If you’re like me, you’re a pretty demanding traveler. And on the frequent occasions when you cross a border for business or pleasure, you’re looking for three things.
First, better and more efficient services at the point of entry or departure. Second, watertight security to keep you as safe as possible. And third, a seamless travel experience, where everything’s joined up and the systems know who you are end to end.
From the traveler’s perspective, these three things don’t seem too much to ask. But look at it at from the border agency’s point of view, and it all gets a bit more complicated. For example, tight security can be hard to reconcile with a seamless, interruption-free experience. And knowing who somebody is end-to-end demands a degree of integration that can be difficult with legacy systems built up over years of piecemeal add-ons, and held together with string and Sellotape.
What’s more, border agencies have to try and meet travelers’ rising expectations while coping with record volumes of trade and travel, new and evolving security threats, tightening budgetary constraints, and pervasive digital disruption that’s sweeping away old processes and business models in every industry.
Fortunately, the last of these challenges can also provide the solution to all the others. And to gain deeper insights into how digital can be used to create better, faster and more secure border services worldwide, we’ve conducted a survey called Emerging Technologies Make their Mark on Public Service.
Based on phone interviews over 750 public service technology leaders in nine countries, including 91 from immigration and customs agencies, the study brings both good and bad news. On the positive side, we find that emerging technologies can enable border agencies to deliver transformed services at less cost—and, as our report describes, are already doing so in a growing number of cases. Indeed, the leading agencies are using digital not only to tackle their near-term challenges, but also to lay the foundations for a sustainable future of continuous innovation and improvement.
But less positively, we also find that all too many border agencies are still stuck in familiar territory when it comes to technology. As a result, they’re being left behind by their public service counterparts in areas like revenue and public safety, which are using digital to break new ground in service design and delivery.
So, what’s to be done? To break out of their technology comfort zone, border agencies need to commit themselves wholeheartedly to innovation—meaning making smarter use of human capital and technology to harness the full power of digital. But the window of opportunity to do this won’t be open for long. So, the time for discussion and analysis is over: What’s needed now is action.
Turning to what that action should be, the case studies in the report showcase a vast range of innovative applications of emerging technologies by border agencies. To name but two, these range from using predictive analytics to align staffing with the risk profile of incoming passengers, to e-gates that check travelers automatically against “wanted” lists. I don’t have room here to do justice to the rich detail of the case studies—so for that, you’ll have to read the report for yourself. But by looking across all of them, we’ve come up with a step-by-step approach that border agency leaders can use to navigate the route to their digitally-enabled future.
The starting-point is to be honest and pragmatic. Senior executives don’t have time to keep up with every new technology. But by gaining a better understanding of each technology’s potential, they can set the overall direction and culture to support digital innovation. Having taken that initial step, they should then apply a three-pronged strategy:
Educate and evangelise—changing the organizational mindset about what types of innovation are possible, and transforming attitudes among middle-level IT managers who may be wedded to legacy systems and processes.
Start small, scale at pace—by identifying specific challenges, pinpointing emerging technologies that can address them, and then setting up pilots to demonstrate how they'll do this.
Recruit creativity and agility—bringing in new (and often young) talent with fresh, innovative ideas and problem-solving approaches.
Even with these elements in place, the journey won’t always be smooth. But progress and momentum can be maintained through original thinking and continued commitment. Along the way, it may also be useful to learn implementation lessons from the private sector and seek out partners to help adapt and apply them.
And throughout, the critical success factor will be leadership. A top team who are enthusiastic and knowledgeable about emerging technologies will carry the workforce with them—overcoming employees’ suspicion and inertia to enable the swift introduction and rapid scaling-up that’s needed to realise the full potential of each new technology.
Border agencies that achieve all this will reap a host of benefits:
More meaningful jobs for their people