Managing New Zealand’s visa applications, Immigration New Zealand (INZ) is responsible for the futures of hundreds of thousands of people every year. It’s a colossal job. The introduction of a new employer-led policy created an opportunity to make the process more efficient, faster and less stressful for immigration officers and applicants alike. With Microsoft, they created a new digital platform on Dynamics 365, combining the best of human knowhow and digital smarts.
For many people around the world, gaining a visa to visit, live, work or study in New Zealand is a dream come true. Each year, Immigration New Zealand (part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment) receives hundreds of thousands of applications from across the globe, on top of managing the accreditation process for employers recruiting overseas workers.
There are almost as many categories of visa as there are countries – more than 200 of them – some requiring a lot of specialist knowledge and skill to process.
Sharing knowledge and work across all of INZ’s offices has been a challenge, given most applications were based on paper, or on one of three different online channels. Paper applications have led to business continuity issues as they typically cannot be processed from home environments. And typically, just one officer manages each application end-to-end. That means that while some teams have lower workloads, others would be struggling to manage backlogs, because work couldn’t easily be shared.
The longer the wait time, the more staff were recruited to deal with enquiries. Action was needed to break the cycle and create greater efficiencies.
“Some visa types had longer than ideal processing times,” explains Annie Kim, Manager, Adept Operations at MBIE. “We wanted to improve the efficiency of processing and break the link between visa volumes and our capacity to process them. We also wanted to enable work to be shared more widely so we could reduce wait times and costs.”
From paper forms to dynamic digital visa processing
The Microsoft Consulting team, led by programme director Mark Anderson, came on board to help create a solution. Their mission was also to give INZ the power to manage it themselves, reducing the need to rely on a third party tech partner.
One of the key things to be addressed was the existing case-based application process. INZ wanted the process to be activity-based, meaning the application might be shared with more than one person to manage uneven workloads across the organisation. A standardised, digital platform was essential.
Microsoft Dynamics 365 provided the perfect solution, being a no-code/low-code platform that anyone with a bit of training would be able to use.
Initially, the focus of the new Enhanced Immigration Online platform was just two types of application – employer accreditation and visitor visas – which accounted for more than half of INZ’s workload.
To help speed up the application process, a digital self-service platform was created, running on dynamic forms. Under prior systems, many forms covered several visa sub-categories. This often led to people providing more information than was actually required for their specific circumstances – or less, which meant a time-consuming back and forth process to obtain the right data.
Using Dynamics 365, the new self-service platform was designed to respond to customers with different questions depending on the answers they provided, making for a much more customised experience.
“Usually with a project of this nature, you’re aiming for one of two things – designing for highly complex requirements and personalisation, or designing for scale. It’s unusual to have a platform that needed to be so scalable and so flexible. So we worked closely with the Microsoft development team in Seattle, making sure the platform was designed to the highest standards,” says Mark. “One of the benefits of working with our Consulting team is that we have great connections with Microsoft’s product development experts.”
A challenge on a whole new scale
A new brief changed everything. The New Zealand Government announced it was launching a one-off Resident Visa category for migrants who had lived in New Zealand through the pandemic to apply for residence.
“They were predicting a high volume of applications, as people were keen to apply early. That meant high application peaks over only a few days – a surge more than 10 times larger than anything they’d ever seen before,” Mark says. “They were expecting potentially tens of thousands of applications over the first few days.”
Stephen Dunstan, General Manager, Enablement at INZ and the project’s executive sponsor, explains the volume was equivalent to around five years’ worth of residence visa applications, all in one go.
“And the platform had to integrate with around 12 different external systems behind the scenes, cross-checking biometric, health, risk and character data, for example. There’s always a trade-off about where you put that complexity. Do you put it on the platform, on the customer or the individual immigration officers? We chose to make the system more complex, to move the balance away from our people.”
Adds Mark: “With any other solution, we wouldn’t have been able to do it in time. But because Dynamics is so flexible, and we had the whole power of the Microsoft global team behind us, the 2021 Resident Visa project took us just five weeks to finish.”
Mark and his team worked closely with the Microsoft product group to stress-test the system before go-live. Knowing there was absolutely no room for error, given the launch date was fixed, they performance tested for a month to ensure the new platform could cope with 5,000 new applications per hour.
But would it be all right on the day?
Change from the ground up
“While there were some initial connectivity issues which resulted in the system operating slower than anticipated, the Enhanced Immigration Online system handled it extremely well. And we’re continuing to process higher volumes, thanks to the platform and the additional people capability it’s provided us. Previously, we would only have been able to process around 1,500 residence applications per month, but in July 2022 we processed 10,000,” says Stephen.
INZ is delighted with how the system is built to nurture a collaborative environment across its network, with multiple people collaborating on applications instead of one. Tasks such as sending applications off for police or health checks are now fully automated.
Annie is keen to stress that the new way doesn’t mean humans aren’t still central to what they do. Quite the opposite, in fact.
“People think a decision is binary – either it’s automated or it’s not. But we’re just automating what can be automated, while freeing up people to perform tasks that can’t be automated through system rules, no matter how complex the rules. Officers and support staff can now focus on more high-value work that requires human intervention,” she says.
The platform automatically sends generic work to any officers with the capacity, making better use of resources across the organisation, while allocating more focused specialist work to the appropriate people. Unlike the previous email system, there’s also a complete record of correspondence to enable any officer to pick up where others left off, making for a much more resilient organisation.
“For the first time, INZ can see where each visa application is and how long it’s taken to process. It’s fantastic for reporting, something they’ve never had before,” Mark says.
The goal is for real-time updates to people’s application status, easily viewable by applicants to reduce calls to INZ’s contact centres, and provide greater peace of mind. Meanwhile, the self-service dashboard streamlines the whole application process. Applicants can submit forms, upload additional documents and even share them with other relevant people such as immigration advisors, using a unique token. And there’s no longer any need to answer irrelevant questions or provide more information than is really needed, which Annie says reassures many applicants.
“Some people think we’re simply replacing the current system with one platform. But it’s much more than just automating forms or decision-making. It’s everything in between as well, all the processes that require sending paper around the world, and our whole way of working together,” Annie says. “It’s fundamentally changing the way we work.”
The future of immigration services
MBIE is already scoping opportunities to widen the platform’s use across the organisation.
“Think of the current system as like Lego blocks. Now INZ can add new visa types themselves, without relying on a tech partner to do it for them,” Mark explains.
According to Emma Barrett, Public Sector Director at Microsoft New Zealand, the system sets a new standard for immigration departments around the world.
“Adopting an automated Dynamics 365 solution is something no other country has done before, and there’s real potential for other immigration departments around the world to adopt the same approach. As a New Zealander, that makes me extremely proud.”
In future, the MBIE team hope to see productivity improving across the whole organisation, as workloads are managed better through automation and smart technologies, as well as the collaborative framework the new platform enables.
“It’s provided a platform that we can build on for the future,” says Stephen.