Part 5: Processing passengers faster at airports

Realising benefits from six public sector technology projects.

What the project was about

SmartGate is an automated passenger clearance system that is available to eligible Australian and New Zealand passport holders arriving at and leaving major international airports in New Zealand and arriving at Australia's eight international airports. SmartGate is a response to the Government's wish to provide a better, smoother experience for travellers and is seen as helping in the drive to make processing international travellers at the border more effective and efficient.

New Zealand Customs Service (Customs), the agency responsible for SmartGate, is the Government's agent at the border, where it carries out activities on behalf of many other agencies. SmartGate's introduction had immediate and downstream implications for some or all of these agencies.

At special kiosks, SmartGate reads a microchip embedded in passports and uses stored biometric data and photo-matching technology to validate passports and travellers to provide accurate and fast automated clearance. In March 2009, Cabinet endorsed Customs' plan to build SmartGate. In December 2009, the first SmartGate went into service in Auckland. SmartGate was progressively installed in the arrival and departure halls of Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch airports. In August 2011, SmartGate was fully operational in the three airports. By May 2012, Customs was using 22 gates and 54 kiosks continuously.

The decision to build SmartGate came after:

  • the Prime Ministers of New Zealand and Australia agreed to make the movement of their compatriots between their countries more efficient and easier; and
  • the awarding of the hosting rights to the 2011 Rugby World Cup to New Zealand meant that more people were expected to visit the country.

Several factors helped Customs to design and roll out the first SmartGate so quickly. One was the political and organisational priority that SmartGate got.

Because the Prime Minister and Cabinet had prioritised SmartGate, it was also a priority for the chief executive and Customs. The project team was able to rely on Customs giving it the resources it needed to complete the job on time. The project benefited from:

  • organisational commitment;
  • being in line with whole-of-organisation strategy;
  • organisation-wide planning;
  • sound project management methodology; and
  • choosing the best people to do the job the project manager saw this as the most important factor in the project's success.

A second factor allowing Customs to design and roll out SmartGate effectively and on time was Customs' close relationship with the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) and interest in the latter's SmartGate. Built by international company Morpho, the ACBPS SmartGate:

  • reads biometric information on a microchip in the passenger's passport;
  • checks for alerts in ACBPS' main database PACE; and
  • takes a photo, which is matched with the biometric information to open the automatic electronic gate and let the traveller through.

Customs accepted ACBPS' offer to lend it a SmartGate device so that it could explore how well SmartGate would work:

  • in New Zealand; and
  • with Customs' CusMod database, which was configured differently from its Australian equivalent.

Customs was able to benefit from Australia's investment in SmartGate's development and design. Customs used the borrowed SmartGate to create a test environment to more fully explore the potential of SmartGate. This experience led Customs to advise the Government to buy SmartGate and meant that Customs:

  • had a head start on introducing SmartGate and integrating it with CusMod; and
  • was able to design and use SmartGate faster and more cheaply.

Customs' close collaboration with business partners within government (for whom Customs carries out some aspect of business), with non-government partners such as the airlines and airports, and Morpho allowed Customs to design and roll out SmartGate effectively and on time. Working in this way, Customs had better relationships with the organisations and commitments from them to prepare business improvement strategies to make the most of SmartGate.

More travellers used SmartGate than had been expected. In the first year of operation, more than 500,000 passengers used SmartGate. By April 2011, more than a million had used SmartGate. By December 2011, 2 million had. The 3 millionth passenger used SmartGate successfully in May 2012. By 2012, SmartGate was fully integrated with CusMod, and more than half of eligible trans-Tasman airline travellers were choosing to use SmartGate at Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch airports and airports in Australia.

Customs believes that the speed of SmartGate's introduction and the resulting more effective and efficient processing of travellers has enhanced its reputation with the public, airlines, airports, and other important stakeholders. SmartGate created confidence that Customs would do what it said it would do. In the 2012 Randstad awards, Customs was rated as top public sector organisation (and ranked third overall).5 Customs was asked to demonstrate SmartGate to the United States Secretary of Homeland Security during her May 2012 visit to New Zealand.

SmartGate's capital cost was $15.9 million. Its operating cost is $7.4 million a year.

Realised benefits

Direct benefits of the SmartGate project have included:

  • more effectiveness and efficiency – SmartGate delivered on the Government's vision for an improved experience for trans-Tasman travellers in line with Australia's automated border processes, a vital step towards the vision of a "domestic-like" travel experience between Australia and New Zealand; and
  • quantitative and qualitative improvements that help to process eligible passengers more effectively and efficiently.

From the perspective of Customs, the Government, and, ultimately, taxpayers:

  • primary processing (of passengers at airports) is more accurate;
  • the cost of primary processing of arriving passengers has fallen, freeing up resources for assessing more complex risks;
  • more arriving passengers are using SmartGate – at May 2012, more than 60% of eligible passengers were using SmartGate;
  • more passengers have been processed with no need for extra staffing or space; and
  • automating passenger processing to make it faster, more accurate, and more cost-efficient has allowed Customs to focus staff on managing risks at airports and other high-risk border protection areas.

