For the impatient not looking for a story – sync your clock with the server’s clock (open this clock in a separate tab) and add your appointment request at exactly the time appointments open. 3 minutes late and you lose. You may benefit by looking at the screenshots below to get an idea of what to expect. Also, use IE for this. Update: To know what to expect on the select appointment screen, scroll to the end.
[Now that the “executive summary” folks are gone] I recently wrote about appreciating the increased use of technology by government departments, while criticizing the look and feel. I finally got a chance to enjoy using one of these web services. My passport will require renewal (the correct term is re-issue) soon, so I went over to the nearest Passport Seva Kendra (PSK). Upon trying to ask the usual questions I might have – what documents are needed, any specifics to keep in mind etc – I got the response, “online, online”.
“But…(you haven’t even heard my questions!)”
“online, all online”, he waved and pointed at a printed notice pasted on the window. Not having an urgent need, I left. I figured I’ll look it up online and if I have any specific questions, I’ll return; I need to get to work.
Over the next few days, I browsed the site and figured out what all was needed
– fill up the application form
– look up the documents required based on the procedures (change in details, Non-ECR status, etc) needed on the passport
– upload documents
– and make an appointment.
Following this I spent the next few days/weeks chasing up documentation that would be required. Once I had all the documents (that I interpret to be needed – I’m yet to see!), I scanned and uploaded them. Following that I went to the manage appointments section. The page had a dropdown with the nearest PSK and captcha. I filled in the captcha and submit. Something didn’t work; maybe I got the captcha wrong? I tried again – same thing. Then I noticed the error message “Currently no appointment slots are available for the selected Passport Seva Kendra (PSK). Please try scheduling an appointment from 10/10/2012, 4:00 PM onwards.” This was in the evening on the 9th. (Side: Who writes their copy?)
Wait, what? Is my concept of taking an appointment wrong? I was expecting a calendar with slots, you choose a date/time if it’s free in their schedule and lock it in – even if the next free slot was a week or a month away!
Okay, maybe they designed it this way because a lot of people might (or they’ve tried this already and it’s based on sampling actual behavior) fill up the slots and never show up. Just like we’re great at standing in lines, we’re great at keeping times and appointments too. [Side note: There may be a lot of individuals in this country (or world) who are intelligent, considerate, law abiding, decent and other qualities which might be considered for an “evolved civilization”. But when it comes to thinking about the group, the opposite qualities take over.] Missed appointments would lead to wasted time and resources (Tax
sucker payer’s money) on part of the state employees. This limitation of the system could certainly have been built around – but that’s another discussion (allow a limited number of people who would like to wait – limit to a specific lot – take a chance on someone not showing up after taking an appointment. Also, fine the people who don’t re-schedule or cancel their appointment at least a day before.).
The next day I tried once in the morning – same message. Then again around 3:42pm – this time I took a screenshot. I thought to myself, “Okay, If this is how the system works – it unlocks at 4, I’ll log in then and get an appointment”. When I tried, this was a 4:03pm – just 3 minutes past the time the system would’ve been “opened”, I got a new message “Currently no appointment slots are available for the selected Passport Seva Kendra (PSK). Please try scheduling an appointment from 13/10/2012, 4:00 PM onwards”. What?! Two days worth of slots are gone in 3 minutes?
Side Note: The next day I went to the PSK, while walking towards it I heard a person sitting in the back of a Black Scorpio (SUV, seems dodgy…) speak out loud – “Passport?” I thought it was to someone else and I kept walking. Along a wall I saw a bunch of people with documents in their hands hanging around this guy in dark glasses (now I’ve got touts and agents in my thought process; the “good old” system).
Is the appointment a separate number – not linked to the Appointment Reference Number (ARN) – which can be traded by touts?
If the appointment system is rigged by touts – I haven’t figured out their play yet. Have they written a bot? (Some of the guys I’ve worked it might remember P-R-A…[end cryptic-inside-joke].)
[Next day] I went into the PSK and met “Mr. Online” again. He gave me the usual response at first, but then I told him that I already tried – even at 4:03 two days worth of appointments were gone.
“Is it like a lottery/rally/contest…? You have to get in at exactly 4:00 to win the appointment?”
He just nod his head and shrugged “heh heh heh” (So he does utter sounds other than – online). I asked if there was someone I could speak with – file a grievance. “Yahan toh kuch nahi hai (There’s nothing here)”.
“Fine, I’ve got to get to work, I’ll probably return later with the screenshots that I took”, I thought and left. [Seriously there isn’t a good free tool to take a screenshot on Windows with a hot-key yet? (Ctrl/Alt+PrintScreen) It only goes to the clipboard and then you have to paste it in an image editor. That’s too many steps if you want quick captures. I recommend Fraps (not free) if you have Vista or higher, it can capture DWM.]
Also, there’s a toll free support/grievance number. On the 10th, when I called it in the evening (16:27 in my phone’s log), the number was busy – it’s supposed to be a 24 hour call center. I guess it’s too much to expect to be in a wait queue (which can tell you the queue length/expected time to answer). Then I tried late in the evening (23:38 in my phone’s log) – this time I got through to an IVR. I navigated through it and choose the option to speak to a representative to file a grievance.
