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  • Writer's pictureTom Mueller

Penblog: Conversation with Ricardo Treviño Chapa, World Customs Organization (part 2)

Updated: Apr 24, 2023

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 the second half of 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: .)

On how Treviño personally, and the WCO as an institution, go about building trust between public and private stakeholders:

Ricardo Treviño

Well, it's a tough one, because on the one hand, trust most of the time is built among people, and specific people that are leading, or in charge of, certain efforts. And in this case, I think we've been trying to build this trust by getting closer and strengthening communication and coordination. But it's a process that takes time, again, and that we need to build with a certain patience.

On the part of customs administrations, [some people have] the perception that many companies are trying to abuse the system. [For] people very much focused on protection of society and on compliance, it's difficult to change their mindset, but we need to work together with them.

From the private sector side, as well, there is mistrust in the way that if they provide more information, they feel that customs will share it with someone else -- within the government for fiscal purposes, for other purposes, or even outside the government, that this information might reach business competitors, even criminals. And this fear is understandable, because there have been cases of this.

But I think we need to focus on the benefits of sharing information and growing trust. Because in the end, legal businesses are also interested in protecting their own families, in protecting their societies. They're interested in the government having enough resources, and in contributing fairly to the government, for their expenditures and their budget. And of course they're very interested in the flow of goods -- of legal goods. So if we all have these three same objectives, why not build on that? We need to find the right strategy to build on these objectives.

We can use the technology now, and have virtual meetings and meet by Zoom or Teams or so on.

But on the other hand, social, personal contact is important. And WCO, as part of our objective of raising the profile of what customs is doing in the world, raising the profile of WCO -- you need to have these personal contacts, visiting and meeting with the right people. So having these meetings and personal discussions on the sidelines, is valuable.

On his recent participation in the IBMATA conference in San Diego:

Ricardo Treviño

I had a very good time presenting what the WCO is doing in technologies and innovation on the one hand, and then participating in a very interactive panel with other colleagues from the World Bank and Dutch Customs, as well as private sector, and discussing a little bit on the coordination that we need to have, and how to help private sector to strengthen their communication and relationship with their own local customs administrations. But the sidelines were as important as those official public presentations, because I met with many people and shared so many experiences, things that I was not even aware of that are happening in the industry. For instance, in noninvasive technology with scanners, and other aspects that were happening back there in the border, and the collaboration between Mexico and the US -- because this was held in San Diego. So there was a lot of added value on the sidelines.

On the importance of EU Horizon projects like PEN-CP, which aim to create this network environment where diverse stakeholders can share their data, pool their resources, and combine their efforts:

Ricardo Treviño

As a strong believer in coordination and cooperation, I think this goes hand in hand with our strategic objectives at the organization. Having this type of project like PEN-CP complementing what we do, and complementing it with concrete actions, a concrete network, I think is quite positive. So of course WCO is looking at this project in a very positive way. Building this network and this cooperation among these practitioners or these experts of customs, for the moment in which you might need to have that connection. And it's linked to the previous point that we were just discussing regarding trust. These types of networks might not have an immediate impact. You might just build a relationship and have a conversation, and share ideas and experiences. And it will take time to develop an idea. But not only that, when you have an emergency, an urgent matter, you have already built a network that you can go back to and consult.

[I saw this] during COVID. At the beginning of the pandemic, nobody knew what was going to be the impact or how long it would last, we were all confined in our houses, and nobody could get out. But the WCO needed to keep working and moving, we couldn't just close our doors and say, "We cannot do any more." So I reached out to most of the people that we have built a good relationship with years before, colleagues from customs but also from the private sector. And we started working on some of the challenges that we had identified.

Back then, for instance, with the Private Sector Consultative Group at the WCO level, we met at least once a week virtually, to identify where we could find some bottlenecks in the supply chain. I talked to people from the air, land and sea supply chains, to see where the main challenges were that we needed to face. And of course, at the same time, we were in touch with our members in customs administrations, sometimes in an informal way, sometimes in a formal way, trying to tackle these challenges at the supply chain level, trying to get the organization moving, and trying to implement. Okay, we couldn't come to the office anymore, but we quickly reacted and started working online, and doing all the meetings virtually. It was through the help of many people, with whom we had built networks before.

On the advances in customs innovation brought about or accelerated by the pandemic:

Ricardo Treviño

First of all, more automation. It was demonstrated that we could adjust quicker than planned, and that we could do better or simpler automatic procedures, with enough efficiency to keep them.

