After 9/11, wait times for Brazilian and Chinese citizens to be interviewed when applying for a U.S. visa had settled into a 100-day-plus period. The interview itself sometimes required entire families to travel hundreds of miles to reach a U.S. consulate or embassy, with no guarantee that a visa would eventually be issued.
Efforts to streamline the processes had begun in China in 2010, but recently, and in a relatively brief time, wait times there and in Brazil have fallen significantly, and fewer people require an in-person interview.
The backstory for this acceleration of visa facilitation can be traced to a network of friends who ended up in influential positions in the Obama administration and who saw a way to stimulate job creation and, they hope, nudge the economy in the right direction.
Shortly after his appointment in 2011, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides listened to long-standing industry arguments that when visitors come to America, jobs are created.
Nides is one of the nation's two deputy secretaries of state. He's responsible for budget and internal management issues and reports directly to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He has moved back and forth between government positions and the private sector throughout his career. Prior to his return to government, Nides had been COO of Morgan Stanley.
He saw the visa delays as a business issue that negatively affected America's bottom line, but one that could be mitigated fairly quickly. No factories would have to be built; systems just needed to be adjusted.
Nides knew how to present the business case, but it could never simply be about business. To enter into discussions with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which would necessarily be involved in any changes concerning visas, the security imperative was paramount. Security concerns, of course, had produced the visa bottleneck in the first place.
As in business, personal relationships in government cannot be underestimated. The new acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jeffrey Zients, was a close friend and point person with the Jobs Council. Zients saw the jobs benefits immediately and would prove to be a valuable ally.
Nides had a long-standing relationship with Douglas Smith, the assistant secretary of the DHS for the private sector. And he met with Deputy Secretary Jane Lute, the COO of the DHS, and found she was accessible and willing to look for ways to improve the systems.
The officials talked about what might change that would still keep the DHS in its comfort zone regarding security. They looked at narrow demographic groups that were coming for in-person interviews and visa renewals, searching for those who perhaps might not have to.
The DHS examined the data and determined that it posed no appreciable risk if applicants 16 and younger and 66-plus were to apply online in Brazil. (They could still be required to come in if there were red flags, of course.)
By eliminating the requirement for in-person interviews, wait times would be shortened considerably.
Brazil was Nides' first country of focus, and he approached it as he would a market that demonstrated high demand for a company's product. To fulfill that demand, he hired temporary consular officers. More consulates were opened, and hours were extended. Wait times for interviews have dropped from 100 days to 18 days, and they are still dropping.
Similarly, the risk of allowing Chinese citizens to renew visas online if they'd already had an in-person interview seemed within tolerable levels, and by instituting online processes for renewals, wait times for new visa applicants were reduced.
But Nides believes that the real low-hanging fruit for job creation and economic growth lies in the 36 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program. He's noticed that more than 60% of visitors who come here now don't need a visa, and that we're hardly at capacity for visitors from those countries.
He's excited about the Brand USA campaign and is encouraging embassies and ambassadors to work closely with the Corporation for Travel Promotion on campaigns in their jurisdictions.
Nides is pleased with what has been accomplished, and he shares credit with his staff and other agencies. He also credits U.S. Travel with being supportive and appreciative.
And, contrary to many who have spent time in the private sector and then work in public life, he has concluded that when various parts of government work together, a lot can be accomplished. Email Arnie Weissmann at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.