed that their applications were still within the 10-week enforcement period,” the NAO said.
The delays were exacerbated by understaffing after a recruitment campaign failed, failed attempts to alert the public to allow 10 weeks for applications, and its telephone helpline was subsequently overwhelmed.
The Home Office said it had worked hard to rectify the problems that caused the delay. “The delay in transitioning to the latest passport application system, DAP, is due to essential changes that allowed our staff to work from home while social distancing measures were in place. This has been integral to our ability to provide seamless passport services during the pandemic,” a spokesperson said.