Big changes are afoot with passport photos as the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) ends Australia Post’s 33-year sole agency for Passport Application Lodgement Services (PALS), and calls of expressions of interest from potential new suppliers for a new passport application system.
As part of the same initiative, DFAT wants to move the passport application process online, and requires the new supplier(s) to install a passport photo system along with a digital signature pad and a document scanner.
At present, Australia Post acts as the sole agent of DFAT outside of a passport office when it comes to lodging passport applications, handling interviews, paying passport fees -and approving passport photos. About 94 percent of passports are issued via Australia Post. The new system will see the capture of passport photos as part of the contract with DFAT.
However, it seems the new PALS providor won’t have the monopoly on taking passport photos, and the EOI documents infer that an applicant may well choose to bring along their own (digital) passport photos for assessment, rather than have it taken ‘on-site’.
In a DFAT industry briefing, it was made clear the fee for passport photography was separate and additional to the APO-imposed fee for the passport lodgement service.
DFAT wants applications conducted predominantly online, with passport photos electronically checked for compliance with Australian Passport Office (APO) criteria, and signatures captured via a digital touchpad. There will be a central online booking system for passport interviews, web-based support for applicants, and online fee payment capabilities.
Reports in the general press have been implying that Australia Post has ‘lost’ the passport application business, but it will certainly be tendering for the new PALS. And DFAT has made it clear that it is seeking multiple suppliers on a region-by-region basis.
‘This changes the landscape, said Brands Australia managing director, John Rule (distributor of the ID Station range of biometric passport photo systems). ‘So now it’s no longer a possibility – it’s when, not if.’
There is provision in the Expression of Interest (EOI) document to the winning organisation appointing subcontractors to handle aspects of the tender requirements, which, as stated, now includes capturing passport photos: ‘If any aspect of the Requirements will be provided by a subcontractor, the details of all proposed subcontractors and their proposed responsibilities should be set out in the Response.’
However elsewhere the document stipulates that there must be ‘one single contact point’ to handle applications.
John Rule said that the changes are somewhat similar to what happened in New Zealand when it changed to online passport renewal applications. Initially there was a lot of uncertainty but ‘the end result in New Zealand is that photo retail is better off now.’ (See separate story.)
‘Here we’ve got some time to get our act together. This is more opportunity than threat, frankly. In New Zealand we were caught unawares. This time around we know what happened there and in UK’ (which is also moving to online lodgement).
Currently both fresh passport applications and renewal applications require the citizen to appear in person at a Post Office with physical passport photos. In New Zealand, renewal applicants can complete the process online, with suitable digital image files. John sees this as a logical step for DFAT to take as well.
He said around two-thirds of passports were issued as renewals.
‘Our industry produces files which are correct against standards. That places us in good position going forward.’
He said that Australia Post would probably have the inside running to regain the passports applications business given its long history handling passports, and a cordial relationship with DFAT, although there had been issues in the past, with errors and breaches.
(And the error rate is high. ‘…What we have found is that more than 50 percent turn up without the appropriate paperwork and have to return. More than 30 per cent have to return more than twice, so it averages out about three visits to get the paperwork processed,’ said the chair of the Licensed Post Office Group, Angela Cramp.)
‘I think the post office will retain it,’ said John, ‘but they might also appoint a “parallel organisation”. It could be pharmacy, for example. If another national organisation puts its hand up I suspect they will be happy to entertain more than one supplier.’
He said that unfortunately, no business within photo retail had the national reach to qualify. On the other hand, ‘every town has a pharmacy and every town has a post office.’
Browsing through documents associated with the tender, it appears one critical question – whether online applicants can go direct to the Australian Passports Office or all applicants need to visit a service providor in person, is yet to be decided. (Or in DFAT speak, ‘Details of the enhanced capability are yet to be finalised.’)
However, one thing which is clear is that online applications will be open for new passports as well as renewals.