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Smart project management leads to SmartGate success

FEATURES: Line of Defence, April 2016

From all accounts, the success of Customs' SmartGate project was determined well before the system processed its first traveller’s e-passport. Strong collaboration with the manufacturer and the existing user was key.


In March 2009, Cabinet endorsed Customs' plan to build SmartGate, an automated biometric passenger clearance system. In December of that year, the first SmartGate went into service in Auckland and was progressively installed in the arrival and departure halls of Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch airports. By May 2012, Customs was using 22 gates and 54 kiosks continuously. The rest, as they say, is history.

In January, Customs Minister Nicky Wagner announced that SmartGate had reached a new record during its busiest holiday period with 100,941 passengers using it in the second week of January alone. “This is the highest number of passengers to use SmartGate in one week, since it was introduced in 2009,” boasted the minister.

33 percent of all passengers use the gates, says Geoff Wilson, Operations Manager at New Zealand Customs, who joined the project in 2009 to do the install. And this percentage is set to keep growing. SmartGate has provided greater accuracy in the primary processing of passengers at airports, and the subsequent “per head” costs of processing arriving passengers has fallen, freeing up resources for assessing more-complex risks.

In addition to operational success, New Zealand’s implementation of SmartGate has won a number of accolades. Apart from winning the 2011 Project Management Institute of New Zealand Public Sector Project of the Year, there was also a 2011 IPANZ commendation, and a 2012 report published by the Controller and Auditor General praising the effectiveness and efficiency of SmartGate’s implementation.

From all accounts, the success of the SmartGate project was determined well before the system processed its first traveller’s e-passport and facial photograph. Strong collaboration with the manufacturer, Morpho (part of the Safran group), and the existing user – the then Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (ACBPS) –was key.


How does SmartGate work?

SmartGate kiosks at arrivals use the information stored in ePassport-embedded microchips and facial recognition technology behind the facial photograph taken at the primary line to do customs and immigration checks and to provide accurate and fast automated clearance. This allows Customs staff to focus on high-risk travellers while letting greater numbers of low-risk passengers clear the border quickly and easily.

It has been described as a vital step towards the vision of a "domestic-like" travel experience between Australia and New Zealand. “The machines in my opinion are more accurate than humans,” states Mr Wilson, “with some big security advantages, and speed as well. [With SmartGate] You’re not actually trading security for facilitation, you’ve achieving both… it’s complementary.”


Customs Minister Nicky Wagner test drives the new system.Customs Minister Nicky Wagner test drives the new system.


The perfect storm

According to Mr Wilson, the SmartGate project was initiated as the result of a “perfect storm”. Several factors helped Customs to design and roll out the first SmartGate with lightning speed.

Critically, the project gained top political and organisational priority. Because the Prime Minister and Cabinet had prioritised SmartGate, it was also a priority for Customs. The 2011 Rugby World Cup – and its thousands of incoming tourists – was fast approaching, and Prime Minister Key was looking for traction in the trans-Tasman travel space.

The political impetus and timing factors meant that SmartGate's capital cost of $15.9 million and operating cost of $7.4 million a year didn’t pose the barrier it might have under different circumstances.

According to the 2012 Controller and Auditor General report Realising Benefits from Six Public Sector Technology Projects, “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.”


Relationship with Australian Customs

A second factor allowing Customs to design and roll out SmartGate effectively and on schedule was Customs' close relationship with the ACBPS and interest in the latter's SmartGate. To fully explore its potential, Customs borrowed SmartGate from its Australian counterparts to test the technology. “This enabled Customs to adapt SmartGate quickly, including enabling its compatibility with Customs’ main processing system, Cusmod.”

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 the solution. This had given Customs a head start on introducing SmartGate and integrating it with CusMod. It also meant Customs was able to design and use SmartGate faster and more cheaply.”


