A summer of last-minute passports from a government that was too slow in spring

A number of articles on the passport and other delays.

Starting with Campbell Clark of the Globe:

A month ago, the strategy to beat down Canada’s passport backlog was to get people to apply in-person, rather than by mail. Now workers at big-city passport offices triage the people standing in the long lines outside, sending those travelling in the next 48 hours on, and giving others tickets to come back another time.

The minister responsible for the passport offices, Karina Gould, has started to tell Canadians that she is angry about it, too, or something like that: She calls the situation “totally unacceptable,” and insists more will be done.

But what Ms. Gould really needs is a time machine and a bullhorn, so she can go back four months to March to wake up the slumbering government machine.

That was when the uptick in passport applications was becoming visible. The alarm bells didn’t get sounded loudly enough, quickly enough. In April, the government announced it was hiring 600 staff, but it was too little. And now that more resources are being poured in, it’s too late – or at least too late to avert a summer logjam that has made travellers livid.

“We anticipated a surge, but we didn’t anticipate just how large it would be,” Ms. Gould, the Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

She said she accepts that people think the government should have seen the problem sooner, but it wasn’t easy to predict. “It doesn’t justify it by any means, because we need to do better and we’re going to do better.”

Perhaps hindsight is 20/20. But the government wasn’t just slow to see the tsunami coming, but slow to react. One problem, as the backlog mounted, was that federal public-health rules kept COVID-19 capacity limits in place at passport offices, with 40 per cent of wickets closed, till May, two months after restrictions were lifted for stores in Ontario, for example.

And more broadly, the federal government was slow to get a grip on reopening. The bureaucracy that delivered CERB cheques in a few weeks in 2020 didn’t spring into action to meet travel-surge challenges in 2022. Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government didn’t put the government on alert for reopening. The passport debacle is one embarrassing result.

The government notes that people are getting their passports. But it is often at the last minute, the day before they fly. The government is leasing space next to passport offices for waiting, or sometimes putting up tents, Ms. Gould said. “This is not the solution. This is just in the interim,” she added.

How did this happen?

In the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, demand for passports pretty much halted. Passport offices were closed. The number of employees shrank. When people started applying again, the numbers rose gradually. Then there was a surge. The immigration department’s forecasts of passport demand for 2022 were low, but revised dramatically upward in January, and again in the spring.

When applications started to pour in March, and pile up in April, there was another problem. In the pandemic, most people hard started mailing applications. But a quarter of them arrived with errors such as missing documents or blank boxes, so they took longer to process. The backlog mounted.

So officials encouraged people to apply in-person instead. And then the lines at offices grew. It wasn’t just new applicants showing up in person, but folks who had mailed in applications, and were getting nervous that their mailed application hadn’t been processed.

“The Easter long weekend was a worrying long weekend for me, because there was a big rush for people who wanted to travel,” Ms. Gould said. “And I would say that in mid-May we really realized we needed to ramp up in a much bigger way than we had been because the number of applications that kept coming in were much greater than the processing capacity.”

There was hiring – 600 in the spring, 600 being hired now and 600 to be seconded from other government jobs. Some get only part of the 12- to 15-week training so they can quickly do one part of the job. Workers were reorganized.

But the backlog of roughly half a million applications isn’t shrinking yet, and it’s a scramble. The government was slow to hit the panic button months ago. And now Ms. Gould forecasts that things will be back to a “steady state” by the end of summer, when most Canadians’ vacations are over.

Source: A summer of last-minute passports from a government that was too slow in spring

Heather Scofield in the Star:

Here’s a number the federal government would like you to know.

Between February and June of this year, the amount of Canadians travelling by air shot up 280 per cent. In the United States, the increase was just 25 per cent.

The number comes from Transport Canada, and the reason federal Liberals want us all to know about it is because they argue it’s why families are camped out at Canadian airports and why police have had to intervene in unruly passport lineups that stretch around the block.

