From improvements in passport processing at the border and risk prediction technology for those entering the country to data analytics and increasing automation, the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has become one of the leaders in government digital transformation.
DIBP’s leadership sees technology as crucial to fulfilling its many responsibilities as trade and travel volumes rise, led by a rethink of business imperatives, informed by small-scale experiementation and enabled by a shifting workforce structure that is still settling into place after the merger that formed the new organisation.
Speaking at a Trans-Tasman Business Circle event last week, department chief information officer Randall Brugeaud said they had been building “a connected, automated environment, supported by a more mobile, multi-disciplinary workforce” in the two years since Customs and Border Protection fused with Immigration.
“We are moving to a place where instead of having people making visa decisions manually, we’ll have very sophisticated intelligence systems that will allow systems to make decisions,” said Brugeaud, underscoring the inherent risk in such heavy reliance on computers.
“If those systems stop working, we [would] no longer have the people who are there manually making decisions, because [they would have] moved on to other things to support our business.”
One big program aims to build a “connected information environment” that brings together data from all of the organisation’s business lines. The idea is to eventually provide its leaders with a “single view of entity” that is as close to real-time as possible.
“That was originally conceived under the Customs reform, and so by design it was including all of our traveller, all of our intelligence, and all of our trade and cargo data,” said Brugeaud.
“We’ve since expanded that into the broader department, so visa information and citizenship and so on, so we have a pretty good handle on what data we have, where. Bringing that together, as you would understand, is a long-term program of work … it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”
There’s so much on the CIO’s plate it’s not surprising the convenor of the business luncheon where he was speaking wanted to know if it all keeps him awake at night.
“At this point in time we have about 2000 people involved in some form of technology delivery across the department,” said Brugeaud. “Nearly two thirds of the new investment and the project activity that is coming up requires some form of technology enablement.”
The relatively new department is also very keen on experimenting with new applications of cognitive systems and AI, blockchain, smart contracts, the internet of things, cloud services and APIs to see if they are worth more investment. It spent 18 months testing out IBM’s Watson cognitive computing system in the intelligence area, for example, but found its usefulness was limited by the fact they could only feed it unclassified information.
“We’ll continue also to disrupt and challenge the status quo,” said Brugeaud, who said he expected “more intense oversight of major projects” — probably in reference to the Digital Transformation Agency’s new role.
“We’re motivating our staff to innovate [and] it is from the very top level of the organisation that disruption is being led. Our secretary has created an innovation challenge which has recently been awarded [and received] hundreds of applications … it’s just fabulous to allow all of our staff to contribute ideas as to how we can work better.”
There’s also been “lots of work” done with technology to enable automated border clearance, including facial recognition and “contactless technologies that allow [the ABF] to clear passengers without them needing to interact with any infrastructure whatsoever” while another project is looking at replacing large fixed machines like fingerprint scanners with modern mobile versions that feed data directly into the organisation’s vast digital records, Brugeaud said.
Leading in constant change
Brugeaud spoke of measures to keep staff motivated, explain what they need to do and allow them to provide feedback during the “intense period of change” so that adjustments could be made along the way. Efforts to get staff on board with the new “agile” philosophy, which was discussed with staff a year ago, involved choosing “evangelists for digital, or different ways of working” who would demonstrate.
“So we picked a difficult problem, we picked one of our big mainframe systems that really hadn’t felt a lot of love and we got enthusiastic business sponsors, we had enthusiastic technical folk and we had some really top-class coaches that helped them through,” said Brugeaud.
“They delivered a change program in increments, into production within three months. and they’ve been delivering increments ever since.”
Sceptics said they were “only delivering small things” and suggested a year-long project could have delivered something bigger. “But twelve times small things is probably going to be bigger than what the large thing might have been, and people see it in a shorter time,” was the CIO’s view.
Cultural change is always a challenge, and not just in new ways of using the latest ICT equipment, he reflected.
“If you think about what we’re asking [of] our traditional Customs officers, who’ve become in most cases Australian Border Force officers, that have been doing face-to-passport checks in Sydney Airport between 5am and 11am every day of the week for 15 years, and we say to them: ‘Actually, we’re going to make you multi-disciplinary, we’re going to actually deploy you to a container examination facility, we might get you to be use-of-force trained and assist in executing warrants.’
“That’s a pretty tough thing for people to deal with. And so our job is to be really clear about the intent and the strategic direction and help people transform. But it’s not going to be for everybody, and we’ve had people who just haven’t been able to make the shift.”
It’s been review after review for DIBP, which seems to have been in a state of constant change since the big merger. Brugeaud said a new technology strategy would be released “in its public form” soon, but did not elaborate beyond four pillars: “Information at the core; decoupled business domains; robust integration; and extensible, adaptable architecture.”
The tech plan was informed by a recent technology review, which itself followed a high-level review of the whole department’s operating model.
“We’ve been working through at the highest level of the organisation a process of identifying … our future-state operating model, and this is about how we assemble resources to deliver the outcomes that the department is required to deliver,” Brugeaud explained.
Next came an organisation-wide review of accountabilities which had led to a “huge shift” in responsibilities and much more clarity about who does what.
On top of those, the CIO said a Functional and Efficiency Review commissioned by the Department of Finance had focused on checking if “the efficiencies that were expected through integration” had eventuated. Secretary Mike Pezzullo and ABF commissioner Roman Quaedvlieg also commissioned their own review on a very similar topic from the RAND Corporation, which they released publicly last September.
A new technology operating model has only been in effect since July 4 last year, clearing up “blurring” lines of responsibility between Brugeaud and major capability division head Mike Milford, whose role is similar to a chief technology officer.
“We’ve also fully established our work program,” said the CIO. “We have about 126 projects we’re running this financial year and that’s in addition to our [business-as-usual] programs … and that amounts to many hundreds of millions of dollars and that runs over multiple years.”
Now the governance structure is much clearer and the organisation is “well positioned when it comes to the foundations” as it moves to deliver on the ambitious digital transformation plans, according to Brugeaud. At the same time, he is trying to retain the ability to adjust course when the “external or internal environment changes” — which happens often in the portfolio.
For an illustration he chose the epic foundations of the Burj Khalifa — a skyscraper larger and more ambitious than any other, by a significant degree — and said the merged department was pursuing its vision with a similar “mindset” and would require “incredible innovations” much like those that enabled the huge building to rise out of the Dubai sand.