Passport offices fail efficiency test: Computerisation has had little impact on problems faced by applicants, report says

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Indy Politics
THE PASSPORT Agency, which last year received Charter Mark recognition from the Prime Minister for the excellence of its service, was criticised last night for failing a test of financial efficiency, writes Anthony Bevins.

With passport applications heading for their annual peak next month, a National Audit Office report showed that a programme of computerisation and a management switch to executive agency in April 1991 had made little, if any, impact on the problems faced by travellers.

Although the report from Sir John Bourn, Comptroller and Auditor General, did not say how much it had cost to computerise the passport issuing system, a 1985 feasibility study had concluded that it would improve cost-effectiveness; process applications in five working days; allow a 20 per cent cut in staff; and improve the service to the public.

On costs, last night's report said: 'An important measure of financial efficiency is the cost of producing a passport. The agency calculates unit salary costs for each passport produced. These have been broadly stable at best, and do not appear to have benefited yet from computerisation.'

In fact, the unit salary cost for each passport produced was exactly the same in real terms in 1991-92 as it had been four years earlier, and while there had been cost cuts in Glasgow and Liverpool offices, there had been marked increases in Peterborough, Newport and Belfast.

Computerisation had not resulted in the personnel savings that had been promised. On the contrary, between 1988 and 1992 the agency's staffing levels rose by nearly a third to 1,316, and salaries accounted for pounds 17m of the 1991-92 annual running costs budget of pounds 48m.

Of the time taken to process applications, Sir John said: 'The 1991-92 target was to turn around straightforward applications in a maximum of 20 working days in peak periods (January-September) and in 10 working days at other times.' He reported that, overall, those targets had been achieved, but he did not point out that a five-day turn-around had been promised under computerisation.

Manpower Planning in the Home Office: The Passport Agency and the Nationality Division. Commons Paper 585; HMSO; pounds 6.70.