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Canada Border Services Agency – Transformational Opportunities

On Friday, I attended a speaking engagement delivered by an executive at Canada Border Services Agency. The event, entitled “The New Normal”, was hosted by the Ottawa Center of Research and Innovation. As per the event description, participants were expected to hear about the “vision for the border services of the 21st century and the role technology is playing in this key transformation.” I was expecting to hear concrete initiatives, or clear opportunities, that exist for CBSA in this respect. To my disappointment, the event was characterized by the same stereotypical government speak – motherhood statements, lofty language, commitments with no details, etc.

For instance, a key aspect of the CBSA presentation was “the need to exploit data assets.” I completely agree. I have written here and elsewhere of the need for government to begin collecting and using data better as a means to improve their business processes and service delivery. Unfortunately, few details were provided on what CBSA is actually doing in this respect, or what opportunities exist. “Technology must support risk analysis” was also stated. Great, but what does that mean? What outcomes does CBSA hope to achieve by doing this? A representative from one technology firm asked, “how can we help you?” The question was never clearly answered. My assumption is that CBSA doesn’t have a good idea of what it wants and hopes to achieve by exploiting data. If it did, it would have come through clearly in the presentation.

I applaud CBSA for providing an open forum for a discussion about new technologies. However, I do see this as a missed opportunity. Here are my suggestions for how technology can help CBSA deliver on its mandate more effectively:

• Digitize everything. It is cheaper to produce and easier to distribute (to citizens requesting information, for example) when a document is in digital format. CBSA is still collecting a lot of its data through conventional means – paper manifests, note taking, etc. Also, data that is digitized can be manipulated so that the Agency can begin to understand trends in import/export activities, search and seizure, border wait times, and many other elements.
• Speak to citizens using mediums they understand: to govern effectively today, governments have to be in the same capacity as their citizens. Canadians are among the most active internet users in the world. Therefore, government must be connected. CBSA should move to communicate with citizens using the same mediums – mobile devices, internet, live chat, that citizens are used to in their everyday lives.
• Promote new skills: know what skills/competencies will be required for the CBSA of the future. Younger generations have different physiological makeup than older ones. Having unfettered access to vast sums of information at the touch of a button has made their short term memories worse. Why memorize something when the sum of human knowledge (well, almost) is available at your fingertips. Government should encourage schools to teach skills such as: creativity (taking unrelated concepts and making them work together), research (knowledge of where to find information and extract it in a manner that is useful) and communication (ability to send messages clearly about what needs to be done to achieve certain ends).
• Be inclusive: Countless civic groups already use new technologies and information-sharing tools to promote political action, operate an opposition movement, or mobilize community activism. Why not allow citizens to become more involved in government service delivery? There may be opportunities for CBSA to leverage the resources of individual citizens to feed CBSA information using new technologies. For example, digital cameras can be used to photograph, and therefore document, security gaps in our border infrastructure (like broken fences at secure warehouses, or remote access points along the 49th parallel). Government doesn’t have the resources to collect this information in real time, so why not democratize the process and get citizens involved?

These concepts require contemplation and research to determine the policy implications. However, they do represent concrete ends to work towards.

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