Dossier: Engaging partners

Developing an Ecosystem of Trust at the UK border

23 February 2024
By Sam Wright and Muiris Ó Floinn, Ecosystem of Trust and Innovation, Borders Group, Cabinet Office , and Gavin McCann, Cross-Cutting Customs Policy, Borders and Trade Group, HM Revenue and Customs, United Kingdom

This article introduces the Ecosystem of Trust (EoT) project which aimed at testing whether the use of supply chain data, alongside technologies such as smart seals and smart containers, could be integrated into government systems to improve border processes. The project involved regulatory agencies, technology firms, logistics providers, academics and port operators and confirmed how vital it is for government and industry to work together to modernise the border.

Modernising the UK border

Recent years have seen the UK border undergo a significant period of change. Industry and government have adapted to the UK’s status as an independent trading nation outside the European Union Customs Union and Single Market, whilst simultaneously managing the concurrent impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and war in Ukraine on supply chains.

The UK Government has taken this opportunity to reshape its border processes, first in the 2025 UK Border Strategy published in 2020, and more recently in the Border Target Operating Model. The Border Target Operating Model, published in August 2023, sets out how border processes will be optimised for this new policy and international trade environment, covering both EU and Rest of World (RoW) trade. This includes key changes to the operation of the UK border and its planned evolution over the coming years, such as the development of the UK Single Trade Window (STW) which will begin to be introduced in 2024.

Ecosystem of Trust

A key part of reshaping our border is implementing technology and data innovations. This is at the heart of the Ecosystem of Trust (EoT) project. Initially set out in the 2025 UK Border Strategy, the EoT proposed a collaborative model for managing the border involving government, border users and technology firms. The ambition was to use technological and enhanced data solutions to engender higher trust within the supply chain, and from government, with the aim of minimising trade friction. The project tested whether the use of supply chain data, alongside technologies such as smart seals and smart containers, could be integrated into UK border processes to improve the experience of industry and government. These solutions were tested via pilots, which sought to address some of the reported points of friction at the border including what benefits could be offered, and involved both industry and government participants.

The EoT pilots generated significant interest from industry partners, with over 50 expressions of interest received from technology firms, logistics providers, academics and port operators. Ultimately, the government partnered with six “consortia” to test a variety of proposals which were detailed in the Evaluation Report. Each involved sharing supply chain information between trade and government using a different supply chain data platform, and a wider set of technology across a variety of modes, commodities and routes, with the intent of understanding the feasibility of solutions across these variables. The pilots were a joint enterprise between government and industry from start to finish, with many of the details of the design and operations of pilots being co-developed by government and consortia. The governance for the project was made up of representatives from government departments, consortia and independent experts.


The pilots demonstrated that supply chain data already held by businesses provides a strong foundation for government and industry to draw on. This data can build a more seamless integration of commercial and government systems to meet regulatory requirements at the border. For instance, findings showed that up to 80% of the minimum risking requirements for Customs purposes and 60% of trade statistics requirements could be provided by supply chain data. This could improve confidence in government’s frontline teams when making decisions, and potentially reduce the time it takes frontline border staff to make these decisions by nearly 20%.

The pilots also considered the value of augmenting technologies and assurance devices. This included smart seals and smart containers, and the potential for them to play a role in providing additional assurance to government about the origin, integrity and journey of goods within a container. Whilst our findings suggested that these devices could be compromised by sophisticated criminal actors and as such cannot provide complete assurance of consignment integrity, they can provide additional information to government, which can further improve agencies’ ability to deliver effective border controls.

Lessons learned

The EoT pilots were, from inception, delivered with the explicit intention of being an opportunity to test and trial with collaboration from key government and industry stakeholders; to see what did work, what didn’t, and what might work in future. Adopting this “fail forward” approach, failure of some aspects of the project was as welcome as the success of others in moving the thinking of industry and government forward on areas that ought to be pursued in order to improve the operation of the border in future.

By taking this learning mindset into the project, evaluation was built into its delivery from the outset.

The Evaluation Report delivered three key recommendations as to what action is necessary to develop an EoT at scale:

  • Collaboration between government and industry is essential for driving innovation at the border. Co-designing improvements with the border industry based on actual trader experience as well as government requirements is crucial for continued improvement of the border experience.
  • Interoperability proved to be the greatest challenge identified by the pilots and is the biggest barrier to scaling an EoT model. Integrating industry data as it is held and managed at present into government systems at scale proved to be challenging. Although pockets of successful integration have already emerged, and more of this activity is planned via the UK STW over the coming years, potentially the most game-changing factor in this area is the expected incremental adoption by industry of fully digitised commercial trade processes, following the recent passage of the UK’s Electronic Trade Documents Act. This will place digital negotiable trade documents on the same legal footing as paper documents under UK law. If industry ambitions to move at pace to adopt fully digital trade processes come to fruition, this will provide a rich source in interoperable, machine-readable industry trade data.
  • Maximising value to trade is central to incentivising the adoption of technologies and the sharing of data which can provide further assurance to government – whether that is platforms for managing digital supply chain data, or augmenting technologies. Offering reduced or simplified controls where equivalent assurance can be provided by technology can lead to a virtuous circle whereby industry partners are further encouraged to invest in these technologies and voluntarily provide further assurance to government.

