UK could face more passport application chaos this year unless ‘clunky systems’ are upgraded

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez April 6, 2023
Hundreds of thousands of British citizens faced delays to their passport applications as COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted in 2022 - largely as a result of poor systems and external contractors not meeting service level agreements.

Photo of a British Passport
(Image by Ethan Wilkinson, sourced via Unsplash)

Citizens in the UK could face further disruption to their travel plans this year as a result of delayed passport applications if His Majesty’s Passport Office (HMPO) doesn’t complete its digital transformation programme and upgrade its ‘clunky systems’, according to a new report by the influential Public Accounts Committee (PAC). 

The PAC has been assessing the delays to hundreds of thousands of passport applications that citizens faced in 2022 after the final UK COVID-19 travel restrictions were lifted. MPs on the Committee say that they remain to be convinced that HMPO is on track to complete its digital transformation programme by 2025, given its track record with delivering technology projects. 

HMPO manages the end-to-end passport processing services and approves all applications, but parts of the process are contracted out to third parties. Unsurprisingly, the passport office was also let down by external contractors that did not meet the required service level agreements during the surge in applications. 

As was predicted, when the UK removed COVID-19 travel restrictions in early 2022, passport applications began to increase. Between January and September 2022, HMPO received 7.2 million passport applications, a 24% increase compared to the same period in 2019. 

HMPO staff did process record numbers of applications and about 95% of applicants received their passports within HMPO’s 10-week timeframe. But some 360,000 applicants experienced delays that affected their travel plans and their ability to prove their identity.

Nick Smith MP warned that if HMPO doesn’t deliver on its planned transformation programme, similar chaos could ensue this year. He said: 

Despite efforts to prepare for the predicted surge in passport applications, many people were let down. Family holidays and important trips were thrown into jeopardy with many forced to fork out fees to ensure their passports arrived on time.

It became the number one casework issue in my office, crowding out other important work as staff strove to help with multiple urgent cases every day.

It is disappointing that HMPO’s decision making failed to focus on the customers’ experience during this frustrating time, and I’m concerned that a failure to upgrade their clunky system may result in similar scenes this year.

What went wrong? 

As noted above, HMPO did deliver passports within the advertised period of 10 weeks to 95% of customers between January and September 2022 - but 360,000 customers had to wait longer. The key issue is that HMPO’s digital system was unable to handle the surge in demand and the full range of applications, and so 134,000 applications were moved to the less efficient, paper-based system. 

However, these applications should have been moved to the front of the queue for processing - but were not. Instead, these transferred applications were treated as new cases and the number of weeks it had taken to process each person’s application was reset to zero. 

As a result, HMPO did not know how long the customer had actually been waiting for their passport and customers were incorrectly informed that their applications had only arrived recently. 

The PAC report states: 

HMPO did not plan for the number of applications that needed to transfer to the paper-based system and staff were not sufficiently trained to handle the differences between the two systems. HMPO admitted that parts of the passport application process did not work as intended, but it took far too long to identify and fix the issues. These problems compounded delays and undermined customers’ confidence in HMPO.

In addition to this, despite HMPO’s work to prepare for increased demand for passports, poor performance by external contractors exacerbated issues for applicants. MPs on the PAC said that they are concerned that in some cases it was clear that the performance of some of these contractors was deteriorating as early as March 2022. The report adds: 

Sopra Steria, responsible for opening and scanning paper applications and supporting documentation, did not achieve its service levels targets for five months in 2022. Similarly, Teleperformance, responsible for the customer support telephone line, did not meet its targets for four months and caused significant concerns for customers who were unable to get help. 

HMPO accepted that some of the issues with contractors, especially at the end of the process, were its fault, as it had not adequately prepared them for the expected volumes of work. HMPO recognised that some customers have lost confidence in its handling of passport application and is bringing in a second contractor to handle customer calls alongside Teleperformance.

However, the underlying problems with HMPO’s digital systems remain a concern to the Committee. The future of HMPO’s operations rely on the organization successfully completing its digital transformation programme, which aims to fully replace its paper-based system with a digital system. The programme was expected to be complete by the end of March 2022, but has been pushed back to 2025-26. 

The Committee said that it ‘remains to be convinced’ that the programme will even be completed by 2025, however, and has called the timeline for the project “ambitious”. It cites the Department’s track record on delivering change and the ‘red rating’ awarded it by the Infrastructure and Projects Authority. The report goes on to say: 

Furthermore, HMPO’s plans for the future of its legacy paper-based system are unclear. HMPO wants to maintain the capacity to use paper-based applications as some customers may not be able to apply online, but its contract for the paper-based system’s data storage expires in 2024. The Department is currently in discussions to extend the contract.

Taking all of the above into account, the Committee is not convinced about HMPO’s ability to manage future demand in 2023 - which is expected given that half of the ‘missing’ demand for passports from the pandemic materialized in 2022. As such, another surge is expected this year, with the potential for more delays for customers. 

My take

HMPO knew a surge in demand for passport applications was coming and still failed to prepare adequately, leaving hundreds of thousands of customers anxiously waiting. The government has a long track record of technology project failures and the Committee is wise to be cautious about this being a one off, given that the underlying issues remain to be rectified. 

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