I think also, [work-life] balance. The working situation has changed completely. Now we have people balancing their work at home work, their work at the office, people having time to dedicate to their families.

Another lesson learned is that international cooperation works. No single, isolated country would have been able to stop the pandemic by themselves.

I'd particularly like to talk about a success story that happened during the pandemic, which was this strong collaboration with the World Health Organization, among other organizations that we collaborated with. This also showed us a way forward in how to efficiently use our Harmonized System Convention, which is one of our main tools here at the organization. And the Harmonized System basically classifies commodities for them to be traded. It's like a common language for customs administrations. We talked to the World Health Organization, and they gave us the list of essential goods that needed to be facilitated in their flow around the world, to tackle the spread of the pandemic: medicines, medical equipment, food, and so on.

We published a list of these essential goods, already classified with a Harmonized System Code, and made it public, for customs administrations to identify and facilitate their trade, but also for private sector businesses, for them also to classify and present as a declaration for customs administrations. And this had big support and success among stakeholders. I think that showed us a way of collaborating and doing things better, by sharing these efforts between these two international organizations, and having a real, concrete deliverable for the people, for society.

On the key challenges for the next generation of customs officers:

Ricardo Treviño

I think the role of customs will keep evolving, and probably will evolve faster than it has evolved in the last decades. One of the challenges will be, how to adjust to these new roles expected from this new way of doing business, from this new global digital economy.

E-commerce is an example. When e-commerce started -- and it has been booming, it's a megatrend -- customs administrations capabilities were really not enough, with millions of small, medium, large packages traveling from all over the world. Customs just didn't have enough capability to review them all. So we need to put in place the right technology to have again enough compliance, enough facilitation, for e-commerce. E-commerce will keep growing -- it's here to stay.

And at some point, I think we need to analyze the role of customs itself, because it's not only about tangible goods anymore -- it's also intangible goods. There are services flowing, and there are digital goods flowing, through the network. What is customs really going to do in the future? Maybe we shouldn't be stuck on the borders anymore. I think we have to migrate to a position in which we are a more strategic, comprehensive organization, that has visibility over the flow of goods and commodities and services from a different perspective, and not necessarily stuck on the borders.

On the importance of changing society's perception of customs:

Ricardo Treviño

We're usually seen as the bad guys, stopping the flow of goods. For most people, the first experience of customs is at the airport, when their luggage is checked and so on. And usually this is not a good experience, right? People arrive tired from a long flight, they just want to get home, and this guy is saying, "Stop here, I want to check your luggage." How people see customs is important. How to communicate our objectives, how to communicate the benefits that customs provides to society, is still something that we need to work on.

We need to raise awareness of the role of customs administrations, not only for society in general, so that we can effectively communicate the benefits of having customs administrations, but also raising awareness at the political level. If you compare customs administrations with other border agencies, or other authorities, usually customs administrations do not have enough political weight in the decision-making process, although customs is usually in the center of the implementation. And this is because, I think, customs does not have a positive perception by society, in many cases.

That's why I think many political leaders, ministers, do not invest enough of their time or efforts in customs in many cases. If you go to other international organizations that have more political weight and more resources than WCO -- for instance, OECD, you see ministers going to OECD, you go to WTO, you have ministers of trade going to WTO, you have Interpol, you have ministers of security or police, heads of police going to Interpol. At the WCO, instead, we usually have heads of customs. Which is good, and we appreciate it, but usually the head of customs is not at the minister level. That's why we need to gain more political support as well.

Our other challenges include what we mentioned: digitalising customs; and reducing the capability gaps among our membership, not only in technology, but also in human skills and institutional capabilities as well. And another big opportunity and focus area that we see is the greening of the supply chain, and how customers can contribute to this global effort to protect our environment and our planet.

On the ongoing modernization plan at the WCO:

Ricardo Treviño

The WCO is in the middle of a modernization plan -- I've been tasked by the Council to lead this process of change within the organization. It's a big effort from the secretariat, the Secretary General, the directors and the rest of the staff at the Secretariat. All are working very hard to fulfill this task of modernizing the organization.

I'm sure that with this modernization plan, we will be able to, first of all, assist our members far better, and assist society in our objectives. But we'll also strengthen our collaboration and our position with other stakeholders, such as academia, private sector, and so on. So we're looking forward to working together with these stakeholders, and really finding a positive way that benefits the organization, and stakeholders as a whole, for better results in the future.



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