“Let’s ensure every colleague can be an ambassador for Customs”

Get acquainted with the newly minted director of Enforcement Policy at Dutch Customs, Arno Kooij. What kind of challenges is the service facing, and what kind of solutions are in the pipeline?

A customs man to the marrow – that describes Arno Kooij to a T. In a long career, the newly minted director of Enforcement Policy has learned all the ins and outs of customs work. He’s worked as a Physical Inspection officer at the Port of Rotterdam, as a risk analyst for the Central Excise Unit, and as team leader and director of the two Rotterdam customs regions – Port and Rijnmond. In recent years Kooij has combined his role as director of the latter with that of the Customs National Tactical Centre (DLTC), Dutch Customs’ nation-wide risk management department. “We have to be transparent on current issues of enforcement and the choices we are making together with our clients.”

Kooij started as director of Enforcement Policy and deputy general director of Customs on 1 December 2019. He takes great pleasure in sitting down for this interview with Customs NL inSight, but there is a note of reservation: “At this stage I don’t want to be pinned down to any hard and fast standpoints or concrete objectives. Naturally through my work with the DLTC I’m fairly well informed about a number of issues that are on-going in the area of enforcement. But first I want to have this discussion with a range of my Customs colleagues, starting with the staff of the Enforcement Policy division itself. In addition, in my new job I’m also involved with external parties: ‘Brussels’, ‘The Hague’, the business world, and other enforcement services. All these stakeholders are involved to a greater or lesser degree in the design and implementation of our enforcement policy. I have to sit down at the table with them, too.”

Kooij is no stranger to his colleagues working in enforcement in the Customs regions. In his former jobs he was also regularly occupied with enforcement issues varying from customs inspections in the Wadden Sea and excise checks throughout the Netherlands, to problems arising at the Dutch mainports. But in his new role he’s going to have a whole lot more to do with tomorrow’s policy issues. What kind of challenges is Customs facing? What kind of solutions are in the pipeline? And what choices have to be made when it comes to enforcement?

Self-learning algorithms
Kooij explains various trends that are currently influencing Customs enforcement policy. “The most important trend is innovation, or more specifically, the rise of data analytics. Data-driven, risk-directed enforcement is the most effective method for keeping under control the enormous increase in volume that customs services worldwide have to deal with. The rapid growth in the number of declarations – caused by e-commerce, among other things – poses a big challenge for Dutch Customs. That’s why, along with many others, we’re working hard on developing an auto-detection system for data and goods. This basically comes down to the automated processing and risk analysis of declarations and other data, including scanned images. What we’re talking about here are systems that recognise deviations in goods and information patterns with the aid of artificial intelligence. Such systems use self-learning algorithms that can make predictions – and produce solutions and conclusions – by crunching huge amounts of data. In the future there’s going to be a different balance between human and machine, for enforcement services like Customs, too. And the trick of course is to link the insights that data analytics can offer with the know-how of our customs officers. It’s this interplay that results in added value.”

Kooij expects that, with the help of artificial intelligence, the Customs service of the future will be even more capable of giving the right attention to shipments selected from the mass flow. “A pre-condition for this, however, is that the data quality and reliability of the declarations has to be high. First and foremost, it’s imperative that companies give proper attention to filling in the complete and correct information on their import or export declarations. The second step is upgrading and combining our own customs information with data from external sources, such as logistics platforms. The more access we have to reliable data for shipments and companies, the better we are able to identify and analyse irregularities using automation.”  

Broader stage
Along with innovation, the expansion of collaboration with external players is a spearhead of Customs enforcement policy. Kooij: “We are continually in conversation with our partners in the enforcement chain, such as the police, the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee, and inspection services. We also look to join forces with those outside our borders, such as other customs services and the European anti-fraud office OLAF. Where possible we also act as a joint force, sharing our best practices, exchanging information, and supporting each other in cross-border operations. But Dutch Customs also partners closely with academic institutions. They help us to devise, develop and test smart solutions for our enforcement challenges.* And when we talk about the intensive contacts Customs keeps up with the business world, then naturally I’m back on home turf. With our regular Customs-Business Consultation we are at the forefront in Europe. I want to continue to build on this.”

Another development Kooij is eager to mention is the changing, more businesslike relationship between Dutch Customs and the various policy departments the service works for. “Our enforcement policy, which includes a strategic multi-year vision, is defined in consultation with our contracting departments, among others. The same thing applies to the priorities that Customs sets in its annual Enforcement Plan. Thus we always determine choices when it comes to deploying our enforcement capacity in an open dialogue with those policy-making ministries.”

Another trend in the area of enforcement is the increasing significance of ‘Brussels’ and European institutions. “Europe is more and more becoming the stage on which the individual enforcement services of member states act in partnership. This pre-emptive collaboration is necessary in order to prevent a ‘waterbed effect’ in smuggling and the drugs trade. But also, for example, the fight against cross-border VAT fraud and the illegal trade in excise goods benefits from joining forces internationally. Cooperation also contributes to fair market functioning and honest competition.”

Strengthening the strategy against undermining
A new problem that is absorbing Kooij’s full attention is criminal undermining. “The government recently announced a broad range of measures for the prevention and suppression of crime, particularly as a crackdown on the illegal drugs industry and its infiltration of residential areas, rural areas and legal sectors. One of the plans is to set up a Multidisciplinary Intervention Team – MIT – as part of the national police force. This intervention team will consist of various specialists in the areas of intelligence and digital, financial and international investigation drawn from ranks of the police, FIOD and the Royal Netherlands Marechaussee. Dutch Customs is also represented on this team. MIT aims at dismantling the power position of criminal leaders and their facilitators, the disruption of activities that undermine commercial procedures, and putting up obstacles to prevent abuse of the legal economy and infrastructure. The overall approach is intelligence-driven and directed at exposing criminal money flows and seizing criminal assets.”

In order to combat criminal undermining, Dutch Customs is going to make extra resources and capacity available. “This will be a significant expansion of what we are already doing right now”, Kooij explains. “We’re going to expand and deepen the collaborative links in the enforcement chain. Think here of the programmes Integral Port of Rotterdam and Integral Schiphol Airport, and the Regional Information and Expertise Centres – RIEC for short. We as a service want to make a contribution using our basic tasks. But in order to increase our effectiveness in the fight against undermining, it’s also important to strengthen our information position.”

Inclusion of staff members
For Kooij it’s very important to be transparent regarding the current issues in enforcement and the policy choices that will be made – also internally. “We have to include our staff in the new course, in our ambitions and plans: what are we aiming at, what do we stand for, and what do we expect from you as staff? On top of that we need to listen to our staff: what are you proud of and what kind of concerns do you have from your viewpoint? That way we can ensure that everyone stays involved in the service, and that everyone can be an ambassador for our organisation. Ultimately, professional, capable and involved staff members are essential for a future-proof Customs administration.”

* See also the article ‘The added value of academic research’ elsewhere in this issue.

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