LSE’s Simon Bastow comments on the investigation into the UK Border Agency and its handling of immigration checks. (You may remember, there was a row last year when it emerged that some security checks had not been carried out during the summer.) The report, he says, “gives an insight into tension between political priorities and operational imperatives.”
At the heart of the problem is an acceptable and manageable equilibrium between the pragmatics of operating a large and complex border system on the one hand, and prevailing policy and political priorities on the other. The fact is that since at least 2007 we have run a border control system which has relied on and indeed normalized a degree of suspensions of certain security checks, necessarily in order that ports are able to cope with spikes in demand. As Vine’s report shows, intermittant suspensions of checks against the Warnings Index (WI) (approx. 100 minutes per month across all ports) have been sanctioned by ministers in principle, and justified by officials on a range of pragmatic operational grounds.
The problem has come with the introduction of a new system of Secure ID (since 2009), requiring that visa holders entering the UK must also be checked against biometric data. This new burden on capacity led to regularized and almost systematic suspension of biometric checks during periods of peak demand. Suspension of biometric checks at Heathrow alone was equivalent to around 100 minutes per day between June 2010 to November 2011. As the timeline below shows, in July 2011, the Home Secretary explicitly forbade these suspensions, yet top managers nevertheless allowed them to continue, albeit at much reduced levels compared to months prior to this ministerial ban.
It’s not difficult to see why this happened. The report found that the build up of passengers overwhelmed staff at both ports and airports. If you were a manager faced with a choice of possibly being hauled over the coals at some future date for suspending checks, or risking injuries, disturbances, delayed flights and, worst of all, a Hillsborough style crush, you’d suspend the checks.
There’s a farcical irony that a system which was ostensibly meant to prevent the country being “swamped with incomers” had to be suspended every time the arrival hall was, er, swamped with incomers. But the reality is that, when there are large numbers of people arriving, carrying out the required checks with the staff and space available becomes very difficult. Managers know this so, like managers everywhere, they devise workarounds and coping strategies.
Immigration is one of the most toxic subjects in modern politics, so any suggestion that a government might not be taking the toughest line possible is politically unacceptable. Therefore, managers on the frontline dressed their decisions up in ambiguous language or with a series of emails giving mixed messages. Sometimes they just didn’t say anything at all. On many occasions when the biometric reading equipment had been deactivated there was no written record of why it had been done. Most probably because the people taking the decision hoped it would never come out.
Managers in the public sector often find themselves in a position where they can’t voice their concerns because, if they did, they would have to admit that the system wasn’t working, risking a tabloid scandal and the wrath of their political masters. There are certain things you just can’t put on the record even though you know they are going to happen.
For example, we know that after mergers there is almost always a performance dip. Organisations involved in mergers allow for this. Yet, as one public sector manager explained to me, you can’t say there will be a performance dip because that would be politically unacceptable. Managers therefore have to carry on as if there won’t be a performance dip, which means that they can’t formally acknowledge the inherent business risks in merging two organisations.
I sometimes think that cognitive dissonance is an occupational hazard for most managers but, in parts of the public sector, the ability to hold conflicting beliefs simultaneously is a necessary survival trait. As I’ve said before, making things undiscussable forces managers to operate in an “as-if world”. We carry on with our merger as if all the post-merger fallout that has affected every other organisation will not happen here. We act as if we can make 8.5 percent cost savings in one year without affecting service levels, even though the senior executives we have brought in from the private sector tell us they have never seen it done. We continue with our implementation as if everything is going to plan, even though we know the assumptions on which our plan was based are wrong. And we carry on as if we can run biometric checks on every arrival from outside the EEA, even though we know the system will collapse once we get a summer surge.
When facts are inconvenient, we often pretend not to know them and when there is a political penalty for saying unpalatable things, it is hardly surprising that managers retreat into the ‘as-if world’.
The government’s solution to last summer’s chaos has been to split the UK Border Agency into two. As Simon Bastow says, it’s difficult to see how this will help. If anything, it will give scope for greater role confusion, more ambiguity and more mixed messages, all of which tend to lead to workarounds and coping strategies. The tension between security checks and crowd control hasn’t gone away. How the system copes next summer, as the crowds arrive for the Olympics, will tell us how successful the changes have been.
There is nothing in this report to suggest that a grand departmental reorganisation will tackle any of the problems which caused last summer’s crisis but, as usual, people must carry on as if it will. I could make a comment about chairs and doomed ocean-going steamships but someone has probably said it already.