Another week, another Home Office scandal involving the UK Border Agency. Yes, we’ve been here before – most notably in 2006 when Labour’s John Reid was Home Secretary and famously declared the Home Office ‘not fit for purpose’. But the Home Office, and especially its Border Agency, has been the target of ongoing criticism for its apparent inefficiency and incompetence for the past 15 years or so.
This dissatisfaction has triggered a succession of reforms. The Home Office division that used to be responsible for immigration and asylum – the IND – became a separate agency in 2007, the Border and Immigration Agency; then in 2008 morphed into a new agency, the UKBA, widening its responsibility to visas and customs aspects of border-control; only to lose its agency status and be re-integrated into the Home Office under plans set out by Theresa May in March 2013. At the same time, it has seen countless changes to its structure, management, as well as the attempt to galvanise better performance through strategic plans, targets, performance indicators and staff reward systems.
Yet despite these frenetic reform attempts, the agency has continued to be plagued by poor performance and repeated scandals – suggesting that there might be some serious underlying problems that are not being addressed. While it’s quite possible that the agency is the victim of poor management or inadequate operational structures, I’d suggest there are other more deep-routed structural tensions that might help explain its continued poor performance.
Immigration and asylum is one of the most politicised areas of policy, and has been so since the early 2000s. (It’s easy to forget that before the current wave of anti-labour migration sentiment, we had a relentless flow of hostile media coverage of the asylum crisis, bogus asylum seekers, illegal immigration, Sangatte and ‘soft-touch’ Britain.)
This constant barrage of anti-immigration coverage has two main effects. First, it peddles highly populist and often misleading narratives about the nature and consequences of immigration and asylum, and the types of measures that can and should be adopted to address these. Second, it creates strong incentives for political parties to promise robust measures to deal with the problem. Successive governments have pandered to such demands, and sought to establish their credentials through promising draconian measures – whether on asylum, border control, illegal work or, more recently, EEA labour migration and ‘welfare tourism’.
The combination of populist narratives and government pledges or targets in turn creates quite unrealistic expectations about immigration control. But those working in the Home Office and the UKBA are far more sober about what can feasibly be done to meet these expectations. In a 2011 article for Policy Network, I described some examples of this gap between populist expectations and what those working at the ‘coalface’ of immigration and asylum policy know is realistic in practice. Having to live with this tension between external pressures and internal organizational reality must take its toll on personnel. Interviews I conducted with Home Office officials in the late 2000s suggested that one way of handling this was for officials involved with the operational side of immigration and asylum to adopt a very narrow view of their role and objectives. At the same time, there have been problems attracting skilled personnel, and career prospects for senior management or fast-streamers have not been the most enticing (or at least weren’t when I last looked into this – though it’s possible things have now changed). All of which seems like a recipe for poor communication and fragmentation, a lack of coherent and compelling vision, and low morale within the organisation.
This may not fully explain the recurrent scandals that beset the organisation. But the quite pronounced gap between public demands and political promises on the one hand, and what the organisation can realistically achieve on the other, is bound to take its toll. And no amount of organisational restructuring or new management mantras are going to rectify that.