Immigration

High targets bad for visa system

An email circulated among Immigration New Zealand staff claims the department’s target-driven focus discourages proper scrutiny of visa applications. However, Immigration NZ denies any problems and says it is phasing out the targets.

Carolyn Tremain, who was then interim chief executive of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, took a trip to Immigration New Zealand’s South Auckland headquarters in May.

She diplomatically asked her immigration staff to send through to her any questions or comments she could address.

One of those responses, sent to about 400 people and obtained by Newsroom, contained a five-page document outlining problems with the visa processing system. Specifically, it pointed to “unrealistically high” decision targets that discouraged immigration officers from scrutinising visa applications. It also drew similarities between the current status quo and problems that were identified in the 2009 Auditor-General’s inquiry into Immigration New Zealand.

Tremain has since been confirmed in the top-job at MBIE.

The staff member's detailed feedback might well have had an effect, with the department about to introduce new performance targets for staff which no longer mark them by how many visa decisions they get through in a quarter or year. 

The document, supplied anonymously, outlined five basic steps which an immigration officer needed to perform to verify the authenticity of a work visa application. These included:

- Requesting the sponsoring employer’s financial statements to check whether the applicant’s job and salary is sustainable

- Checking Immigration New Zealand’s own records for any past information on the applicant, and whether that matches the current job offer

- Requesting an organisation chart from the sponsoring employer, and job description for all current employees, to check the legitimacy of the business and applicant’s job description

“Doing any of the….five basic checks, reading the information you get, and, if something is found, sending out a [potentially prejudicial information] letter, reading the [applicant’s] response and then deciding the application, is extremely time consuming,” the document said.

“However, the...five basic requirements can easily be omitted if an immigration officer wants an easy decision to meet a target.”

The document also listed findings from the nearly decade-old inquiry into Immigration New Zealand which identified the “detrimental effect” of targets on decision quality. It also included excerpts from a recent Newsroom article that canvassed similar problems in visa application processing.

From the 2009 inquiry by Auditor General Kevin Brady:

“I  am concerned that the performance targets within Immigration New Zealand’s branches focused unduly on the number of visas and permits issued. Branches had few targets for the quality of the decisions made. This meant that staff who were under pressure to meet quantity targets had incentives to approve visas and permits rather than decline them. This may have had a detrimental effect on the quality of the decisions made and, in some instances, had clearly damaged staff morale.”

From Newsroom coverage, a direct quote from one of MBIE’s own intelligence reports on visa processing was included:

“Immigration branches are also required to ensure 90 percent of temporary visa applications are decided within 25 working days. The targets disincentivise IOs [immigration officers] from questioning documentation provided, requesting additional evidence, or conducting higher levels of verification".

After listing the most recent decision targets for Immigration officers (2017/18), the document then goes on to ask Tremain how she will “ensure that unrealistically high targets do not incentivise individual immigration officers to minimise checking/ verification/ ‘investigating’ in order to maximise the number of decisions.”

When asked  for comment, Immigration New Zealand revealed decision targets for individual officers no longer existed. 

Steve Stuart, the general manager of visa services, said the department’s “new performance agreements for 2018/19 don’t have any reference to individual targets.”

“Historic performance agreements”, including the most recent one for the 12 months to June 30 (2017/18 year), differ from the new agreement, Stuart said.

While the new document is yet to be rolled out, it has been “signalled internally” to staff, a spokesperson from Immigration NZ added.

Stuart said: “Performance is now focused on the overall contribution that an individual makes to their team and the product/customer segment they work in".

“A lot has changed since 2009 – Visa Services has implemented a completely new visa processing operating model which has aligned and consolidated decision-making by product and customer segment," he said. "Quarterly, quality assurance findings are fed back to managers and used to inform process changes to improve the quality metrics.”

Despite this, Stuart was unable to clarify exactly how an individual officer’s performance would be measured in the current 12 month period. In previous years, including 2017/18, an individual officer’s performance review, and resulting discretionary pay increase, was calculated according to how well decision targets had been met or surpassed.

Each year, the Government collects about $200 million in visa application and permit fees. For MBIE, that revenue makes up about a third of its annual income.

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