“We should, we can and we want to do even better”
The Netherlands consistently comes out on top in international rankings such as the Logistics Performance Index of the World Bank and the Global Competitiveness Index of the World Economic Forum. But we must continue striving to improve, because other countries are not content to sit idly by. As one of the nine leading sectors to be identified by the Dutch government, logistics receives extra attention. By 2020, our country needs to be a forerunner in handling goods flows. Additionally, we should serve as a chain director for international transport and distribution. Aly van Berckel, general director of Dutch Customs, explains how her service is advancing this ambition.
Van Berckel believes that the innovative strength of Dutch Customs is incontestable. “To give you an example, we're investing heavily in big data and predictive analytics. And we're concentrating on high-level knowledge development. We're the initiator of the European Competency Framework for Customs Professionals, and we're working closely with the Erasmus University/Rotterdam School of Management on a master's programme. Also, Fontys University of Applied Sciences is currently developing a bachelor's programme. No one else in the world provides such thorough training in customs and border management.”
Nevertheless, it's very important to distinguish between your performance and the perception of it in the outside world, emphasises Van Berckel. “If you don't know how to sell your successes, you'll never reach the top of international indexes. That's why we decided a few years ago to reach out more, through promoting Pushing Boundaries, our enforcement vision. And last year, we hosted the Technology & Innovation Forum of the World Customs Organisation. We want to show the world how we think and work.”
Dutch Customs is no stranger to taking the lead, but it does require additional effort to maintain this position. Van Berckel says: “At the end of the nineties, we were basically the first service to use scanning equipment. Although that technology is still innovative, sister organisations across the globe have since adopted similar aids. Furthermore, we were the first to employ risk analysis in our work. However, at a certain point, foreign services adopted our system. In short: you have to continually innovate in order to stand out from other countries.”
How does Dutch Customs do that? “Our basic principle is no different from that of other customs services”, explains Van Berckel. “Our objectives are to facilitate payment, to protect society and to promote EU competitiveness. We're sometimes viewed with a bit of jealousy when it comes to our ability to collaborate — one of our core values, in addition to trust, risk-oriented working and services provision. As customs, we comprise part of what's termed the Golden Triangle: researchers, entrepreneurs and governments. Within this triangle, we collaborate in the areas of education, research and implementation. Years ago, we partnered with the science sector to assess the effects of our operations. A TNO study showed us exactly how much scanning and unpacking a container cost the companies concerned. This insight led us to integrate scans into the logistics chain. Currently, we base our entire investment principle on monitoring the goods flow from within, with as few disruptions as possible. And collaborating with trade and industry is vital to our controls. The Customs Business Consultation-forum — CBC, unique in the world — is ideally suited to knowledge sharing and to seeking out common interests.”
Being attuned to the needs of the Dutch business sector may sound good. However, as a politically controlled governmental organisation, you have to strike a balance between facilitating trade, efficient monitoring and your own operational scope. Van Berckel points out: “When you ask members of the business community about their needs, people want it all: a perfectly operating, hyper-innovative customs with highly-skilled staff, top functioning IT and an optimal balance between control and facilitation... But we can only spend our budget once, so that means making difficult choices. That is why we want to identify the most effective measures. Thus was born the idea of a study on how we, as customs, contribute to the economy and how that impacts our international competitiveness. Research firm Ecorys is conducting this study and will announce its conclusions at the end of October. The most important question that must be answered is what are the best areas to invest in. In other words: where can the greatest profit margins be achieved? Is that in the field of system-based monitoring for companies, our advanced scanning technology or sharing our knowledge of the logistics chain?”
Reduce reliance on IT?
A comment from an umbrella organisation during a CBC session formed the impetus for the study. Van Berckel notes: “People say ‘If municipal officials do not function optimally, this annoys the citizenry; if customs drops the ball, this leads to economic losses. This should be made clear to politicians’. In other words, delays cost money, and they may even ensure that companies exchange Rotterdam for another port. Within the CBC, at the beginning of last year, for example, we received a lot of commentary on the high failure rate of our IT systems. An availability of between 88-89% is definitely insufficient. But where's the tipping point? When is there an acceptable level of availability? And when do businesses incur actual losses? Do you have to aim for 100% — if that's even possible, or can you live with 93%? Or would it be better to reduce our reliance on automated systems in the daily logistics? If there is a disruption just one time, would the possible economic damage be lower?”
Customs as a chain director
The CBC is an important link in the path to the top of the international logistics rankings. “Initially, it was just a periodic meeting between customs and the business community”, according to Van Berckel. “It has since grown into the steering committee for the leading sector policy for compliance and border management. Also because we've given our enforcement partners a permanent seat at the discussions. It's with good reason that Ploumen, our minister of Foreign trade and Development cooperation, registered the CBC with the World Trade Organisation as the National Trade Facilitation Committee. But we're looking further: we want the cooperation regarding supervision to take shape at an even higher level — both in terms of policy and implementation. That's why we've held talks with policy representatives of various ministries, including Economic Affairs and Infrastructure & Environment. You see: when it comes to promoting logistics, we're really taking charge in the region.”