Customs IT systems: aiming for the highest possible

The Customs improvement agenda must contribute to an even higher availability of customs systems. Director of Information Management, Gerard Teuwissen, tells his story.

Smooth logistics also relies on undisturbed declaration processing, and thus on reliable technology. Dutch Customs therefore makes every effort to keep its IT up and running. Together with the business community, the service is currently implementing an improvement plan which should contribute to an even higher availability of the systems. Director of Information Management, Gerard Teuwissen, sheds light on the plan and TLN & FENEX manager, Marty van Pelt, responds.

The vulnerability of the automation has been a focus of Customs for many years, Teuwissen explains. “In 2012, we therefore started the programme High Availability of Customs Systems. When it took off, availability was fluctuating around 80 percent. At the time, we were aiming for a percentage of 96 to 97, to be realized over a period of a few years. We are now at 98 percent. The last two percent – the icing on the cake – may well require the greatest effort. And fair is fair: full availability of all systems is a utopia – if only because you have the necessary maintenance. Nonetheless, that 2 percent feel like a stone in your shoe that you want to get rid of. You also have to keep striving for the highest achievable, otherwise you will never get close to that 100 percent. Although our special programme has been closed, our ambitions have not lost strength. All our efforts – infrastructural, the improvement of processes, applications and the monitoring of improved declaration behaviour of the customer – are to contribute to this high availability. Better availability, for the business community and for our own colleagues, is indeed a more appropriate term. That indicates that we are not there yet.”

Serious problem
The fact that Customs is not there yet, is also apparent from the critical sounds from the environment. For example, a recent declarant survey by evofenedex shows a growing dissatisfaction with disruptions in the logistics process. Although the interest group considers Dutch Customs to be one of the most efficient customs services in the world, according to the organization there is plenty of room for improvement. “We realize, of course, the severity of the problem,” says Teuwissen. “An average availability of 98 percent may seem a nice result, but if there is, in that other 2 percent, a 24-hour malfunction, that causes a huge problem. And, for the customer, it does not matter why a system is down – and rightly so. Because of that, he won’t be able to keep his appointments, or he sees his perishable goods go bad. To increase the awareness of these direct consequences within our service, we regularly take our IT colleagues from Apeldoorn to the ports of Rotterdam and Amsterdam.”

“At the same time, we would like to place the criticism in perspective,” Teuwissen continues. “It is understandable that, in the commotion during a disturbance, emotions mount. But we try to weigh that experience against the facts. In 2016, the transition of the Government Transaction Portal to Digipoort, for example, caused a malfunction in the data traffic that had nothing to do with our applications. The reason for a malfunction in our AGS declaration system lies, in most cases, with the surroundings or the infrastructure. Yet, the image quickly becomes: with AGS there is always drama.”

Overcoming insecurity
“Having said that: sometimes the error is indeed on our side,” according to Teuwissen. “A few times in the weekend during the past year, we installed a new release which had passed all the tests. It then, nonetheless, all went wrong on Monday, because of the large volume. It could also happen that, although we have tackled the cause of a malfunction, the problem still exists in another process. We cannot, unfortunately, foresee everything – it is still simply technology.” 

How can this insecurity be overcome? Teuwissen: “Since last year, we have, within Customs, been working with a so-called Compartment Plan – call it the master document of our Customs IT organization. A part of the eight developmental lines of this plan is aimed at rationalization – such as the gradual phasing out of obsolete systems. In addition, there is a developmental line concerned with a new foundation that provides for more web-based applications. Furthermore, we are considering the question of how we can improve the emergency procedure. Does a digital feature actually help? There should also be an even tighter management of the implementation. If there is the slightest chance of conflicts, or if there hasn’t been sufficient testing, a new release does not get a green light. And if it goes wrong, I want to know exactly what is going on in order to prevent a repetition of a disruption. What exactly happened in the chain, what can we improve in the infrastructure, what can we do in terms of data traffic? We already have taken various steps in this direction. As opposed to last year, for example, we can now ensure that AGS Export remains in the air if Import is down.”

