“We want to manage the growth, not the retrenchment”

Increased efficiency and a higher service level – that’s the aim of the Customs improvement agenda. The Dutch business community and mainports are also involved.

Last October, the business community and the mainports – the port of Rotterdam and Schiphol Airport – together with Dutch Customs presented the Customs improvement agenda to former State Secretary for Finance Eric Wiebes. The challenge now is to turn this agenda into a specific plan.

In recent years, the position of Dutch Customs has come under further pressure for several reasons. The service saw the number of declarations increase in record time, up to 170 million in 2016. At the same time, automated systems stumbled and capacity was greatly reduced by enforced budget cuts. Additionally, as of 1 May 2016, the introduction of the new Union Customs Code increased pressure on the organisation. In the meantime, the voluntary redundancy scheme was initiated at the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration, which in retrospect, according to their own statements, had been realised ‘too hastily’ and ‘too carelessly’. On top of that, a customs officer was arrested for helping drug trafficking operations enter the port of Rotterdam. All this resulted in an image loss, while the broader social and economic importance of Customs, in fact, received insufficient attention.

Essential for competitive position
Bert Wiersema (seen in the middle of the photo), acting managing director at Dutch Customs, mainly experienced these developments as ‘hitting the brakes while in the lead’. He explains: “Sometimes we forget that, from a global perspective, the Netherlands really is a leading country in the customs field. Customs supervision in the Netherlands is designed in an innovative manner, which limits the barriers in logistics to a minimum. We partly succeed in this by regularly consulting with the business community and the mainports. We gain a lot from this and it also ensures that our country is highly valued as a business location to foreign companies. Knowing that, you do not want to see this leading position not being able to expand or, worse, to be compromised.”
TLN* president Arthur van Dijk (on the right) and evofenedex** director Bart Jan Koopman (on the left) endorse Wiersema’s words: “The leading status of Customs is essential for the Dutch competitive position, something which our mainports and the business community have a major interest in.”

Excelling within logistics
According to Wiersema, the unique Dutch Customs-Business Consultation forum is more than just a consultative body. “I view this more as a partnership that enables us to address customs issues in a transparent manner and throughout the chain. This allows us to take actual steps together. Consider, for example, the new declaration system or the establishment of the pre-tax declaration.”
Van Dijk responds: “The cooperation shows that trade compliance and trade facilitation go hand in hand. While Customs is and continues to be an enforcement organisation, and, as such, an obstacle to trade, by continually discussing the way in which the formalities and inspections are carried out by Customs, we are still able to excel in logistics.”

Urgent letter
At the end of 2016, the increasing pressure on Customs led organisations and mainports affiliated to the Customs-Business Consultation forum to send an urgent letter to the then-serving state secretary of Finance Eric Wiebes. In this letter, they expressed their concerns about the developments at the administration, with a direct impact on the functioning of Customs. Wiersema: “That letter has definitely helped us. It also fitted seamlessly with our business case, in which we want to continue investing in innovation without letting our people go. In view of the expected increase in the number of declarations, we greatly need them in the future. We want to manage the growth, not the retrenchment.”

The State Secretary expressed his appreciation for the support that the business community and the mainports are giving to Customs. He also accepted the offer made by the Customs-Business Consultation forum to collectively develop an improvement agenda, with the aim of making Customs sustainable for the future. This improvement agenda has since been presented to the State Secretary and consists of four strategic themes, each time linked to a collective ambition of Customs, the business community and the mainports.

ICT and trade facilitation
The first theme is ICT. Wiersema explains: “ICT must ensure a smooth exchange of information. This will only become more and more important in the coming years. And it is consistent with the challenge to not just collect all relevant information, but to also interpret it to the maximum extent by cleverly combining the collected data.” Koopman adds: “It is essential to make the emergency procedure more operational – in our opinion, an absolute priority for the short term.”
The second theme involves trade facilitation and the burden of supervision. Wierseman: “The business community expects more and more from Customs in terms of speed, predictability and assurances. As stated, ICT can contribute to this. Since, the better the data exchange, the more focused the interventions can be. We do not want to have to inspect everything, however, to work on the basis of justified trust, on the basis of risk profiles. And should inspection still be required, Customs uses advanced means of control, such as scanning equipment. By doing so, we can make a difference together.”

Service and one single government
The third theme is service. The ambition is to let the logistics process run to ‘the maximum extent possible, in a predictable, reliable and transparent manner’. Koopman explains: “Currently, 30 percent of all goods entering or leaving the European Union go through the Netherlands. While our country only has 3.8 per cent of all European Customs officers at its disposal. In addition, there will be a steep increase in the number of declarations in the years to come. In scope thereof, the number of e-commerce consignments will continue to grow, and the forthcoming Brexit will already result in an increase of 30 percent and thousands of new Customs’ clients. In short, if we want to continue to be that gateway to Europe it is crucial to prepare ourselves for all these developments, to speed up the work processes and to guarantee the excellent service provided by Customs. Relating among others to the accessibility, communication and compliance with the time limits.”
At the same time, it is important to simplify the work processes where possible, thus Van Dijk. “The improvement agenda not only pertains to the Customs organisation. A mind shift must also be generated among the business community and they must strive for more transparency and compliance. We must banish the idea that logistics needs the complexity in the work processes.”

The fourth and final theme is acting as one government. Wiersema: “The business community and the mainports must experience one single government in cross-border freight transport. So that we can monitor in a better, smarter and more efficient way.”

Step forward
With the improvement agenda in place, the challenge now is to turn it into an improvement plan – accompanied by specific actions. As far as Wiersema is concerned, the key words are ‘proactive’ and ‘collectivity’. “Whether it involves the level of knowledge or the processes, it is a joint responsibility of Customs, the business community and the mainports to determine the direction and what is needed for this. Excellent service must be its point of departure.” Van Dijk adds: “We must indeed jointly think of tomorrow, both on an operational as well as on a strategic level. And to seek political alignment as much as possible. The most recent coalition agreement offers enough perspective in that respect.” Koopman: “We have to make sure that we take another step forward, so that our country benefits from this. A process in which we should not be wanting to do everything at once, but in which we have to make choices.”

Next, it is important that the strong cooperation between Customs, the business community and the mainports is given much greater visibility, according to Wiersema. “By showing the improvement – consider, for example, the development of bachelor and master degree courses in customs – you create support. That means that you can take yet another step. And that, also in the future, we can be proud of Customs and the logistic leading role of the Netherlands in the world.”

* TLN: the Dutch Association for Transport and Logistics
** evofenedex: association of trading and manufacturing companies involved in international logistics

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