“This organisation is balancing between tradition and innovation”
Last summer, Nanette van Schelven took up her duties as general director of Dutch Customs. Who is this experienced manager? What where her impressions over the last months? And, which direction does she want ‘her’ administration to take? “The primary reflex to instantly turn each issue into our very own problem hampers us. We cannot solve everything by ourselves. Nor do we have to."
When the new top executive took up office, the organisation was far from moving into smooth waters. After all, in its preparation for Brexit, the administration must go at full tilt. Stormy, turbulent times therefore, and these are exactly the circumstances with which Van Schelven feels comfortable. “I am not the type of person to just mind the store, I thrive on a little hustle and bustle. Before this, I worked for the Immigration Services, where hardly a day goes by without the necessary commotion. And previously at the Ministry of Agriculture, I was appointed crisis manager. In the event of an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease anywhere in the Netherlands or when a long-horned beetle was sighted in the vicinity of a tree nursery, our team came to action. It is for this reason that I believe that I found my place here at this service at this stage. Conversely, Dutch Customs suits me, I noticed. Everywhere I go for a working visit, there is a hands-onmentality. In the event of an emergency, people are immediately ready to take action. As it should be. In our professional field we can never say: Let us first have a commission ruminate on this matter for six months.”
Speaking of urgency: the recruitment and selection of new staff within the framework of Brexit has top priority. What is the status?
“Let me be clear: those over 900 extra employees that we need, we will not have them all before 29 March 2019. That would only be a ‘quick-fix’, nor is it necessary. Such a large and rapid growth – you are then talking about an increase in the workforce of 20% in less than a year – is not something the organisation could cope. Nevertheless, we do all we can to timely recruit sufficient, well-qualified staff, fit for the job. For instance, we opened the door towards the other part of our organisation, the Dutch Tax Administration. There are definitely qualified colleagues there who are interested in transferring to Customs.”
They shall then still need to be prepared for the work done at Customs. Is there enough time left to properly train them?
“This is without question a cause for concern. It is impossible to have these brand new customs officers go to school for six to 24 months on a full-time basis, as we have traditionally done. More interactive means of education – classroom training courses in combination with training on the job – seem to be the answer. Test projects in this field will start shortly. At the same time, we realise that there is a reason why we have hitherto educated employees for so long and so thoroughly. The world of Customs is a fairly complex one. When you decide, do or fail to do something at one end, this has an effect at another end. For example, a colleague within the port can benefit or be hampered by an action taken by an employee at the office. We want to convey this broad-based approach to entrants, one way or another. You see: Brexit forces us to be inventive, to tackle matters fundamentally differently from what we are used to – and not only when it comes to recruitment and staff development. Especially also in our supervision, we shall have to make thorough adjustments here and there. The ferry traffic to the United Kingdom will after all be a new point of attention for us. We have a great deal of experience in sea containers and air freight, however, we are considerably less experienced in roll-on/roll-off.”
Is there enough innovative drive and energy to achieve the necessary changes?
“I have come to know Dutch Customs in this short time as an organisation with two faces. Both tradition and innovation seek to be prioritised. On the one hand, you distinctly get a sense of a strong undercurrent that is focused on progress, on the other hand, you see that certain elements within the corporate culture sometimes get in the way of that progress. One of these elements is the undeniable tendency to take every issue onto our shoulders, and to want to resolve everything ourselves. Take Brexit again as an example. It goes without saying that this service is responsible for the fiscal integrity and security of goods entering the EU – and thus soon also for the flow that passes through the North Sea. However, when it involves border control, we are not alone in the matter: the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee and the Netherlands Food and Consumer Product Safety Authority also have a part therein. These are important partners, with whom we can and must join forces – for example in setting up joint locations in the area of ferry companies. If everyone is aligned, we can get this job done.
All I am saying is: we would do well to make others co-owner of what at first glance seems to be our problem, otherwise we would be selling ourselves short. Brexit, for example, is not just our challenge. The entire government, the industry, the whole of the Netherlands, they are all faced with the issue. That is why I am pleased that since a few years there has been a periodic Clients Contractor Meeting: a summit that determines, in consultation, which of our tasks are the most important. It is a good thing that we sit together with the policy departments for whom we work as an implementing organisation, so that they see our possible limitations and see where choices need to be made. This contributes to a clear, mature relationship.”
Another dossier which you can safely refer to as a challenge, is e-commerce. How does Customs deal with the massive and ever-increasing flow of parcel service?