For sure, a 280 per cent spike in demand for travel is enormous, and very difficult for normal-times bureaucracy and travel industry to digest. But it didn’t materialize out of nowhere.

The lineups that have thrown the delivery of government services into disarray are egregious, but they’re also a symptom of the post-pandemic disruption that has afflicted much of the private sector too. And the sooner we address that disruption with the full force of our ingenuity and resources, the better.

“Whatever it takes” defined economic policy on our way down into pandemic recession. The recovery requires an equally concerted effort, because this is more than congestion in airports and on the sidewalks outside Passport Canada.

The erratic flow of people is running amok in our travel industry, for sure, but also our immigration system, our labour markets and our housing markets, showing up in the form of massive lineups, backlogs, erratic prices and inflation. The disruption is not going away on its own, and there are serious implications for both our political landscape and our economy.

Let’s start with the 280-per-cent spike in Canadian travellers this spring, compared to just a 25-per-cent climb in Americans. It’s huge, but not a surprise.

After a couple of years of being mainly housebound here in Canada, we were then sent back home by the sudden restrictions imposed at the end of 2021 because of Omicron. Canadians finally burst out of their homes when Omicron settled down, and they haven’t stopped moving since.

The United States, on the other hand, responded with a lighter touch both to Omicron this winter and even before then, explaining why their wanderlust is not nearly as intense as ours.

Was that kind of surge foreseeable? Probably not to the exact extent we see before us. But one thing we have learned about how the economy and the public respond to the pandemic is that it’s in fits and starts. We have lurched from open to closed with dramatic and volatile effects on how things work.

Strange consumer demands have led to runs on toilet paper and used cars, and — more seriously — a perplexing and persistent shortage of computer chips and shipping containers. Supply chains have seized up, caught between the unpredictable demands coming their way and the unpredictable disruptions in the infrastructure they use.

And the job market is going haywire. Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland is fond of saying it has completely recovered from the pandemic recession because more Canadians are employed now than before the pandemic. But in fact, Stage Two of the pandemic recovery is upon us, where one million jobs sit empty and too-high inflation has dug itself in for the long haul.

We have to expect, and prepare for, a certain amount of chaos.

It’s too soon to abandon the crisis footing that Ottawa and the private sector shifted to in the early days of the coronavirus, when decision-makers quickly learned that projections based on how the world worked in pre-pandemic days were not worth much.

In the past few weeks, we’ve seen some attempts to regain that footing. Transport Canada is meeting with increasing frequency with the Canadian Air Transport Security Authority, border officials, union officials and air navigators to detect every single inefficiency in the airport system, and shave off time and effort wherever possible.

Vaccine requirements have been scaled back and streamlined, airlines have cut flights, and now their attention has turned into the nightmare which is baggage.

It’s hard to know if there is progress, and there’s a recognition that no one was quite ready for the traffic patterns gumming up trips everywhere right now.

As for immigration, the lineups for processing have ballooned over the course of COVID-19. A parliamentary committee was told this spring that the backlog stands at two million people — almost double the pre-pandemic list — and that was considered already way too long. 

Canada’s economic growth and recovery strategy is heavily based on increasing immigration, but with backlogs like that, it’s a bumpy road.

Over in the world of passports, there’s a similar all-hands-on-deck approach that has taken on added urgency as the intractable lineups made a mockery of internal projections and erupted into a backlash on the sidewalks and in the offices of MPs.

Extra workers have been hired, senior managers are now involved in triage, new offices opened, hours extended.

But the pivot takes time, and success is hard to see.

Over on Facebook Marketplace, one enterprising Montrealer was offering to stand in line at 4 a.m. for passport-seekers for $250 just over a week ago. He has since dropped his price to $200. Is that a sign the lineups are easing?

The Liberals had better hope so, because the public patience for queuing and dysfunction in the machinery of government has worn thin.

