Emergence Alumnus Making a Difference: Improving Internet Access at IRAD Interview Sites

U.S. Customs and Immigration Services refugee officer and Emergence Alum Jacob Abernathy

When U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services refugee officer Jacob Abernathy and his fellow officers conduct interviews for the International and Refugee Affairs Division (IRAD), they are too often in locations with poor or nonexistent internet access. Given that IRAD officers are more reliant than ever on maintaining internet access as part of their interviewing workflow, and about a quarter of their cases are in areas with inadequate access, the resulting disruption is a problem Abernathy (Emergence cohort 2002) decided he wanted to try to solve as part of his Center for Homeland Defense and Security Emergence program change initiative.  

Entitled “IRAD Internet Toolkit,” Abernathy’s Emergence change initiative action plan included three main elements that he said were “meant to mitigate the disruption to our workflow when working without internet,” including: 

  • A quick reference guide (or QRG) to help Team Leaders develop interviewing workflows that are resilient to Internet outages  
  • A simple Microsoft PowerApps application, titled the Circuit Ride Internet Solutions Planner (CRISP), that serves as a repository for internet-related resources for each location where IRAD conducts interviews. The information consolidated there includes basic details about the worksite, comments from past IRAD teams at that location, advice and comments from our local partners in country, and details about local cellular providers and data plans.  
  • A proposal for a new, informal “Technology Lead” role that can be designated on an overseas team. The “Technology Lead” can act as a point of contact between the IRAD team and processing partners and help troubleshoot Internet and other technology issues team members may experience.  

Abernathy said he presented his Emergence change initiative to the director of IRAD’s Refugee and International Operations field office, and she was “interested and engaged” throughout the presentation. He said it was clear that IRAD management was aware of the problem and “excited” that he was working on potential solutions. According to Abernathy, the director requested he set up a meeting with IRAD section chiefs who manage the interviewing officer teams to present his Emergence change initiative proposal to them. 

USCIS interview worksite in Kigali, Rwanda, set up for video conferencing due to Covid-19 related concerns.

After that meeting, Abernathy said he was given permission to set up a pilot project for three teams traveling to Tanzania, Ukraine, and Guatemala during the fourth quarter of this year. IRAD teams had experienced internet disruptions in all three locations. 

Abernathy himself said he was traveling to Guatemala and Honduras to conduct interviews last summer. Each team was charged with assigning a technology lead, and using the QRG and CRISP to help develop an interviewing workflow that is resilient to internet outages. Abernathy said feedback from the pilot project teams were used to determine whether they found the technology lead role useful, and whether they used the QRG and CRISP in a meaningful way. 

Unfortunately, Abernathy said, a decision was made after the pilot project not to pursue the change initiative as currently proposed. 

However, Abernathy had high praise for the CHDS Emergence program. “The education and resources we got from the Emergence program—and the collaboration with CHDS staff and my fellow participants—helped me to transform my change initiative from an abstract idea in my head to a concrete proposal that I felt confident in presenting to my leadership,” he said. “Developing and pitching the initiative taught me how to navigate relationships and power structures within my organization. Even though my initiative did not result in major changes being adopted, the effort I put into it was noticed and appreciated. The program put me in a great position to advance my career by giving me the opportunity to make a positive impression on agency leadership by showing them that I have the work ethic to go above and beyond and that I’m willing to explore new ideas to help us become more a more effective organization.” 

The USCIS’s IRAD administers the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program (USRAP), along with the Department of State and other USRAP partners. IRAD also manages the Refugee, Asylum and International Operations international offices and overseas workloads.

INQUIRIES: Heather Hollingsworth Issvoran, Communications and Recruitment | hissvora@nps.edu, 831-402-4672 (PST)

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