"Even if successful – and there is a significant risk of failure – IT will not provide the answer on its own."
andrew hooke and paul ellis, pa CONSULTING GROUP
Careful project management and joined-up working will be vital for new immigration organisations
Managing the UK's borders and controlling migration is a complex task. Deterring, detecting and disrupting the illegal movement of people and goods while at the same time smoothing passage for the legitimate traveller is a massive challenge in a world where those who would seek to do harm through organised crime and terrorism are internationally organised and increasingly sophisticated.
The much-publicised split of the UK Border Agency (UKBA) into two separate entities is being heralded as the latest cure for the ills of this often-maligned organisation. Creating a discrete Border Force will bring focus to one area of responsibility, but it is vital that the new force remains connected with the agency at the information and operational level if controls are to be effective, efficient and responsive to ever-changing and increasingly sophisticated threats.
The new Border Force will inherit considerable legal powers to support the discharge of its responsibilities. Its challenge will be to organise and direct operations to ensure that these powers achieve the results they were designed to deliver. But the Border Agency itself does not enjoy the same clarity of purpose or legislative framework under which to operate.
For all its troubles, the UKBA never lacked the vision or ambition to meet its mandate. Over the past decade it has enjoyed significant successes, delivering ground-breaking solutions to some of its key challenges. These include the Application Registration Card scheme, which enabled identity checks for asylum claimants 10 years ago, and the biometric visa scheme, which set the standard for assured identity in the visa process. In addition, the agency's Project Semaphore produces vital intelligence based on the Advanced Passenger Information provided by carriers and has maintained an operational connection between itself, the police and security agencies. Other countries have yet to deliver such schemes.
Caseworking will remain a major issue for the new agency. More than 10 years after the failure to deliver a new computer system, the latest IT project to address the endemic difficulty of processing immigration and asylum cases is already late and running into familiar problems. Staff are demotivated as they struggle to apply complex immigration rules with inadequate IT and the certain knowledge that even the most carefully considered cases are subject to a multi-layered appeals and review process.
Developing business process and supporting IT systems to deliver the current legislation is a massive and challenging task. The 1971 Immigration Act, amended and supplemented by the 1996 Asylum and Immigration Act, the 2002 Nationality and Immigration Act and a raft of secondary legislation, provide a legal labyrinth for the agency's staff to navigate.
Even if successful – and there is a significant risk of failure – IT will not provide the answer on its own. It is an important enabler but simplifying legislation must be a priority for government if the underlying issue is to be addressed. The current legislation is not fit for purpose. Only when it is improved can effectiveness and efficiency be improved, even under the new proposed arrangements. Splitting the agency will not deliver this, but could provide a fertile environment for change if the opportunity is recognised and taken.
It is right for ministers to look for answers. Indeed it is their duty. But the focus on operational failure at the border may be a diversion, addressing symptom rather than root cause. It is the root-cause reasons that need to be explored – and, indeed, if these had been addressed earlier it may have prevented the well-publicised operating failures. The 2006 Borders, Immigration and Identity Action Plan set out a coherent and ambitious strategy for change. The reasons behind the difficulties the agency and industry have had in delivering vital components of this strategy need to be identified and addressed. And now, at this time of structural change, is a good time to do so.
In part the answers are not complicated. The successes the agency has enjoyed have often been associated with focused projects that integrate its operational activity and intelligence base. Biometric visas were delivered early and under budget and they made an immediate and dramatic impact on visa controls. Equally, Semaphore delivered valuable results, leading to significant counter-terrorist interventions as well as numerous arrests for offences including murder, kidnapping and assault.
Ministers and the new management of the agency and Border Force should therefore reflect on the opportunity before them, address the crippling effect of current legislation and immigration rules and identify those critical intelligence and operational dots that need to remain joined up. They must agree a directed, coherent strategy that focuses resources and provides adequate finance to allow the new organisations to deliver where it matters most through small and tightly focused projects.
Andrew Hooke and Paul Ellis work for PA Consulting Group. Andrew is head of government and security group and Paul Ellis is an immigration and borders expert.