Voices from Accenture Public Service

The other day I had a minor disagreement with an Uber driver. It was all sorted out to everyone’s satisfaction—especially mine!—in about seven minutes flat. While the effect on me was simply to reinforce Uber’s brand, I felt the experience also epitomized a growing challenge facing government services, not least border and customs operations.

Why? Because the public sector isn’t accustomed to acting or delivering at that kind of pace or level of customization. And as well as using services like Uber, people like me cross borders and buy and ship goods every day. So when we’re doing these things, we’re starting to demand the same seamless experience, convenience and efficiency as we get from the leading global tech platforms.
While achieving that isn’t easy, the good news is it can be done. And Accenture’s newly published Technology Vision 2017 highlights a number of themes that will ultimately enable those needs to be met.

Before describing how, I’d like to sketch out a couple of scenarios from the not-too-distant future. First, imagine you’re a customs officer looking to find and seize unauthorized cargo. Mid-morning one day, an analytics-driven risk assessment app on your tablet notifies you that you should inspect a specific container at the docks. It uses geolocation to guide you there, and you open it up.
Inside you find two cars. Applying AI to the data from recent operations in Rotterdam and Jakarta involving the same make of car, the app then tells you the likeliest hiding-place for contraband is behind the panel inside the front passenger door. You open the car, snap off the panel—it comes away suspiciously easily—and there’s the stash.

Or here’s another scenario, this time from the user side. Imagine you’re a tourist arriving in the airport of the future at your holiday destination. From the moment you bought your ticket, the border system has been tracking your social media activity and personal tastes, building up positive ID information about who you are and what you do.

One result is that you get your favorite meal on the flight (Thai green curry). Another is that as you walk through the immigration hall—there’s no line of desks any more—you don’t even need to get your passport out. The border system knows who you are and that you’re compliant, and facial recognition software does the rest. As you stroll through, you do see one person being quietly taken aside for a chat. But, like you, the vast majority of travelers just head straight on out of the airport to their hotel taxis.

Sounds like science fiction? Maybe. But it shouldn’t. As we all know from everyday experience, the innovation cycle has accelerated beyond belief. One minute we were hearing about driverless cars, the next they’re on our roads. And look at how robot customer service agents have taken off—and are now increasingly accepted by the public. It follows that the next wave of technology is always closer than we think, meaning border services must constantly strive to keep pace.

So, how does all this link to this year’s Accenture Technology Vision? In many ways. The overarching strapline the time is “Technology for People”—and the innovations we’re seeing at our borders totally fit the bill.

Here’s how. You might be surprised to hear me say this, but technology doesn’t really do much on its own. Unless you have people who understand what it can deliver and how to make it do so, you’ve only bought a thing rather than a catalyst for positive change. So technology is actually all about people—and about how to adapt and apply it to make things better for them, whatever role they happen to be in at the time: user, customer, citizen, employee or traveller.

A drill-down into the Technology Vision’s impressive body of research reveals five specific themes reshaping the technology environment as a whole. And while they’re all relevant to border and customs services, I’d like to zero in on two that are especially central—both of which are evident in the scenarios I’ve outlined.

First, ‘Artificial Intelligence is the new User Interface’. Suddenly AI has taken us from a data fog to a sunlit landscape where every contour and pattern can be picked out with total clarity, enabling us to zoom in on whatever’s most interesting and significant. Equally important, we can learn from what’s happened in the past to make better choices about the future. Like our customs officer being guided straight to the stash.

Second, ‘Design for Humans.’ Customs and border services used to be one-size-fits-all. In fact this never was appropriate, because every traveler and every situation have always been different from every other, and the vast majority of people are compliant. The good news is that we can now combine elements like data analytics, AI, social media listening and facial recognition to treat every individual as they deserve to be treated—and only take action over the tiny number of exceptions.

At root, borders are about people. Increasingly—as our vision highlights—the same’s true of technology. The message is clear: people and tech are now converging, enabling customs and border management services to finally put people at the heart of what they do.

See this post on LinkedIn: Picture the scene. It’s 2020. Your plane’s just touched down. What happens next?

James Canham

Managing Director, Accenture Border Services

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