Source: On passports and airports, public patience with Liberals is running out

And lastly, Minister Gould on the reasons:

The minister responsible for Service Canada admits the government did not fully anticipate the overwhelming surge in passport applications that came with the lifting of travel restrictions and is hopeful waiting times will return to normal by the end of summer.

Families, Children and Social Development Minister Karina Gould said the federal government hired 600 new staff ahead of the anticipated increase in passport applications and renewals, but said “clearly it was not sufficient.” The surge has forced some Canadians to camp overnight outside of government offices in an attempt to obtain their passports.

“If I put myself where we were as Canadians back in February, we weren’t talking about this kind of a surge. We knew it was going to increase and that’s why we took the measures that we did. But I will concede for sure that they were insufficient for what ended up happening,” Ms. Gould said in an interview.

Service Canada issued 363,000 passports during the first year of the pandemic, from April 1, 2020, to March 31, 2021 – and that number jumped to more than 1.27 million the following fiscal year. The government has received 757,207 passport applications since April 1, nearly 60 per cent of the past year’s total.

Service Canada is hiring an additional 600 staff to help with the delays. Ms. Gould said training for some of the new hires is being shortened from the typical 15 weeks to one to two weeks, so that fully trained passport officers can focus on more complex applications, such as children with custody issues, while new hires will work on simpler files.

Ottawa is asking Canadians travelling within the next 45 business days to go to one of the country’s 35 dedicated passport offices for service. Waiting times topped more than six hours at some locations Monday, according to the government’s website. The government is asking those who are not travelling within the next 45 business days to apply at a Service Canada centre or by mail.

Ms. Gould said the return to normal waiting times will depend on the number of applications the government receives in the coming weeks.

“If volumes on a weekly basis continue where they are now and don’t substantially increase, we feel quite confident that we’re going to be in a much better position over the next four to six weeks and definitely by the end of summer,” she said.

The department has a service standard time of 10 business days for passport applications submitted at a passport office. Ms. Gould said 96 per cent of those passports are being issued within the standard, but the government’s website says they could still take up to two weeks.

Ms. Gould said the mail option is about “40 per cent less efficient” than in-person service. The government groups processing times for mail with the in-person option at Service Canada centres; the service standard is 20 business days, but processing can take up to nine weeks.

Raphael Girard, a retired assistant deputy minister who was responsible for Passport Canada in 1993, said the government needs to consider more creative solutions to the problem, such as extending passports for a year so officials can catch up on the backlog. He said this could be done by having Canadians bring their expired passports to a government office, where an agent could extend the document with a stamp.

However, a spokesperson for Immigration Minister Sean Fraser said simply extending expiration dates is not possible. Aidan Strickland said amending an expiry date that is not aligned with the electronic expiry date recorded in the Canadian ePassport could create further travel disruptions for the passport holder, and that the individual could also be refused boarding on a plane and denied entry to some countries.

More generally speaking, Mr. Girard argued the government has “lost the sense of operations designed to improve client service.”

“They’re layering on … controls and slowing things down, whereas 90 per cent of the workload is always routine,” he said.

Last month, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau established a new task force of cabinet ministers to improve government services, such as passports, and monitor the delays causing chaos at Canada’s airports.

Conservative social development critic Laila Goodridge said Ms. Gould and Mr. Fraser, along with the task force, “continue to fumble managing the delivery and processing of passports. This is indicative of what we’ve seen with the Trudeau government that is unprepared for a predictable increase in demand for travel.” She pointed to a recent government tender for 800 chairs for people to sit on as they wait outside of passport offices.

NDP transport critic Taylor Bachrach said the continued delays for Canadians to get new or renewed passports are unacceptable, and that many people are going to their MPs for help to get their documents.

“Ultimately, the increased demand for passports was entirely predictable. But the Liberals failed to act even though they had months to prepare for travel to return. Now they need to urgently address this problem before more Canadians see their travel plans ruined, including speeding up the hiring process to clear the backlog.”

Source: Ottawa acknowledges it underestimated surge in demand for passports

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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