The developments of the last few months confirm we are living in ‘VUCA’ times: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. And the COVID-19 pandemic has only served to strengthen that perception, particularly at borders. Border agencies have a lot to address. Travel and trade will remain uncertain and volatile for some time - from the complexities of the trade in critical goods and medical equipment to the logistics around global travel. Which countries are opening up public life –and to what degree– is a constantly evolving picture. Agencies will need to think carefully through the resilience, versatility and sustainability of solutions developed during the crisis in order to outmanoeuvre uncertainty and springboard to the future.

Travellers, immigrants and traders all need help to navigate these challenging conditions. More than ever before border agencies need to support and engage travellers, traders and immigrants not just at the border, but along their journey, playing out their role in enabling economic recovery by facilitating legitimate trade and travel. All of this will need to be carried out in an increasingly “touchless” way as social distancing, working remotely and more stringent sanitary requirements seem here to stay for a longer period of time.

With some exceptions, agencies are often challenged to meet the diverse service needs of the people and businesses involved in cross border travel and trade. That’s not surprising: border agencies have a history of focusing on enforcement and collection. While many agencies today hold trade facilitation and customer service in high regard, they are also often contending with legacy ways of working.

Policies are complex, with regulatory information often available in only one or two languages, and tariff schemes complicate traders’ ability to comply. Many border processes today also still rely on manual processing of paper forms, whether a travel passport, a certificate of origin or a bill of lading, requiring human handling. Even during the COVID-19 pandemic where travel has ground to a halt and freight trade expected to fall by between 13% and 32% in 2020[1], maintaining border-agency staff capacity, for example to enable the movement of medical equipment, frontier workers and citizen repatriation, has been critical.

The rapid changes taking place in their operational environment are often not reflected in agencies’ organisation, systems or staffing approaches, as these have often developed over time with a natural tendency to create siloes that can inhibit flexibility. The complexity of the ecosystems in which border agencies play a key role, also inhibits service delivery. For example, clearing a single shipment may involve between 15 and 40 different agencies, with customer issues having to be addressed by multiple government stakeholders. At the UK port of Dover, for example, 34 government agencies have the right to interdict traffic.[2]

In a world that’s more volatile, complex and unpredictable than ever, border agencies have to double down on service delivery. To truly facilitate trade and travel they need to be a choreographer of customer service for the wider border ecosystem. That means organising service delivery around the trader, traveller and immigrant rather than around procedures, forms, or org charts – by connecting across multiple communication channels and leveraging AI to improve customer experience. They need to be able to deal flexibly with unforeseen events that can place a sudden strain on resources: just as has happened with COVID-19. Now and in the post-COVID-19 world, the border experience will be digital, uncluttered and safe, or it will not be at all.

The good news is that some agencies are already addressing these challenges by rethinking their customer facing operations and harnessing technologies that enable them to align the services they offer with the reality of today’s and tomorrow’s cross-border travel and trade. In my next blog, I will look at some of the concrete steps that agencies can start taking today.

In my next blog, we’ll take a closer look at how to transform customer experiences for Borders with AI-powered conversations.




Alexander de Voet

Senior Manager – Consulting, Border Services Lead

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