Dutch Customs started a process to raise innovation awareness at all levels of the organisation. Ultimately, every customs official will become something of a trend-watcher too.

Dutch Customs wants to be an innovative service, and has already built up a certain reputation as such over the past decades. For that reason we pay close attention to social and technological developments that may have an influence on customs work. The goal here is to raise the level of alertness down to the smallest capillaries of the organisation: ultimately every staff member has to become something of a trend-watcher too. How is Dutch Customs going to do that?

Dutch Customs does not operate in a commercial, competitive market. That being the case, the service has nonetheless shown a clear drive to take a place at the front of the line, for example by continually pioneering new cutting edge technologies, working methods and joint ventures. After all, the organisation takes its core tasks seriously – levying and collecting taxes, protecting society, and facilitating business and industry. And now Customs has put in place a clear vision regarding innovation: it is not something that you do alongside your primary processes; it is not the exclusive activity of a special team; and it is not something that can be enforced top down. No, if innovation is going to be successful then it has to be woven into the daily work of every individual staff member and arise from everyone’s personal drive. Only then is the organisation as a whole capable of transforming itself when big changes are going on all around it.

Based on this way of thinking the administration initiated a process of several months which came to fruition in mid-September during the biennial national Customs Innovation Day. All nine regional offices were asked to write a future scenario – a sketch of what life will be like in 2030. This included what the devisers saw as the most important and incisive changes in the areas of (geo)politics, economics, technology and logistics, plus an analysis of the impact of such major alterations within the organisation. The different teams all got the chance of pitching their view of how the world will look in the coming years to a critical audience on Innovation Day: a jury consisting of customs directors and notable people from the business world evaluated the presentations. Each and every one of these presentations provided stimulating long-range perspectives, with some elements that looked familiar and others that were distinctly futuristic. The prediction value of these stories will only be borne out in the coming years. The fact remains that even if only a small portion of the expectations put forward become reality, Customs is going to be facing significant challenges.

What’s going to happen – if we highlight just one example here – if the circular economy in time becomes commonplace on a global scale? In that case we will be dealing with a durable system in which products and materials are reused to a very high degree, waste no longer exists, and loss of economic value is minimalized. Does that mean that the import and export of manufactured products will be subject to a drastic decrease? Does that mean that our seaports will be used for the bulk processing of renewable resources? And where precisely in the logistical process will Customs then be levying taxes? These are all questions that will have to be carefully considered in good time at all levels of the service.
Here’s another brain teaser from a different scenario: what are we going to do if the transport of goods across vast distances is radically sped up under the influence of technological progress? A question that isn’t all that far-fetched, seeing for example the ambitious aspirations of Tesla top-man Elon Musk regarding hyperloops. Imagine that such a tunnel transportation system for freight becomes viable and there is a fast-track link between the Netherlands and the Far East – something in line with the Chinese Silk Road strategy. How is Customs then going to control declarations if this has to happen practically on a real time basis? Will time pressure be a reason to start levying taxes at source – in the land of origin, that is – according to the old principle, ‘your export is our import’?

“Overall we explored numerous complex problems at our Innovation Day that may well become actuality given time”, says Maarten Veltman, chair of the Coordination Group Customs Innovation. “It’s clear that problems are arising on the horizon that are going to demand our creativity and flexibility, but I also see possibilities that are going to help us in finding solutions. Nonetheless, the fact that we now have a clear picture of a number of the potential threats and opportunities is not the real pay-off that we as an organisation were aiming at. The most important thing is that a broad bottom-up movement has been initiated that will promote innovation awareness in all parts of the organisation. The awareness of everything that is going on in the outside world will hopefully anchor itself in our genes. I’m already hearing from many colleagues that they read the newspaper and watch television differently than they used to. When confronted with all sorts of different subjects they ask themselves: what is this going to mean for customs work, and for my own work in particular? This is the way that we have to look at new phenomena, whether we’re talking about drones, electric cars or 3D-printing. We as Customs have to ensure that we always have sufficient creative thinking and decisiveness on hand in order to deal with changes in a proactive and well thought-through manner. The point of departure here is not that we innovate because we can, but because it will make us better at what we do. And because in the long term citizens and businesses will be able to enjoy the fruit of these innovations.”

Jury chair Albert Veenstra was particularly happy with the variety of ideas that he was presented with during the Innovation Day. “It wouldn’t have surprised me if the scenarios had been more similar, since ultimately it’s really about the core business of Customs”, the professor of Trade Facilitation and Logistics* says. “But they were actually very diverse. It was nice to see how the teams had included real far-reaching phenomena such as artificial intelligence and blockchain in their explorations. Actual applications of these in our field is perhaps not really something for the near future, but it’s good that such things are put on the agenda now.”
“I can only applaud the fact that an operational governmental service like Customs is thinking through these kinds of developments structurally and all across the board. It feeds into the strategic planning of management and may offer occasion for reconsidering existing policy or taking a different approach to things. If other governments, logistical companies, suppliers of innovative technologies and knowledge institutions now also become involved, it will be to everyone’s advantage.”

* Dr. Veenstra is affiliated with Eindhoven University of Technology and Dinalog, the Dutch Institute for Advanced Logistics.

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