Shared interests
Teuwissen continues: “At least as important for the success of our plans is the cooperation with the customer. What does the business community see as the greatest priority? What maintenance time or which release would be better sped up or postponed? For a major alteration, we figure on six months so that companies can make the necessary preparations. For the keystone of AGS Export, for example, we have teamed up with the umbrella organizations – which have really stuck their necks out for us and have joined us for the trial period. For example, take the transition from edifact to xml for the data traffic. This is a logical step, because the latter is the worldwide standard – except in the maritime industry. Players in this sector do not really want this, because it means that they have to adjust their message specifications. Then, as Customs, you could say: It’s your job to do it. But this is not how we work. We have asked the Working Group IT of the Customs-Business Consultation forum to ask the members what the precise impact of the proposed adjustments would be. Then we can make policy, and businesses can plan the transition in a strategic manner.”

Another nice example has to do with the Customs Decisions Management System (CDMS), a project that includes the European harmonisation of customs permits. That should have gone live on 2 October 2017. Teuwissen: “After an internal test, however, we came to the conclusion: we cannot go to our customers with this. In an official letter to Brussels, we labelled CDMS as an ‘unfinished application’, that we were not going to implement in this stage of development. The Commission need not comment on this – as a Member State, we must adhere to the European legislation. Nonetheless, they sat down with us. Because the pressure came from several sides: the business community – that we had immediately informed about our position – was also in Brussels to lobby for a different solution. And that will be realized, where possibly, as early as this year. This shows that it is very possible to stand up together for shared interests.”

Justifiable and much-needed
What does the business community think of the plans of Customs? Marty van Pelt, manager at umbrella organisation TLN & FENEX, is happy with the focus on high availability. “The discussion about this is not something new. The very first meeting of the Working Group IT of the Customs-Business Consultation forum was already dominated by the question of what the Customs systems should be able to handle. And, in late 2016, we sent the State Secretary a letter about our concerns with respect to, and including, the forthcoming Brexit, the loss of knowledge due to the departure scheme of the Tax and Customs Administration and the reduction of services. But the main point was, however, the malfunctions in the automation. And that still rankles the business community very much. They also bring it up in surveys on very different subjects, such as AEO.”

That Customs strives for 100 percent availability is, according to Van Pelt, justifiable and much-needed. “A percentage of 98 is simply too low. Moreover, that is an average over all systems, including Transit, Excise Duty and Provisioning. They generally have few problems. For the logistics sector, AGS is vitally important. If that is down, then the port gets completely jammed up: consignments miss their connections on a sea-going ship or a truck on the ferry, suppliers may fail to fulfil their obligations...”

Moreover, the market holds the government as a whole responsible for the problem, stresses Van Pelt. “In the end, they are the ones that have to be a reliable partner. We have good communications and can come to agreements with Customs. I sometimes wonder whether all the other interested parties within the chain sufficiently recognise the importance of well-oiled logistics.”

Step in the right direction
The Customs-Business Consultation forum has, meanwhile, complied with the improvement plan the State Secretary asked for after the aforementioned letter. The first results are promising, says Van Pelt. “Thus, Customs has analyzed the possible consequences to its own IT systems of the expected explosive growth in the number of declarations and notifications. All possible measures are being taken to be able to accommodate this increase in the future, taking into account the previously shown vulnerability of systems during peak times. Moreover, we are now discussing a revision of the emergency procedure and a digital emergency provision. And new releases will be examined even more closely; after all, they cause most disruptions.”

Of course, there is always something to be desired in the field of digitization. Van Pelt: “For example, we would like to eventually be able to move from a declaration system to a communications system. Now, it is still the case that shipments that qualify for further inspection are removed from the regular AGS flow, and mail and telephone traffic must be used again. While some companies are already saying to Customs: just look in our system yourself if you need additional information. But let it be clear: the improvement plan is a step in the right direction for us. And we are happy with the thought that it has developed from solving problems together with the business community.”

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