Relationships with airports, airlines and agencies

“Our relationships with airport companies and airlines were strong,” recounted Mr Wilson, “we leveraged off them because we were creating a whole new environment.” One of the other drivers for airports was that the solution reduces or defers the requirement to invest in infrastructure. More passengers have been processed with no need for extra staffing or space.

Sharing the common goal of processing passengers faster and providing them with better experiences, Customs also learnt from Air New Zealand's experience in moving to automated check-in devices. They also worked with the airports to position the SmartGate kiosks to maximise the likelihood of eligible passengers using them and minimise the space required to process more passengers.

The agency also worked with other agencies at the forefront of the biometrics push, including the Department of Internal Affairs in relation to the NZ e-passport, and Immigration New Zealand (INZ) in relation to the use of biometrics in visa processing.


SmartGates getting a work out on the departures primary line.SmartGates getting a work out on the departures primary line.


Relationship with the manufacturer

Customs established a collaborative relationship with manufacturer Morpho in line with what Mr Wilson describes as Morpho’s long term relationship philosophy. Rather than short term gains, he observes in relation to Morpho that “what they look for is to leverage off the expertise of the agencies and companies they are working with.”

“With the next generation gates, we trialed a prototype in Auckland, and as a result Morpho have refined their product,” said Mr Wilson. “As we’ve rolled over maintenance agreements we’ve leveraged off these rather than go back to the market and start all over again. It’s kind of a win-win.”

According to the Auditor General report, “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.”

In a statement provided for this article, Morpho was similarly upbeat in relation to its relationship with Customs. “The successful implementation for the new SmartGates in Auckland comes down to the trusted partnership approach we have with New Zealand Customs Service”, Morpho stated.

“New Zealand Customs plans to replace the SmartGates at all international airports over the next 18 to 24 months and introduce SmartGate in Queenstown in time for the busy winter season this year. Both of our organisations enjoy a closely working relationship that has seen the local Morpho team focus on ensuring that our execution and quality is excellent whilst working closely with New Zealand Customs to ensure operational readiness for the system.

“This trusted partnership is also reflected in the innovative systems and technologies soon to be used by NZ Customs, such as a mobile Exception Management System. At a wider level the partnership sees New Zealand Customs getting access to Morpho’s world class research and development to ensure that they are always at the forefront of technology and how they can apply it within their organisation.”


A passport is inserted to be scanned by SmartGate.A passport is inserted to be scanned by SmartGate.


The verdict

“All of those relationships, the timing and the political support to allow us to drive it all through,” said Mr Wilson, were vital to the project’s success. It was a point echoed resoundingly in the Auditor General report. “Customs' close collaboration with business partners within government (for whom Customs carries out some aspects of business), with non-government partners such as the airlines and airports, and Morpho,” it stated, “allowed Customs to design and roll out SmartGate effectively and on time. “

Ultimately, the good practices identified from the project by the publication included:

  1. understanding the environment and making the most of the circumstances, including identifying increasing or future demand for services as an impetus for change;
  2. being business-led, flexible and agile:
  3. looking at what is happening nationally and/or internationally before starting the work, to reduce risks of duplication;
  4. being business-led rather than technology-led. A Benefits Realisation plan stretches to 2015, well beyond the formal life of the project; and
  5. using learning iteratively; and
  6. having strong support from leaders and senior managers.

 Customs is now embarking on a $6.6 million project to replace existing SmartGates with next generation SmartGates. These new gates scan a passenger’s passport and take the passenger’s facial photograph in one step rather than the previous two-step process. The entire process from scanning the passport, entering the gate for a biometric match and exiting the gate will take around 20-30 seconds.

In its inaugural Public Sector Reputation Index, Colmar Brunton announced in March that the NZ Customs Service was ranked second only to the New Zealand Fire Service in terms of public sector reputation. The index benchmarked 31 national public sector organisations against four pillars of: leadership and success; social responsibility; trust; and fairness. Each entity’s reputation was indexed against the others, and Customs shone. SmartGate and its success can take a good deal of the credit for this.

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