Penblog: Conversation with Ricardo Treviño Chapa, World Customs Organization (part 1)
Updated: Apr 24
I recently had a great conversation about customs innovation with Ricardo Trevino Chapa, Deputy Secretary of the World Customs Organization (WCO). Here are some excerpts from our talk, highlighting some of the key points and take-aways that Ricardo made. I have edited for clarity and conciseness. (The full Pencast is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zp4DIfgPRbw&ab_channel=CBRA .)
By way of introduction, Ricardo holds advanced degrees in finance, international banking and strategic management, most recently from Oxford. His public service career spans 20 years, first in his native Mexico, where he served the federal government in high positions in revenue collection, social security, and as Mexico's customs administrator general, and subsequently as vice chair of the Americas and Caribbean region, to the WCO. He has been Deputy Secretary General of the WCO for the last five years.
When Treviño was Mexico's Customs Administrator General and Vice Chair of the Americas and Caribbean region to the WCO, he formulated the region’s first strategic plan:
When I came leading the delegation from Mexico to the WCO, I was already Vice Chair. But I started questioning: what is the role of the Vice Chair? What is the impact of the WCO around the globe? And the first thing that struck me is that as Vice Chair of the region, there were no clear targets or mandates. It was basically a political appointment, without real tasks or objectives.
What I proposed was, let's do the first strategic plan for this region, on what were the needs for capacity building for the region. What kind of priorities we had back then, some of which are still relevant, like coordinated border management, exchange of information, e-commerce and integrity for the region. And we made a plan to work together with WCO, in order to strengthen our coordination, our communication as a region with the organization, but also seeking support from the organization to deliver technical assistance and capacity building on these specific matters.
On the customs mission as a delicate balance between control and facilitation, and how best to strike this balance:
I'm going to be a bit controversial on this. Not everyone in the customs sector would agree with me on this one. Yes, traditionally customs has been about balancing facilitation and compliance, in many ways. But in my view, at least in the last few years, I think we have to stop saying that we need to find a balance between facilitation and compliance. Because in my view, saying “to find a balance” means that you're going to sacrifice at least a little bit of one or the other, to make them both work, but sacrificing at the same time some efficiency in one of them.
For me, that shouldn't be the right view right now, especially with the technologies that we have available. With the right use of technology, with intensive use of technology, with real international cooperation, I think we can achieve both 100% – compliance and facilitation. And there is no need to “balance” both. Although it sounds like they contradict each other, I would say there is a way of doing them both 100%: being efficient, through the right use of technology, by developing a very comprehensive and real risk management strategy. Which has to be updated frequently, of course, because the bad guys, the organized criminals, are evolving constantly – you cannot remain static, just develop a risk management strategy and leave it at that. You have to keep evolving. But current technology, if you build it correctly, would allow you to predict these movements, and would allow you to adjust accordingly, in a very quick way.
So in my view, it's not about balancing anymore. It's about really fulfilling both of these tasks at the same time.
On the evolution of customs over the years:
If we go decades back to when customs was created, the purpose for customs was merely revenue collection. This was the main reason why customs existed. And this means that customs is naturally an invasive authority, unfortunately.
Throughout the years, more and more objectives have been thrown on our way, and these have of course complicated many of our actions. After that came, of course, the era of protectionism and how customs could defend some of the national economic interests. But then also came all these trends on safety regarding drugs and fake medicines that customs needed to stop. But after this came the facilitation trend together with the WTO – WTO created this wording of “facilitating trade” – it was not customs, it was trade. We took on board the objective of facilitating trade as well, and this has become a strategic objective for customs.
So, now we have protection of society, revenue collection and facilitation of trade as main objectives. And after facilitation, again, came a strong trend after the 2001 terrorist attacks, of protection of society through security, and being the first line of defense for many countries, and becoming a national security institution.
This is now the view of customs in many places in the world. We've been adding more and more objectives. And now some customs administrations are advocating and are suggesting that a new objective be added, protecting the environment, and that now customs should focus more and more on greening supply chains. So customs has been seen historically as a toolbox to fulfill many strategic objectives.
