06/2012 - WCO IT Conference - Transformation of Customs by IT


The World Customs Organization organized its 2012 IT conference in Estonia from 6 to 8 June 2012. This year’s event’s theme was “The Customs Administration of the Future,” stressing how information technology (IT) has enabled present-day evolutions as well as enabling those to come. As always, CONEX’s International Development Manager, Lance THOMPSON was present in order to note all transformation that might touch our profession.



The choice of countries for this event was not a coincidence. Toomas Hendrik ILVES, President of Estonia underlined that his country has aimed as much as possible at e-services. Indeed, as further stressed by the Director General of Estonian Tax and Customs Board, Marek HELM and by Tanel ROSS, Assistant General Secretary to the Department of International Relations and Operations Support of Estonia, the country established all of its customs systems right before entering the European Union in 2004. Moreover, Estonia has made the choice of implementing modern technologies across the board within the government encompassing a dematerialized environment for all citizen’s services including customs declarations (97% are dematerialized), driver’s license, e-voting, etc.


Estonia is at the border of Europe with a very important land crossing with its foreign neighbor, Russia. The lines of trucks up to the border sometimes reached 15 km long and up to six days to cross! In 2010, a new law was passed and an innovative system created. The redesign of the system didn’t just dematerialize the existing procedure, but rethought the process completely. Illmar PAUL of Logistic Cluster as well as Egon VEERMÄE of Estonian Customs both explained that today, companies register on line and receive a number in the waiting line as well as a day and time to come to the border. Arriving at the designated time for an eventual inspection and final validation, the vehicles no longer wait uselessly at the border.


Urmas PAET, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Estonia, explained that there are two aspects to the backbone of the Estonian system: on the one hand, a national communication protocol called “X-Road” and on the other, the identification of all citizens with a national ID card which integrates an electronic chip (a “smart-card”). The legal framework is extremely important in order to protect citizen’s rights to safeguard their personal information. These individual ID “smart cards” are in fact used not only as a “traditional” ID card, but also, when using it to connect with the government, these cards can also allow searches on all information concerning the individual (driver’s records, health records, bank records, tax records, etc.). It is therefore essential, as stressed by the Minister and Ivar TALLO of the Estonian E-Academy, to limit the access and allow individuals to know each and every person that has consulted their personal information.

But the conference did not only concentrate on the Estonian Environment. Josephine FEEHILY, Commissioner and Chairman of Revenue, Irish Tax and Customs Administration, presented the fusion of the tax and customs administrations in Ireland and especially how IT helped rethink the procedures. Both administrations had different risk analysis procedures, but by creating a common IT infrastructure, these were reevaluated and modified.


Customs is moving further away from simply being a revenue collection agency and evolving towards a facilitator of trade. D.T. KING-SACKIE, Assistant Minister for Revenue of Liberia showed this with the proposed transit system in ECOWAS. Likewise, Jos ENSING of Netherland Customs in charge of the National Single Window project hopes to further facilitate trade by integrating private systems within the national maritime single window in order to create the “Pipeline” of information as presented by his colleagues in the 2011 Conference in Seattle. Integrating private systems into the national system is at the base of another system, the Trade Exchange of Singapore, as presented by Yeo Beng HUAY, Chief Information Officer of Singapore Customs.


A Round Table discussion on coordinated border management evoked an interesting possibility: use a private standard (such as the GTIN – Global Trade Item Number of GS1) in order to identify products and manufacturers in the national single window. Doug BAILEY of the USDA enthusiastically presented the possibility to retrieve very detailed data about the products because, as he underlined, the national HS doesn’t go into enough detail for the needs of other government agencies (such as health) within national single window projects. The US Customs official on the same panel, Janet PENCE, mirrored this enthusiasm but conveyed during the breaks that it is clear that the GTIN is an additional information, not something that will replace the national HS…


The use of mobile devices (smart-phones, tablets, scanners…) is also a future evolution… but it is already the present in South Africa, as the Group Executive of Business Systems of the South African Revenue Service, Intikhab SHAIK so very well displayed in his presentation. The border crossing (with Botswana) is completely “paper-free”; all additional documents are requested and submitted electronically. Upon arrival at the border, the system does not present a “print” button to avoid unnecessary printing. The officials in the control warehouses and the officials who check the trucks consult any instructions on Smartphones and make all of their comments on the same. One document only is printed by the driver and its content is retrieved by scanning the bar code with their Smartphone.


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Dr. Lance THOMPSON - Conex
Estonia, Tallinn, 8 June 2012