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December 08, 2016
All change at the border: Time to turn digital anxiety into positive disruption
By: James Canham

Ever had digital anxiety? I have. In fact, I get it every time I make the drive to rural England where my son’s at school, and see the 4G symbol on my phone replaced by something obscure and low-bandwidth called GPRS. It’s like regressing to the disconnected, monochrome, steam-powered world of the 1950s.

However, if you’re running a government agency—especially a border agency—digital anxiety means something quite different. And it comes in two parts. The first is that digital is advancing—accelerating—around you at bewildering speed, with innovations hitting the mainstream before you’ve even heard of them. The second is that, in your day job, you’re still struggling to get your web portal sorted out, let alone work out how to use all this technology to do things better, faster, cheaper—and bigger.

But you need to. Why? Try these projections for size. Annual international passenger numbers globally set to double to 7.3 billion by 2034. Freight volume doubling even faster, by 2030. Net migration to Western countries mushrooming to 98 million by 2050. And across all borders, a remorseless rise in the flow of digital—and therefore less easily traceable and taxable—products, supplanting their physical predecessors.

Put simply, everything related to our borders is on the rise: people, freight, political pressures, complexity. Everything, that is, except one vital component: the money needed to manage all this. Which, given the continuing strains on government coffers, will remain in painfully short supply.

Given this intensifying squeeze between rising demands and flat—if not shrinking—resources, the people running border management agencies have only one option. To think differently, embrace digital, and innovate to do more things better and for less.

Only through this approach can they turn their current digital anxiety into positive disruption across their operations. Or, to put it another way: welcome to the digital border agency of the future.

What does this mean? Essentially, shifting the focus of border processes and surveillance from traditional hardware to data. Take drones: Equipped with connected cameras and data capture, they can cover huge areas much more effectively and cheaply than a whole fleet of helmeted officers on dirt bikes.

The same is true of monitoring national waters: Why spend millions on patrol boats, when drones can deliver surveillance several magnitudes greater for a fraction of the cost? Or, imagine driving up to a manned frontier and being waved straight through, because a drone hovering overhead has already positively identified you through facial recognition.

Using drones is just one of the opportunities. Across biometrics, blockchain, body scanners and more, science fiction is becoming science fact every day—with clear applications at borders. Fifteen years ago, AI was a film with Will Smith: Now it’s a fact of business life.

Keeping pace isn’t easy. And if you wait until technologies are in the papers, you’re already playing catch-up. So as well as scanning borders, agencies also need to continually scan the horizon for emerging technologies—and have the organizational model and talent to capitalize on them.

Which means putting a Chief Innovation Officer at the heart of your operation, plugged straight into policy formulation. And a culture that encourages and incentivizes people to try out ideas—and either fail fast if they don’t fly, or scale up rapidly when they do.

Doing this will require you to actively find out what your customers—the people using borders—actually want, and often collaborating with the private sector to deliver it. In doing this, you’ll be pushing against an open door in terms of user acceptance: Our recent global Citizens’ Survey found that 8 in 10 people are open to non-government agencies delivering government services, and 70 percent are just as or more comfortable sharing personal data with government as with government as with the private sector.

The message is clear. To keep delivering against their mandate, border services must go digital. And to go digital, they’ll not only have to adopt new technologies, but also transform their traditional culture, mindset and openness to collaboration. Of all the borders to be crossed, that could be the hardest of all.

See this post on LinkedIn: All change at the border: Time to turn digital anxiety into positive disruption

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