You say you want a revolution (in border security strategy)
10 Feb 2016|

Reductionism abounds in public policy debates on border security. So discussions of innovation are often limited to debates on new walls or biometric advances, not 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.

Naturally, border security measures vary greatly from country to country. You could rightly argue, at least conceptually, that border security is timeless, and agencies look at each transaction and/or person to confirm their risk or threat.

Border security philosophies and strategies have had a one dimensional focus on keeping things and people from entering one’s borders. To see that defensive paradigm in practice, one only has to look at America’s current debates on building better and bigger walls with its southern neighbour Mexico.

But border transactions are already so frequent that simplistic responses—such as opening a few extra migration desks at the airport, buying a new x-ray machine for goods or building a new wall—simply don’t cut it. To manage border security risks bureaucrats need new strategies more than new technology, better barriers or more staff.

Thankfully, it’s not all bad news for border security policy, as public service leaders awaken to the reality that it’s a nation’s border security philosophy and strategy that will improve border security.

Border security’s operating context is changing dramatically. And, like military affairs since the 1970s, border security strategy and policy may just be on the precipice of a revolution.

From the birth of the nation state, border security practice has primarily been concerned with enforcing sovereignty—a border was simply the physical location where entry or exit could be controlled.

Not much changed until the 1990s when there was a shifting western policy focus on deregulation and opening border flows, in order to support internationally integrated value chains and global logistic frameworks.

At the time, border agencies were still focused on assessing each traveler or item crossing the border. It comes as little surprise, then, that this transaction approach struggled to stem the flow of illicit commodities especially in an environment where security was a poor second to trade facilitation. But the failed paradigm prevailed under the promised efficiencies of technology.

In the allied field of customs regulation, the economic costs of controlling cross-border movements of people and goods—in a world in which national logistics were being absorbed into global supply chains—gave rise to a risk-based approach. Increasingly, customs authorities implemented compliance models. These compliance models were focused on influencing individuals and businesses to comply with customs regulations: but this didn’t translate to border security in any meaningful sense.

The 9/11 terror attacks catalysed movement to the militarised and securitised border environment that continues today.

In the face of terrorism, the governments of western liberal democracies increasingly sought to protect their communities from the border inwards. The militarisation of border security is particularly evident in the US, where the Department of Homeland Security uses an approach that’s somewhat reminiscent of the walled frontiers of the Cold War. In comparison, both the European Union’s Frontex and the United Kingdom’s Border Force offer examples of the securitisation model focused on processes and systems. In both cases, performance has been mixed at best, as their strategies remain focused on assessing transactions, and not on managing risk.

During a recent visit to Europe I was shocked that so many border agencies remained convinced that capabilities such as biometrics or increased traveler data would allow for better consideration of individual travelers. While those are good ideas, border agencies in Europe and the US are still focusing on assessing the risk of each border traveler or border transaction. That non-targeted approach treats all transactions and travelers equally.

In the early post 9/11 years, rapid expansions in funding for border agencies obfuscated the failure of linear border security checking. The transactional approach is unsustainable in light of exponential increases in border traffic. While new technology will assist and lead to efficiencies, it’s unlikely to address the exponential number of people and volumes of goods that need to be checked.

At the top of the list of fresh approaches to border security is Australia’s move towards risk-based border management strategies, which is unique because its assessment of risk isn’t at the level of each individual transaction. With macro-level border security risk assessments, resources can be allocated appropriately.

There has been, and continues to be, irreversible and significant changes to the business of border security. But our strategies, for the most part, have remained static and linear. Those catalytic factors demand the development of not just new technologies, but innovation in border security doctrine, strategies and tactics.

Now is the time to rethink our border security approaches.