ODB Taskforce: from complaints to compliments

Criticism concerning its level of service urged Customs NL to take immediate action. By now, most problems have been put right.

Last summer Customs NL became aware of critical comments, particularly in respect of poor telephone accessibility and backlogs in the processing of customs declarations. A taskforce was rapidly created under the wings of the Customs-Business Consultation forum (ODB) and under the chairmanship of Jos Reekers, COO of Customs NL. It is his opinion that most of the problems have in the meantime been put right, however: “Things can always improve.”

“Businesses were not happy about our services”, says Reekers. “Particularly in relation to the processing time of physical checks and about our telephone reachability. Other criticism concerned regional differences in the interpretation of arrangements made earlier. Our service had difficulty coping with that. At the same time that message made it a matter of urgency. The Taskforce was formed almost immediately, which consists of myself and three customs officials and two representatives of FENEX and EVO. This illustrates our excellent cooperation with trade and industry. The mutual openness provided the opportunity to quickly tackle the problems that were noted.”

Extra commitment 

The poor telephone reachability – especially at Customs NL’s import and export declarations processing departments and Work Processing Points – were tackled first. Part of the problems for that matter had to do with the system transfer from DSI to AGS in May last year. This caused a rise of the number of calls and an increasing pressure on the staff. Reekers: “In order to increase accessibility we provided extra staff. Where callers formerly did not get any connection when the lines were busy, now we are working with a new telephone exchange. The exchange places callers in a que and lets a caller know how many are waiting and it provides the length of waiting time. A dedicated team furthermore permanently monitors a central post box about our reachability and other matters.” It is one thing to be reachable but it is also about how you pick up the telephone and approach clients. “We will pay more attention to conversational techniques”, says Reekers. “When a company calls, there may already be certain irritation and that is exactly the moment to remove the sting.”

Arrangements for response time

The response times for physical supervision was another irritation of the logistics branch. On the basis of arrangements made earlier, companies can depend on a response with 120 minutes (local clearance procedure export and customs transport) to 150 minutes (import). Or, where applicable, the response time stated in the license once Customs accepted the declaration or where the automated system indicated that Customs wishes to conduct a physical check of the goods. These deadlines were not made on a regular basis. At times there were problems which concerned so-called diversions. Reekers: “It did occur that a customs check was diverted and that the goods were not checked until seven days later. That is not possible. It is for this reason that we have agreed to a deadline of no more than 72 hours where diversions are concerned. Response times have now been set up for any situation that may occur. We furthermore made arrangements with the business sector that Customs will communicate pro-actively in the unlikely event that a commitment was not fulfilled.”

Customs have reconfirmed all the arrangements with the business sector as laid down in an interactive PDF to ensure that every Customs region has the same interpretation. This document is used both internally and externally.

On the right track 

In addition, a pilot is being conducted in the Customs regions Roosendaal and Eindhoven which again tightens up the processing time. The physical supervision department usually provides feedback of a check to the declarations processing department, which releases the goods. The pilot project takes out this step after which the supervision staff is able to release a consignment. Reekers: “This helps the efficiency and it forms part of our aim to continuously improve. The same applies to supplementary courses we started for the benefit of our staff members. Moreover,17 experts joined our declarations processing department.”

“Thanks to our efforts in the last quarter we are well on track”, continues Reekers. “This is shown in the results of 2015 as 94 percent of declarations was dealt with within a day. The processing time of the physical checks was reduced by 38 percent by comparison to 2014, the processing time of document checks by 35 percent. Pending cases were reduced to 0.4 percent. This means that the principal short-term objectives have been realized and the negative trend was reversed. We are now getting compliments for our solutions from the business sector.”

Mid-term objectives

“It does not mean that we are there yet”, says Reekers. “Things can always be improved. We would like to improve the quality of the declarations. Quite often small errors occur as a result of which there are hold ups. Together with the businesses, our client managers are going to lo look into what is going wrong and what we are able to do about it. It would be an improvement to be able to spread the flow of declarations. The framework of the new Union Customs Code provides a chance to achieve this as a customs declaration can be made in advance.”

The Taskforce furthermore has a number of mid-term objectives including the reduction of the inspection intensity within the AEO programme and the introduction of workflow management. Reekers: “At the moment everything arrives at Customs NL’s declaration system AGS all mixed up together – a veterinary declaration which has not got a high priority, a consignment that requires a physical check, a declaration that can go straight through… Once the checking process is segmented and routed better, it will certainly improve AGS. Eventually we would like a Customs official with the appropriate skills to knock at the company’s door for a physical check at exactly the right moment.”  

Remarks by the business community Dennis Heijnen, policy advisor at EVO: “The widely flouted response times were one of the main bottlenecks for us. It is very positive that Customs has dealt with this head on. Thanks to the interactive PDF, there is clarity concerning previously made agreements. We do however see a number of areas for improvement; for example, on occasion the communication and coordination between departments leaves something to be desired. As regards the quality of declarations: good courses are available on the market, such as training for declarants. After the introduction of AGS2, we also shared a top 10 list of the most common mistakes with our members. Companies of course remain responsible for their declarations. That quality requires constant attention from both parties.”

Dominique Willems, policy advisor at FENEX: “FENEX had previously mentioned that there were issues with various aspects, including accessibility by telephone and differences between the regions in the interpretation of agreements. So it was really necessary to sound the alarm last July. But once the taskforce had started, improvements were soon made. We receive far fewer complaints about Customs’ telephone accessibility and not meeting response times. But more work has to be done. For example, the coordination between various Customs departments leaves room for improvement.”

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