Indirect benefits of SmartGate for passengers included:

  • more effectiveness – in 2010, more than 84% of users reported that they would probably use SmartGate again; in March 2012, 55% of eligible passengers who used SmartGate were repeat users; and
  • more efficiency – processing is faster (an average of 16 minutes from aircraft arrival at air-bridge to clearing Customs for SmartGate, compared with 20 minutes for non-SmartGate passengers in March 2012), so queues and waiting times are shorter.

Intangible benefits included Customs' enhanced reputation among the public, airlines, airports, and other stakeholders.

Unexpected and/or unplanned benefits included new opportunities to rethink transformative benefits, such as providing arrival and departure information and allowing a wider group of passengers to use SmartGate when leaving the country.

The dynamic nature of benefits realisation

SmartGate's success was a catalyst for Customs to think further about how to exploit its capability, uptake, and performance to do things differently. The SmartGate project programme manager said: "We picked a strategy and now we are aiming to derive the fullest value from it."

From the start, Customs focused on monitoring SmartGate's performance and making changes to bring about more benefits, such as allowing 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to use SmartGate. A Benefits Realisation plan stretches to 2015, well beyond the formal life of the project.

Customs sees the SmartGate technology as a platform to build its next phase of business changes on and continues to invest to get the best performance possible out of it.

Since Customs decided to learn from how Australia processed electronic passports and passenger validation, it has progressively realised benefits from SmartGate. During the next three years, Customs plans to identify ways to be more productive and make travellers' experiences of arriving in and leaving the country better.

Practices that helped to realise benefits

Customs' strategic planning indicated that passenger volumes would increase. To process more passengers in the traditional way would require more space at airports, with added costs for Customs, airports, and airlines. Customs sees SmartGate as a technological solution that helped to:

  • achieve a business goal of enhanced customer experience;
  • better manage risks, and
  • manage the costs of processing more passengers.

Before rolling out SmartGate, Customs knew much about SmartGate's capabilities and the problems it would have to solve. In particular, five practices helped Customs to understand and solve problems. These were:

  • organisation-wide planning, good project management methodology, and good people;
  • drawing on and using the experience of other countries – in particular, the ACBPS;
  • testing an ACBPS device that allowed Customs to work out if and how best to use SmartGate;
  • working closely with other government agencies (such as Immigration, the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, the Courts, and the Ministry of Social Development) for which Customs carries out border transactions; and
  • working closely with private companies (such as Morpho, airport operators, and airlines), which each shared some of Customs' problems and contributed resources and knowledge to solutions. Customs was able to:
    • learn from Air New Zealand's experience in moving to automated check-in devices because they shared the common goal of passengers having better experiences and being processed faster;
    • work with the airports to position the SmartGate kiosks to maximise the likelihood of eligible passengers using them and minimise the extra space required to process more passengers; and
    • work concurrently with the Department of Internal Affairs on the e-passport and with Immigration on plans to use biometrics.

Focused on goals and solutions, Customs considered that it had to roll out SmartGate successfully to uphold its reputation.

The New Zealand and Australian Prime Ministers' commitment to SmartGate helped to motivate other agencies to work with Customs to achieve a solution that worked for them within the time that Government set. This minimised development time and project costs.

Political priority meant organisational priority. Customs' chief executive gave the project his full support and the whole organisation prioritised the project as a matter of:

  • organisational trust; and
  • reputational trust – the Customs brand.

Lessons for other projects

Throughout the project, Customs sought opportunities that could help achieve organisational goals. The benefits of SmartGate stem from its strategic fit and Customs' being determined to maximise the benefits from its deployment.

A test setup using a device borrowed from Australia allowed Customs to work out if and how best to deploy SmartGate.

Political and organisational support and commitment to the SmartGate project boosted energy and commitment in staff responsible for designing and delivering on the benefits and their confidence that they would be supported, which in turn helped them to achieve results (mutual reinforcement).

Good relationships with vendors and others needed to help realise benefits were a powerful contributor to success. The indirect and intangible benefits of these collaborations extend beyond the life of the project. After the design and rollout of SmartGate, Customs had better relationships and commitments to keep working on business improvement strategies to make the most of SmartGate.

Customs' regard for its reputation and keeping the trust of others led to an organisation-wide commitment to getting the job done.

Customs was pragmatic enough to avoid obstacles, learn as it went, and take advantage of what it learned. Introducing SmartGate in steps helped learning and kept project management costs down.

Customs prepared well, picked a strategy, then planned and managed risks to make the strategy work. Customs continues to try to make SmartGate do as much as possible for its business transformation, and uses it as a platform for further business change.

Good practices

The good practices from this project that we refer to in the discussion in Part 9 are:

  • understanding the environment and making the most of the circumstances, including identifying increasing or future demand for services as an impetus for change;
  • being business-led, flexible and agile:
    • looking at what is happening nationally and/or internationally before starting the work, to reduce risks of duplication;
    • being business-led rather than technology-led; and
    • using learning iteratively; and
  • having strong support from leaders and senior managers.

5: The Randstad Award is presented each year to the most attractive employer in various countries around the world. A representative sample of 7000 employees and job-seekers in each of the participating countries are surveyed. The winners are chosen based on the appeal of their employer brand.

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