“This service is only available between 8:00am and 6:00(or was it 10?)pm”
Oh, okay, so it’s on the “official” 24 hour clock.
The next morning I tried again (10:55 am in my call logs) – guess what? Busy. I’m starting to see a pattern here.
I mentioned the online queue which is gone in minutes at work and another person mentioned that he’s been trying for months but has finally given up. He mentioned there was a protest a while back and it was revealed that all appointments for a particular day were from the same IP. I’ll take that with a grain of salt since that’s just anecdotal “evidence” that I’ve heard. The system has the benefit of doubt till I come across any conclusive proof.
I propose a few steps as a way to make the system more transparent.
Since I don’t want the PSK workers to waste their time in creating reports etc, these systems are to be automated (More project work and payments for you, TCS!). Knowing a thing-or-two about programming, I know these suggestions can be implemented.
If they don’t want to implement a system where it gives you an appointment at an arbitrary (free) date in future, the suggestions below can be implemented instead. [I’ve mentioned the system to friends and they have responded that they would have expected a similar system. I say – these fancy trip date selector websites selling travel tickets have spoilt this lot!]
The manage appointments page should show a (paginated) report of all the appointment slots given out. The fields should include ARN, User ID (blanked out for privacy – like on Google Groups), IP Address (blank out one digit from second and third set of numbers), time slot. These are the appointments still to happen. The manage (request) appointment screen should show the number of available slots, the number of filled slots and also the number of appointments (unique ARNs) requested. The requested appointments number will give people a clearer picture on how hard other people are trying to make an appointment, but it should be backed with a report on all the attempts – otherwise the “riggers” will just use a bot (breaking that captcha shouldn’t be too hard) to drive up the number by filing a lot of applications and requesting an appointment on it.
There should be an additional report showing the appointments that have happened. This would include all the earlier fields and whether the appointment was made and whether or not the appointment result was success (application have moved into the next stage – police verification or accepted for renewal etc) or failure (person was turned back for not enough documentation etc). The system is known to have this data, since one can track status of an application online. This post appointment report will also help to catch bogus appointments; unless the department employees themselves rig it – but I trust (at least hope) that everyone in the department wouldn’t be crooked.
Time for a win
Anyway, I logged in on the 13th and synced my clock to the server’s time then took into account the lag a little and managed to win an appointment. I’d like to think I keep most of-less-use junk disabled, but for the duration of this competition, I added the clock gadget to time my clicks better.
Perhaps someone from the department took a course on gamification since it’s quite a popular term lately. Or they’re preparing the country for an Electronic Sports Olympics.
I was a little tense on the select an appointment screen focusing on trying to score one that I forgot to take a screenshot. In the coming days, I will play the game again and try and change my appointment to sooner (yes, there’s an option). Next time I will be calmer and get the screenshot.
So I blazed through the process of View Applications > Manage Appointment… and chose another slot at the bottom of the page. Once again, I was in game-mode and couldn’t take a screenshot. But to describe it, the left coloumn had dates. The columns on the right were links with time on them – each slot being a 15 minute slot.
What was odd though was the first (row) appointment was the 16th as seen in the screenshot above, but below that there were almost 15 or so rows with something in capital letters, I couldn’t register it (my head was filtering out noise) as I scrolled to the bottom of the page (last row) and noticed a few open appointments – for almost a month away.
I hope this set of screenshots helps others know what to expect and therefore shave off some time in trying to get an appointment.
“But doesn’t that decrease your chances? You’re giving your edge away” Meh, had I been desperate enough, I’d write a bot.
Edit: A little searching turned up these links that may be helpful for those who want to know more
http://passportsevakendra.blogspot.in/ (What to expect when you go for your appointment)
Update (2013-01-17): Here’s the rest of the story. I visited the passport office on the day of my appointment, went through the various steps and left. After that you can check the status of your application online.
The first status was on the lines of “You file has been sent to police station XYZ for verification”. I received a phone call from the station a few days (week?) after noticing that status online. I had to meet two departments – and they asked me to bring copies of some documents (when they called). My verification completed on 2012-11-26.
After that, the status changed to something on the lines of “Police verification completed. File has been set to SP, Police station PQR, District N (for approval?).”
On 2013-01-12, the status read “Your Passport has been printed and You should receive an sms/email once the passport is dispatched.”
Finally, on 2013-01-15, it read “Passport X1110000 has been dispatched on 15/01/2013 via Speed Post Tracking Number EM000111222IN.”
On the same day, the postman called my mobile number at 12:56PM and asked me to collect it from post office X at 4:00pm. I went and did the same.
Later in the evening, at 22:39, I received an SMS from LM-MEASP – “Dear XYZ, You Passport X1110000 has been dispatched on 15/01/2013 through speed post. Speed post tracking number is EM000111222IN.” At the same time, I also received an email from passport.admin(@)passportindia.gov.in with the details.