The EoT pilots not only confirmed how vital it is for government and industry to work together to modernise the border, but has also helped to clarify the government’s approach to the next phase of the project. These initial EoT pilots, like the next stage of the project, were designed to be time-limited exercises to inform future policy, rather than being transformation and delivery projects in their own right. In recognition of this, they should carefully consider the balance between seeking to deliver system-wide change and using their finite lifetimes to demonstrate the value of a particular approach.

When seeking to deliver innovation and process change in this type of time-limited project, developing targeted “bottom-up” projects, in broad alignment with the top-down vision, has proved to be successful. Seeking out problem statements and use cases ensured that participants were more narrowly focused on addressing a specific challenge, with clear incentivisation for all parties involved. Ultimately, the goal of this approach is to build the evidence base with a view to gradually influencing other parties in the border ecosystem to adopt the solutions developed.

Pilots need to move beyond theoretical proofs to developing solutions that can be integrated with operational systems and processes. These could begin to offer tangible benefits to ecosystem participants, providing grounds for the pilot solutions to be scaled and adopted.

A final reflection on approach relates to the type of problem that the pilots aimed to resolve. It remains central to the project’s ambition to understand whether supply chain data and the use of augmenting technologies can provide the same or better assurance as the information currently provided by traditional declarations. However, it has also been recognised that deploying these solutions can deliver tangible benefit within existing regulatory frameworks at the border. Earlier and better access to data and augmenting technologies can make existing processes more efficient and unlock value to government and all aspects of the border ecosystem, even within the existing regulatory framework of border controls and processes. Unlocking these potentially more near-term benefits could help provide a pathway towards realising the overall ambitions.

What’s next?

Having gathered valuable insights from the first phase of the EoT, attention has turned to where to take the project next. With recommendations and learnings from the EoT in mind, the UK Government is embarking on a further series of initiatives called “Border Trade Demonstrators” (BTDs). The BTDs will be a series of mini-projects enabling interoperability of border data between HMG and industry focussing on maximising value to government and industry.

In common with the first phase of the EoT project, the BTDs will bring together government and industry partners (including many of the same consortia who participated in the first phase). Through the BTDs, however, there will be a stronger emphasis on demonstrating interoperability: prioritising clearly defined and identified use cases and problem statements, and demonstrating actual rather than potential value to participants – both industry and government.

These BTDs will be underpinned by the development of a “toolkit” aimed at lowering the barriers to participation in the EoT by making resources freely available so as to enable and incentivise the independent development of an EoT at the UK border. The ambition is for this “toolkit” to include open-source technological resources which will reduce participants’ reliance on specific products, model governance arrangements and operational information. Importantly, none of these resources will be promoted as the only way to develop the capabilities required to participate in the EoT, but rather as resources to support those who wish to do so.

International collaboration

International collaboration is important for these types of solutions to be truly scalable. The first phase of the EoT included a consortium which partnered with the Kenyan Government, and integrated with its “KenTrade” Single Window System. Similarly, other jurisdictions have indicated a willingness to participate in forthcoming BTDs. The UK Government welcomes this collaborative approach to developing solutions and knowledge sharing.

Government action can also help catalyse faster global adoption of interoperability digital trade processes. Legal reforms – such as those the UK has adopted with the Electronic Trade Documents Act – can put digital trade documents on the same legal footing as paper. Support for the standards and interoperability frameworks such as those developed by organisations like the United Nations Centre for Trade Facilitation and Electronic Business (UN/CEFACT), World Customs Organisation (WCO), International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) and World Wide Consortium (W3C) can also help, as collectively these can provide the basis for fully digitised trade.

Delivering truly modern borders, which incentivise trade by minimising friction whilst maintaining high security and biosecurity standards, is a global challenge. By continuing to promote and support innovation at the border through the EoT and BTDs, and through flagship UK border transformation programmes, we hope not only to improve the experience of those importing or exporting to and from the UK, but to provide models which can be replicated or interoperated with globally.

Innovation in a time of change

The UK will continue to face changes and challenges as the UK Border Target Operating Model and UK’s Single Trade Window are implemented over the coming years. The challenges are obvious: key government and industry participants are rightly focused on ensuring they are prepared for the programme of change set out in our Target Operating Model, leaving less time and energy to devote to trialling innovative solutions.

This is further evident with the recent implementation of the first milestone of the UK Border Target Operating Model, which came into force from 31 January and involves the introduction of simplified and digitised health certification for medium-risk plants/plant products and animal produce from the EU.

Within this period of change, however, there are significant opportunities to ensure innovative solutions are built into the new UK border model, further enhanced through close collaboration and partnership with key government and industry stakeholders. For example, the UK has committed to the piloting of world-leading Trusted Trader Schemes for sanitary and phytosanitary goods. These pilots will be run by UK Government, and our colleagues in the devolved governments[1], in partnership with industry over the course of 2024. In addition, other UK Government departments are transforming their offer to traders; for example, HMRC is streamlining and digitising its authorisation processes, giving businesses easier access to its wide range of existing Customs Trusted Trader Schemes, with delivery starting in 2024 and expected to conclude in 2025. Similarly, the UK Single Trade Window is in its early stages of delivery, with further functionality due to be rolled out over the coming years. The ongoing collaboration between UK government bodies and industry stakeholders within the EoT space will inform the continued design and delivery of these flagship programmes.

More information
The Ecosystem of Trust Evaluation Report 2023

[1] The UK is made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Across the UK there are four different legislatures and executives, each with a different range of powers. The UK Government and three devolved governments – the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive –  work closely with one another to make sure devolution is successful.