Border Management: Meeting the global challenge

Tony Smith
Tony Smith, Chair of IBMATA

One of the great advantages of “staying in the game” after government service is the opportunity to stay in touch with other veterans of border management; and to meet the next generation of border leaders, to share collective wisdom.

As far as I know, I am still the only person to have served as the Director of Ports of Entry in 2 different countries: in Citizenship & Immigration Canada (CIC) and in the UK Immigration Service (UKIS). It is also unlikely that the UK Border Force will ever again appoint a Director General who has served as an officer on the border and risen through the ranks.

The complexities of immigration and border management over the past few years have led to unprecedented changes at both national and international level. Both CIC and UKIS have been abolished and transformed into the Canada and Border Services Agency (CBSA) and the UK Border Force (UKBF) respectively, in recognition of the need to integrate immigration and customs functions at the ports of entry. The UK Home Office has transformed its immigration and border structures more times in the past decade than in the previous century. There is a constant quest across the world to find the right structures and systems to cope with the ever-increasing demand placed upon borders. The desire for change – driven largely by technology but also by political pressure – has never been greater.

Whether it is the building of a wall between the US and Mexico; or the influx of the Rohingya refugees into Bangladesh; or the challenges of the migrant crisis in the EU, or the construction of the “post Brexit” border – our business is never very far from the front pages of the national press. This, in turn, has a direct impact upon governments, who feel under ever increasing pressure to react. This reaction – as we saw recently in the UK with the “Windrush scandal” – often leads to finger pointing at either Ministers or officials. There has to be someone to blame, doesn’t there? All this media furore often overlooks the hugely complex nature of modern day border management; and the pressure placed upon those charged with the responsibility of delivering it.

I have been fortunate enough to spend a good deal of time with senior border leaders from around the world – both during my time in the UK Border Force (or the UK Border Agency, or the Border and Immigration Agency, or the UK Immigration Service depending upon the timeframe we are looking at); and since I became a global border security consultant. One thing that I have learned over many years – and continue to advocate today – is the need for collaboration in border management. That is not always easily achieved; particularly in a confrontational political environment where the opposition is desperately seeking areas to exploit and undermine.

Yet despite all the political fuss and noise, there is a reality check that is well understood by the experts in the field. There is no such thing as the “perfect border”. And in seeking to build one, there are some fundamental principles to embrace along the way.

This all begins with a strategy. Too many times have I seen immigration and border agencies embark upon expensive transformation programmes, with little or no thought given to the strategic fit for the country concerned. Investment in technology is often seen as the answer; but as those acquainted with the UK e borders programme and the reasons for failure will know, technology alone is not the answer. Ultimately, the border management strategy starts and ends with the government of the day. It is very easy to criticise when things go wrong; but without a clear and united vision and direction set by government, then most projects are destined to fail.

Of course, government cannot do this alone. Even if they can achieve cross Departmental agreement on a strategy (a significant challenge in itself), they will need the help of the industry to deliver it. This means working in collaboration with the travel and trade organisations at both national and international level; and with the very best providers of technology. And – as students of stakeholder management will know – the best way to achieve this collaboration is by identifying a “higher common purpose”.

For me, this principle was driven home during my work on the London 2012 Olympics. In that scenario, it was much easier to establish the higher common purpose. We all wanted a safe, secure, and successful Olympiad. That message was spread from the International Olympic Committee to all participating nations; by the London Organising Committee; and by those of us in the heart of government. The strategy was set early and reviewed thoroughly along the way. Relationships were built to last. Governance was constantly reviewed; with the key players agreeing from the start to stick with the Programme until the show was over. No jumping ship when the going got tough. We were in it together; we would stand or fall together. The result was a resounding success.

So why does it take an Olympiad to achieve this? After the Games, the team dispersed and went their own way. Government reverted to type; silos were rebuilt between departments, and relationships between the key parties became jaded due to other priorities and constraints. The strategy had been delivered, the higher common purpose achieved.

Therefore, I continue to advocate the need for collaboration in border management. There are many other examples where this has worked. I remember the excellent work that took place between Canada and the US in the post 9/11 period, where we worked tirelessly on the joint Border Accord. I remember similar work after the London Bombings of 7/7, where the police, immigration, and security services came together with a broad church of communities to develop and implement the CONTEST strategy. And there has been a number of international traveller initiatives, co-ordinated by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO,) which has led to some common principles on data exchange and document management.

But there is a lot more to be done. We need to find a way to rekindle the higher common purpose of facilitation and control across borders; and encourage the relevant parties to come together behind it. Therefore, I am delighted to be chairing the International Border Management and Technologies Association (IBMATA) Summit in Croatia; and co-chairing the International Summit on Borders (ISOB) in Washington DC with my good friend Commissioner Rob Bonner, over the next few weeks.

Our collective wisdom is greater than the sum of any of the parts; and this spirit of collaboration – more than anything else – is the most important ingredient towards meeting the global challenges of modern day border management.

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