The Magic 8 Ball

In 1946, Albert Carter and Abe Brookman designed the ‘Syco-Slate’. In 1950, the Syco State’s functional components were used to create the ‘Magic 8 Ball’. A novelty fortune-telling device, the Magic 8 Ball in time would become a pop culture staple.

The device’s operation is simple. The user asks the device a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ question, then shakes it before looking at a small window where an answer appears (I won’t ruin the mystery by revealing its inner workings).

Intelligence officers are frequently asked impossible binary ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions about the future. So, by the mid-2010s, almost two decades into my intelligence career, I began gifting magic eight balls to my staff as a gag gift.

What does an oversized eight-ball have to do with Border Security? Lots.
Over the last several years, I have presented on a number of border agency leadership courses in Australia, the Pacific, Southeast Asia and Africa. After each presentation, ambitious and well-educated border officials ask me about the future of border security. I always preceded my answer with reference to the Magic 8 Ball, and how great it would be if we had a similar fortune telling device.

Between the late 1990s and until the arrival of Covid-19, it appeared that borders, writ large, were becoming less important. Many a futurist gripped tightly to an almost religious belief in the kind of future globalization where borders and sovereignty were irrelevant. Unfortunately, increased irregular people movements, then Covid-19 and an increasingly uncertain geopolitical context have resulted in the opposite. Borders and sovereignty are back massively.

Predicting the future of border security is no easy task and arguably a somewhat arcane practice. I suggest that the better approach seeks to reduce surprise and uncertainty for border agency leadership. This approach is best made not by asking binary questions but by anticipating a range of potential futures.

To be future-ready, border agencies, and their workforces, will need to come to terms with this, but also a new paradigm. This new paradigm is one of continuous and concurrent challenges. For example
• the Australian Border Force (ABF) has, for more than two years, dealt with the challenges of Covid-19. Now the ABF, while maintaining its Covid efforts, is actively involved in responding to an animal health bio-threat: foot and mouth disease.
• Similarly, many European border agencies are dealing with Covid-19, irregular migration, and the impacts of the war in Ukraine.

Borders are essential to sovereignty and security and will likely remain so. Arguably, border agencies that hold onto their bureaucratic and hierarchical cultures too tightly will struggle to be ready for rolling and concurrent challenges.

Border agencies to be future-ready in this new operating context must increasingly be capable of rapidly and dramatically adapting. Future-ready border agencies need to dramatically change from a process mindset to one focused on outcomes. Or in other words, doing the right things will become as important as doing something right. This mindset change will ensure they are ready for a range of potential futures.

This change will have some very significant implications for border agency workforces. There will remain a requirement for developing and retaining highly skilled specialist workers. There will also be an increasing requirement for a multi-skilled and agile workforce where officers can be rapidly surged to meet rapid organisational changes.

To develop this new workforce, border agencies must encourage and promote officers developing multiple skill sets. They must also encourage their workforces to take on new challenges. A mindset that encourages experimentation and innovation must also be developed, accepting that failure is a possibility that brings all new opportunities.

Reliance on the Magic 8 Ball futures thinking is a mistake. My consistent advice for all border officers is that they must read and read often. While and after reading, our officers must be willing to think about what they are reading and ask probing questions: ‘So what?’, ‘What does this mean?’ and ‘What ought one to do?’ to start. Officers must then be willing to share their thoughts and test their ideas with their colleagues before thinking about what they have heard and observed. And, of course, this is a continuous process.

by Dr John Coyne, Head of Strategic Policing and Law, Australian Strategic Policy Institute