UK Border Agency split could deepen underlying cause of failure

migration, reform, security

Author(s):  Matt Cavanagh
Published date:  21 Feb 2012
Source:  Guardian, Policy Hub

Yesterday saw the publication of the report by the chief inspector of the UK Border Agency into last year's scandal around lapses in border security checks. The report is damning: there was a total lack of clarity, and shared understanding, about the conditions under which different kinds of checks could be suspended, and under whose authority. 

Instructions to staff from senior officials and ministers were vague, management was weak, reporting flawed, and record-keeping poor.

Ministers will argue they inherited this flawed framework from their predecessors. Their problem is, they argued for years that Labour had let the immigration system get out of control, and they would come in and fix it. They have failed the test they set themselves – indeed, in a number of areas the report indicates they have made things worse.

In an attempt to get back on the front foot, the home secretary, Theresa May, announced that the UKBA will be split in two, with the border force becoming a separate "law-enforcement body" headed by a chief constable.

Announcing a big structural reorganisation is a favoured tactic of ministers trying to get through a crisis. That doesn't mean it is a bad idea: John Reid's decision in 2006 to create the Office for Security and Counter Terrorism is an example of a similar reorganisation, driven by a minister in response to a crisis, which has stood the test of time.

But there are at least as many examples of ineffective reorganisations, or rebadging exercises, including in the history of the UKBA itself. Over the last decade it has changed from the Immigration and Nationality Directorate, to the Borders and Immigration Agency, and then to the UK Border Agency (incorporating other agencies, including port staff and elements of Revenue and Customs, along the way).

In opposition, the Conservatives advocated a further reform, to add a new "border police force". This would have meant increasing funding, to hire new border police officers – which was clearly unlikely; or taking those police officers who currently work at the border off their home forces and bringing them together in a single national border police force – which would have been very controversial in areas like London, Kent and so on.

As a result, the idea was buried after the election, and ministers contented themselves with separating the "policy" and "operations" parts of UKBA, repatriating policy to the Home Office to be closer to ministers.

This week's proposal partly resurrects the pre-election idea – without any additional resources, so there will be a suspicion of rebadging, but led by a chief constable. May argues that a standalone border force led by a police chief would have more focus, and a more rigorous "law enforcement ethos".

There is something in this argument. But such reorganisations are usually more of a trade-off than an unambiguous win: splitting up organisations can bring a tighter focus, with clearer objectives; but it can also reinforce another generic failing of government, the tendency to operate in silos.

It is worth bearing in mind that the main failings highlighted in this week's report concern co-ordination and communication between those setting the policy, and those implementing it. Splitting up UKBA, like the previous decision to split policy and operations, could actually make this worse.

It may be hard to believe – indeed saying it now invites ridicule – but most of those who work with UKBA would accept that whatever its problems, it feels like a better-run organisation than a decade ago. Clearly it has a long way to go, and the scrutiny will once again be intense: any honeymoon period the new government might have enjoyed is now over.

But the only real solution to the problems outlined in the report is better management, and better-trained and motivated staff.

In my experience of organisational change, in both public and private sectors, the relative priority attached to reforming structures, processes, and incentives is the exact opposite of what it should be. Structural change is easy to grasp (and announce) but will not improve matters if the new structure is populated by the same people with the same incentives.

Finally, the timing of this particular change is especially questionable: it makes sense from Theresa May's point of view, as she seeks "closure" to this crisis; but it makes little sense from an operational perspective.

Having missed the obvious window for reform after the election, the risk is that border staff will be distracted by this latest attempt at structural change just when they are gearing up for the significant operational challenge of the Olympics, with large increases in passenger volumes and additional security challenges.