Interview with Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary General of the World Customs Organization
What are the biggest challenges Customs authorities face from Covid-19?
Kunio Mikuriya: Customs administrations, like many essential government services, have continued to operate throughout this challenging situation to ensure the smooth supply of goods (including key medical equipment), and prevent attempts by smugglers and criminals to bring in illicit and sometimes dangerous goods.
Administrations have had to take steps to protect their staff, and ensure supply chain and business continuity, whilst putting in place extra precautions to prevent the spread of the virus. By using online platforms to manage client queries, and exploiting digital processes through internet-based Customs management systems, Customs have managed to maintain some form of normality and deploy staff from home.
The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance of major concepts which we have been promoting for years: an all-digital and paperless clearance process, and efficient risk management through the collection and analysis of quality data. It has also highlighted the need for Customs administrations and trade and logistics operators to engage with each other in order to obtain a clear view of the challenges faced by all sides. This line of communication will enable Customs to develop policies and processes that are fit for purpose, take adequate provisional measures to support businesses, communicate any decisions and changes rapidly and efficiently ensure compliance.
It will be interesting to monitor whether the crisis leads to some form of restructuring, i.e. whether apparel, electronics and pharmaceutical companies rethink their supply chains so that they are globally diversified and less dependent on one or two locations. In fact, changing suppliers and logistics providers, as well as revising sourcing, will become more prevalent as companies seek to better secure their supply chains. Customs may have an educational and enforcement role to play here, to provide a business-friendly environment while at the same time ensuring that these changes do not inadvertently cause compliance issues, such as violations of Customs regulations, sanctions, export controls, or other trade laws.
How can Customs administrations provide clearer information on the documentation needed for imports/exports?
Kunio Mikuriya: It is essential that information on cross-border procedures be clear and easily accessible to all interested parties. Lack of transparency has been identified as the first “chokepoint” in the supply chain.
The need for transparency is actually embedded in several international instruments adopted by the WCO and the World Trade Organization (WTO). These include Chapter 9 of the WCO Revised Kyoto Convention (“Information, Decisions and Rulings supplied by the Customs”), the WCO Recommendation on the Use of World Wide Web sites by Customs administrations, Article X of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (“Publication and Administration of Trade Regulations”), and Articles 1, 2 and 3 of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement (“Publication and availability of information”, “Opportunity to comment, information before entry into force, and consultations”, and “Advance rulings”, respectively). All existing provisions are explained and compiled in the WCO Transparency and Predictability Guidelines.
The requirement to publish information is not limited to Customs administrations, as it also extends to other government bodies. However, many operators may face difficulties in differentiating between the jurisdiction of Customs administrations and that of other border agencies. Customs websites should therefore provide users with the necessary trade-related information which is managed by other governmental agencies or with the necessary contact information.
Many countries have developed portals where all the trade-related information is accessible, yet the question of how to communicate more effectively still remains unanswered. That is why Customs administrations need to look beyond simply providing information and consider ways of ensuring that they communicate and engage with stakeholders. There are various levels of communication. A first level might be the provision of information upon request, via call centres or websites and different media channels. A second level would be to consult stakeholders on specific, clearly defined issues through the use of forums and committees.
A third – and more advanced – level of communication is to give stakeholders the opportunity to engage with public officials in co-creating policies. This last level illustrates the idea that communication can be used strategically to develop policies.
Communication is often limited to promoting the government’s image or disseminating news, and does not necessarily always contribute to transparency and stakeholders’ participation. There needs to be a culture shift to change this approach.