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Unified team: nationwide visa focus reduces backlog in Brazil.

In the summer of 2011, the small crew of consular officers at U.S. posts in Brazil was swamped by visa applicants, and wait times for interviews had swollen to 140 days.

So consular managers in Brazil developed an ambitious goal: Combat the wait time while improving morale. Minister Counselor for Consular Affairs Don Jacobson transformed four separate posts into Consular Team Brazil (CTB), which brought consistency and minimized duplication of effort across the mission. He established mission-wide working groups dedicated to metrics, training and outreach, which allowed CTB to track, teach and tout progress.

When President Barack Obama expanded the options for Brazilians to get visa interview waivers, as part of the U.S. effort to boost Brazilian tourism in the United States, the four unified posts were able to quickly determine how to implement the new rules.

To wade through the backlog of 230,000 applicants in the appointment queue, CTB instituted shift work, doubling the utility of the interview windows while preserving time off the line, staff meetings and training days. Assistant Secretary Janice Jacobs and the Bureau of Consular Affairs provided unwavering support in the form of temporary staffers, new permanent staff and expanded consular spaces.

"Give us the right resources and we will rock!" said Alba Bezerra, a senior Locally Employed (LE) Staff member at the U.S. Consulate General in Rio de Janeiro.

Co-workers at posts in Brazil dusted off their consular commissions or staffed the fingerprint machine. Former Brasilia Consular Chief Antonia Cassarino said, "One of the best things we did ... was involve staff from other sections. Whether it was an American colleague from the Defense Attache Office who was fingerprinting applicants, or a LE Staff member from the Foreign Commercial Service translating for non-Portuguese-speaking TDYers, the positive effect was immeasurable."

CTB also relied on innovation, as managers aggressively sought constructive ideas. Every Work Requirements Statement for CTB staff includes a mandate to consider the entire operation and suggest improvements in decision-making, efficiency and service. Employee suggestions were implemented, including painting a hot tin roof white to keep the waiting area cooler and rethinking visa applicant flows. According to Paul Graddon, vice consul at the U.S. Consulate General in Sao Paulo, "There were innovations small and large--everything from how we grouped cases to how we conducted training of officers and LE Staff. Sometimes the smallest improvement made the most impact."

One big triumph that involved a small change was appointment scheduling at Consulate Sao Paulo. Entry-level officers and mid-level managers tinkered with the appointment system in a bid to get more than 3,000 applicants per day through a space that seated 200. After a false start or two, they hit on opening appointments in 10-minute blocks, and assigned an officer to work with LE Staff and consular greeters to manage the flow. This innovation reduced the time applicants spent in the queue--a time that was already down two hours from the year prior--and brought remarkable calm to the chaos that had been the waiting area.

CTB also had great success with the use of "secondary windows," where complicated visa cases were sent for more in-depth analysis. That kept the main queue flowing smoothly, helped officers hone their skills and ensured plenty of time for cases requiring extra scrutiny. "Having a manager willing to try different ideas was huge," said Maura Keniston, vice consul at the U.S. Consulate in Recife. "With freedom to make mistakes, we figured out what worked best."

The biggest part of the CTB initiative, Mission Brazil's more than 200 local staff, understood the breadth of the changes and embraced them. The initiative actively solicited their ideas and input. "Compared to our past history, I have never seen so many innovative ideas as we had to survive this crisis," Bezerra said. "People here are not afraid of telling their ideas. A little failure tambem faz parte do sucesso (is also part of success)."

The days were fast and frenetic, as was the progress. "Even as the number of people we interviewed each day rose, there was a noticeable improvement in morale," said Morgan Taylor, vice consul at Consulate Sao Paulo. "The work increased, but with what we gained in efficiency, the feeling of chaos decreased and we had more resources and time to make this a great place to work."

In fiscal year 2012, CTB adjudicated 1.1 million visa applications, joining the million-plus club with China and Mexico (India is not far behind). Mission Brazil processed almost twice as many visa applications as in fiscal year 2010, but applicants now spend only 30 minutes in waiting rooms. The wait time for an appointment has held steady at two days since June 2012.

"If you get people excited about their jobs, give them the resources to do them and then get out of the way, really cool things happen," Jacobson observed.

Embassy Brasilia Consular Officer Erin Truhler agreed, saying, "It's motivating to see your ideas implemented, or at least tried, and helps build a strong sense of teamwork."

By Laura Chamberlin, Special Assistant at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia
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Author:Chamberlin, Laura
Publication:State Magazine
Geographic Code:3BRAZ
Date:May 1, 2013
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