On the WCO’s role in fostering customs innovation -- in helping to discover and apply new technologies, data tools, management approaches:
70 years ago, the WCO was created by 13 members, all of them European, and the purpose was to start exchanging some ideas, discussions, collaborating among customs, in the framework of, or in the margins of, reconstructing Europe after the Second World War. Now, the organization has evolved, it has become a truly global organization; we have 185 members now, with almost 99% of trade. So, the organization has grown. But again, it has grown dramatically in tasks, in objectives, in work, yet not as much as in budget and resources we have available.
And within the evolution of our role and becoming global, I think we have defined very clearly what our main objectives are: assisting our members in their tasks of revenue collection, protection of society, and facilitation, through three main processes, I would say. The first would be international cooperation: facilitating and fostering international cooperation among our 185 members. The second one is establishing, developing and maintaining global standards in order to harmonize customs procedures, trying to really facilitate both – not only facilitating the flow of goods or trade, but also facilitating the compliance actions for customs. If we harmonize our procedures, it's better to exchange information. And the third is delivering capacity-building. And this third one, building capacity, is the one that goes more into the action, as we assist our members in developing their capacities.
Three main processes established in our strategic plan – capacity building, international cooperation and standard setting – are supported by two other missions. One is effective communication: because we have been mandated to be the international single voice for customs in the world, we are the only international organization 100% focusing on customs, and we represent them throughout the world. And the other mission is research and innovation. And here this aspect of research is quite important, because it helps us identify new trends, it helps us identify threats, opportunities, and how to, to have a more proactive and not reactive organization.
Here is where we are now focusing our efforts: in technology and innovation, in the greening of customs. And also through a strong modernization, after 70 years, of our governance, and the way we're structured within the organization, to be much more effective and assist our members. So we have a strong, clear mandate to assist our members in identifying emerging trends and innovating. And we try to do it through this cooperation, this coordination and our research.
On the most exciting technological innovations of the last decade or so:
One of our main tools or elements to identify innovation and emerging trends is by developing compendiums of best practices. We go to our members and ask, “What are you doing?” Because sometimes we don't have to reinvent the wheel, or other administrations are stuck trying to reinvent something, when someone else is already implementing a good solution. Gathering this information, developing compendiums of best practices, presenting them and making them visible for the rest of our members, is a way of promoting this innovation.
We also work closely with academia, of course, and with other international organizations as well. And we also have a mechanism to work closely with the private sector. Here, because when you were talking about “This is a task for everyone,” in many countries, and in many aspects, we see how private sector and public sector customs authorities are working divided, and not together. I mean, we have to acknowledge that they are our main clients. If you want to facilitate trade, if you want to increase revenue collections, you need to work with the private sector. This is important – I just wanted to mention that, and build on your comment.
But now going to your question on technologies. We developed a report on new disruptive technologies, and we made an analysis – and all of them I find fascinating. Of course, there is artificial intelligence (AI), big data, all around data analysis. We studied the impact on customs of blockchain, drones and other technologies that were analyzed in this report. We also worked together with the World Economic Forum, and did a survey of the private sector active in trade, to tell us which technologies they would expect will influence the most in the coming years. The number one technology was the Internet of Things, which is already being used also in several customs administrations. The second one was digital payment. Then we had AI, and we had blockchain.
(conversation continues in Part 2: https://www.pen-cp.net/post/penblog-conversation-with-ricardo-treviño-chapa-world-customs-organization-part-2 )
Pencast with Ricardo Treviño Chapa: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zp4DIfgPRbw&ab_channel=CBRA
Background on the WCO: https://www.wcoomd.org/
WCO strategic plans and goals: https://www.wcoomd.org/en/about-us/what-is-the-wco/strategic-plan.aspx
Key WCO issues: https://www.wcoomd.org/en/topics/key-issues.aspx
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