Border Security – Visions of the Future

By John Coyne, Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Border Security Program

On October 19, 1981, the American rock band Journey released the worldwide hit ‘Don’t Stop Believin’, which would also become a karaoke hit. The inspirational and upbeat song depicts people from different walks of life struggling but still holding on to a belief in their vision for their future. Over the last decade, border agencies worldwide have posited visions of the future of border management. Like the people in this song, they’ve been ‘holding on to that feeling’ in anticipation of achieving their vision. Unfortunately, progress towards the vision of a future invisible, adaptable, and digital bore that is both permanent and secure has been limited at best.

Before the outbreak of COVID-19, more than a few commentators predicted a future of open borders, where globalisation would increasingly diminish the importance of the sovereign state and their borders. COVID-19, geopolitics, and global population movement trends appear to increase, not diminish, the importance of borders and border security. The increased focus on border security across countries like Australia, the United States and the United Kingdom is more than just a policy priority from governments. Increased economic, security, and geopolitical uncertainty is fueling public demands for a greater focus on sovereignty. So borders are here to stay and, to some extent, may become increasingly impermeable or selectively permeable for some travellers and businesses.

The visions of the invisible, adaptable, connected and digital borders are, for the most part, still that. Traveller experiences at major airports, from Heathrow to Sydney and Bangkok to Los Angeles, indicate limited change: long queues and slow movement still plague air travel. While there have been some successes with measures like trusted trader programs and free trade agreements, border permeability for cargo falls well short of the visions shared at conferences, dialogues and trade shows. Arguably, some countries have applied new technologies, especially concerning passenger arrivals and targeting, but scaling this success is still a challange.

Naturally, border security measures vary significantly from country to country. Despite this variation, strategic thinking across different border agencies does share some common concerns.

For several years, I have presented future thinking and strategy sessions to emerging customs and immigration leaders from across the Indo-Pacific region. It was heartening to see how many mid- and senior-level officers focus on ensuring they, their officers, and their organisations are future-ready. This focus has ensured that there are always plenty of tough questions.

Over time, I have observed a surprising uniformity in the questions I receive in each lecture. The questions tend to converge on budgets, technology and how to prepare for the future.

It seems that all border agencies, whether in Myanmar, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore, or Sri Lanka (to name but a few), feel they are inadequately resourced. All border agencies could indeed do with larger budgets. However, the reality is that government organisations must, by necessity, operate within set budget appropriations. Unfunded or unfundable visions are more akin to dreams than workable future targets. Regardless, agencies focused on being future-ready or planning to reach some vision must be realistic about their budgets and the limits that they impose.

These budget questions highlight why strategic thinking on border management must focus on effectiveness and efficiency. Budget realities must underpin decisions on effectiveness and efficiency. Inevitably, tough choices and compromises will be needed: finding a balance between ends, ways and means is no easy task for any strategist.

Border agencies may find relief in alternate innovative and entrepreneurial approaches, especially concerning technology: for example, the establishment of private-public partnerships, adoption of technology innovations (cloud-based computing), and subscription-based models for technology products and services.
I am frequently asked about technology or specific technological innovations in these courses, such as artificial intelligence, self-learning algorithms, or digitisation. Reductionism abounds in public policy debates on border security. So, innovation discussions are often limited to debates on new walls or biometric advances rather than strategy. Unsurprisingly, industry representatives in this reflexive paradigm present arguments that some new wall,biometric concept or surveillance platform will ‘fix’ or ameliorate the border security problem, but those products don’t make a strategy.

Here, there needs to be a clear focus on strategic intent. Border agencies must avoid the temptation to prioritise modernisation that focuses on digitising existing business processes. While simple digitisation is not without value, it does not set border agencies on the path of true modernisation.

Similar piecemeal approaches focussed on ‘quick fixes’ leave border agencies with technological, strategic, and policy misalignment. Good border management involves a system of systems. A system of systems refers to a collection of interconnected and interdependent systems working together to achieve a common goal or function, often exhibiting emergent properties beyond the capabilities of individual systems. This concept emphasizes integrating, coordinating, and collaborating among diverse systems to create a more complex system with enhanced capabilities and functionalities.

Border agencies would be better served by modernising their core business processes and operations, focusing on achieving their government’s strategic intent. A mindset change that tested the many long-held assumptions that underpin border agencies may be most helpful here. For example, border agencies have traditionally concentrated their targeting efforts on identifying high-risk transactions, be they travellers or cargo crossing a border. A move towards macro-level border security risk assessments focussed on clearing low-risk border transactions quickly and invisibly could dramatically improve the allocation of resources to targeting and disruption.

The visions of the future border shared over the last decade are not wrong or inaccurate. However, to reach these visions, border agencies must first resolve the challenge of aligning strategic intent and performance indicators focused on operational performance measures. Moreover, if governments want transformational change at their borders, they must modernise their thinking about border operations.

In preparing for the future, it is helpful to acknowledge that Border agencies are inherently operational in nature. In many cases, border officials narrowly focus on key performance indicators that may or may not be valid measures of their agency’s achievement of strategic intent. Illicit drug seizures illustrate this point. Border agencies’ performance is often assessed based on the number and size of illicit drug seizures. While such measures are indicators of operational success, their link with the strategic intent of reducing the availability of illicit drugs is tenuous. Thai and Australian border agencies continue to break seizure records, but illicit drug availability and price remain unchanged. Unfortunately, this reality doesn’t cue the need for a new strategy or policy approach.

While this contribution’s tone may appear negative, my experience with the Indo-Pacific border management leaders is anything but. The current and emerging border management leaders are firmly focused on being ‘future ready’ and proactively seeking opportunities to shape the necessary change. One thing we can be sure of is that these leaders will face a protracted period of rapid change and instability. They’ll need to focus their agency’s modernisation efforts on increasing adaptability in this context. And the only way they can achieve this is through new approaches.