“When you look at internet purchases, you see a relatively new phenomenon for which existing systems are not designed. From our end, there is an enforcement agency that needs to tackle the unprecedented volumes – both in terms of the number of packages as well as in terms of the amount of declaration rules associated thereto. Doing as we have always done, is not an option. We then need a second Customs administration. The answer to this challenge mainly lies in smart scan and detection technologies, and in a risk analysis that is increasingly more data-based. On the latter point, we are of course largely dependent on the market. And especially there, in the trade flows, is the rub. Because in many cases it turns out to be quite an exercise in obtaining full and accurate information about consignments at the border, with all the consequences that it entails. This is strange really. Our external borders have been there for hundreds of years and all this time our service is active there. It should thus come as no surprise that at a certain moment customs formalities are to play a role in the e-commerce chain. The problem is that the successive links within the process often hardly communicate with one another, as a result of which the person that eventually processes the declaration has no or hardly any knowledge of the transported product. This means that we shall have to make attempts to influence, and to remind commercial parties of their responsibilities. Here, too, it is key to present the problem there where it also partly belongs. We must ensure a well-oiled supervision, entrepreneurs must ensure sufficient and correct information. Equally being in their own interest.”
All in all, Customs is increasingly shifting towards a data-driven organisation. This while the service also relies heavily on the specialist knowledge and experience of individual employees. Does this not cause friction?
“Certainly, we have always depended on our experts – well trained and highly experienced. They were generally allowed a lot of freedom in the performance of their work. In the coming years, they shall likely feel restricted in that freedom and professionalism, as automated systems will further support part of the thinking and doing within our service. First on its way is a new application that will manage our employees in the field in a relatively strict manner. Soon they will read on their mobile phones where they need to go for a physical inspection, how long that inspection may take and when they are expected to arrive at the next location. In addition, we will have a largely information-driven risk management, which means that it will actually be the computer that is to determine whether a consignment is eligible for inspection on the basis of complex algorithms and sophisticated profiles. As yet, you can explain to every employee why a container has been selected for an inspection and why it needs to be opened, but this will shortly change...
These are developments that bring about a veritable revolution in our work system. We shall have to mobilise internal support for this, to include present colleagues. It is of the utmost importance for them to understand that these new means help us in our daily work and that they do not pose a threat. For me and my fellow Management Team members, the customs officer with his gut feeling continues to be the central focus point, however, he shall increasingly be assisted by machines. Moreover, I believe that the influx of a new generation – Brexit-related, but also due to natural turnover – shall help us to embrace innovation more rapidly. Young persons have grown up with computers, and are not taken aback when it does things that cannot be fully explained. As a general rule, they have somewhat more confidence in technology.”
Fresh blood therefore gives rise to opportunities. However, the outflow that we are now seeing is very high indeed. Many staff members are close to retirement. Are you not worried about a brain drain?
“This administration thrives on the knowledge that is inside the heads of our people – this is our strength as well as our vulnerability. Storing all that information in databases is not the only solution. Also in the future, we shall still need employees who fit the term ‘walking encyclopedia’. I am therefore pleased to see that many experienced staff members are consciously engaged in knowledge transfer, and, as an employer, we shall have to properly organise this process. I expressly want to focus on this in the coming years.
I am, for that matter, under the impression that knowledge is a subject to which proper consideration is given within the service. There is an awareness that we shall need more and different knowledge in the long term. In recent years, Dutch Customs has been closely involved in the development of high-quality education with regard to supply chain management and customs compliance. Together with institutes for higher professional education, universities and business and industry, training courses have been set up at minor, bachelor and master level, which have in a short time already proven their worth. These courses attract participants from far across the border – from Turkey, China and the United States – and next year an academic variation is even to start in Shanghai, with the same assistant-professors who provide the lectures here. This allows for cross-fertilisation between customs and logistics, and we elevate our trade to a whole new level. This is something to be proud of.”
Something else in conclusion: last year, the Customs Improvement agenda was drawn up together with business and industry, under the watchful supervision of the State Secretary of Finance. What is its status?
“With some representatives from the umbrella organisations we have come to the conclusion that from now on it is better to speak of the Strategic Development Agenda. This term more clearly emphasises the continuous attention and effort that is asked on both sides to shape the necessary public-private partnership. Again, refer to Brexit, the first major hurdle we have to take together: we as Dutch Customs can prepare ourselves for it, however, if the importing and exporting parties in the Netherlands fail to do so, this then becomes a pretty pointless exercise.
There is thus a high level of interdependence, though fortunately also a good relationship and mutual respect for one another’s role – all of this reflected in the Dutch Customs-Business Consultation forum among others. Together we designated four lines of development: IT, Coordinated Border Management, Service Provision and Facilitation & Supervision. Innovation runs as a fifth theme as a continuous thread through the four lines of development. By dedicating ourselves to each of these areas, we ensure that the logistics process always runs as smooth and quick as possible, with an eye of course for our fiscal and security tasks. However, as said: there is a huge need for cooperation from trade and logistics. Let us therefore continue to invest heavily in our cooperation in the coming years.”