The Foreign Service Journal, September 2012

20 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / S E P T E M B E R 2 0 1 2 A djudicating visas is a high-vol- ume, high-risk activity. It usu- ally involves a large number of repetitive interviews in a compressed amount of time, where the conse- quences of even one mistake can be very serious. Moreover, the need for speed and accuracy inherently conflict — the faster you work, the more prone you are to careless error. This makes for a challenging bal- ancing act. Go too slow, and you risk not keeping up with demand. Go too fast, and you can make mistakes rang- ing from forgetting to verify a visa fee payment to giving a visa to a potential overstay — or worse. The problem is aggravated when one considers the carnival of distraction that character- izes visa interviews, such as screaming children in the waiting room. How, then, can the Department of State keep adjudication numbers high while avoiding mistakes? For as Assis- tant Secretary of Consular Affairs Jan- ice Jacobs stated in a January cable, while expediting visa issuance is a White House priority, the department cannot “be ‘soft’ on border security.” The department seeks to resolve this tension between speed and accu- racy in several ways, starting with train- ing. The introductory consular course that all new visa adjudicators take en- compasses units on visa law and proce- dure, and gives officers opportunities to conduct mock interviews. Consular supervisors are instructed to watch for signs of stress and fatigue and to encourage line officers to take periodic breaks. In addition, consular software applications are designed to prevent the most consequential care- less errors. Still, even the best training, men- toring and management cannot fully prepare a line officer for the role of a high-volume adjudicator. Nor can con- sular software guard against all human error, such as forgetting to collect a visa fee receipt from an applicant or verify- ing that the name, date and place of birth and passport number are entered on the application precisely as they ap- pear in the applicant’s passport. Thus, valuable as such instruction is, the real learning happens when new officers walk into a consular section for their first day of work. There they ob- serve more experienced colleagues on the line, and then interview applicants under the supervision of a more senior officer. Eventually, new officers have amassed enough experience to inter- view on their own. The basic premise of this approach, whether stated or implicit, is that the more training and experience officers have, the less likely they are to make careless mistakes. Unfortunately, re- cent research in other fields suggests that is not necessarily true. Modern Medicine’s Weapon Against Careless Error Studies from medicine and law in- dicate that the distraction-filled envi- ronment characteristic of high-volume, high-risk activities can lead even the most experienced professionals to commit errors. In medicine, for ex- ample, one finds a rough analogue to the non-immigrant visa interview in the process of inserting intravenous catheters. It is a relatively straightfor- ward procedure that emergency room and intensive care unit doctors must perform many times throughout their workday. Nonetheless, infections readily develop in poorly inserted catheters, which often prove deadly in weak patients. In 2001, Johns Hopkins University physician Peter Pronovost published a remarkable study of intravenous cathe- ter insertion in 103 ICUs across Michi- gan. At the time, this seemingly sim- ple, repetitive procedure was causing Use Checklists to Make Visa Interviews Smarter B Y J EFFREY E. Z INSMEISTER FS K NOW -H OW Turning best practices into explicit routines helps consular professionals internalize and apply important fundamentals.