Going Digital


Digital Customs, the opportunities of the Information Age

14 February 2016
By Kunio Mikuriya, Secretary General, World Customs Organization

The world is turning digital, faster than we could have imagined, and public administrations are also moving online just as fast. Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is everywhere in today’s Customs workplace. From the use of ICT in office automation, to the use of the Internet to publish and disseminate information, to the use of automated clearance systems to make declarations, perform risk management, undertake validation and processing, and eventually to issue approvals, ICT has transformed the way that Customs and governments operate.

During the last Sessions of the WCO Council, the Chairperson, Zouhair Chorfi, noted the rapid pace of change brought about through ICT, and highlighted the need to give WCO Members a global picture of all the possibilities offered by information technology (IT), notably by engaging in constant monitoring, and incorporating best practices and international developments in the area of IT. These are sentiments which I wholly support given that the ‘information age’ is now firmly part and parcel of our daily lives.

To reaffirm the importance of ICT for Customs administrations and in the work programme of the WCO, I chose the concept of ‘Digital Customs’ as the theme for the year ahead. Digital Customs means using digital systems to collect and safeguard Customs duties, to control the flow of goods, people, conveyances and money, and to secure cross-border trade from crime, including international terrorism which continues to rear its head across the globe.

The Digital Customs initiative aims to replace paper-based Customs procedures with electronic operations, thus creating a more efficient and modern Customs environment in tune with global developments. By focusing on Digital Customs we, as a Customs community, are signalling our aspiration to further develop digital solutions and services, making life easier for the trading community, other border agencies and Customs officers, and to further adopt enabling technologies, such as the use of big data, telematics and the Cloud, to help increase operational performance, and to facilitate the reinvention of the way we do business.

WCO instruments, tools, and applications

The WCO undertook a mapping exercise to gain an appreciation of existing ICT-related tools, instruments and applications currently available in the WCO and their intended purpose, and grouped them into several broad themes, namely:

  • Leadership – IT Guide for Executives; Single Window Compendium Volume 1;
  • Legal basis – Revised Kyoto Convention; Model Bilateral Agreement on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Customs Matters; Guidelines for Developing a Mutual Recognition Arrangement/Agreement;
  • Modernization and reform – Revised Kyoto Convention Guidelines on Application of Information and Communication Technology; Single Window Compendium, Volume 2; Recommendation on the Dematerialization of Supporting Documents; Recommendation on Electronic Transmission and Authentication of Customs and other Relevant Regulatory Information; etc.;
  • Protection of society – Risk Management Compendium; WCO Cargo Targeting System; Customs Enforcement Network (CEN) suite; IRIS; IPM;
  • Communication – Recommendation on Use of WWW Sites by Customs Administrations; Use of Social Networking Sites by Customs;
  • Interoperability and exchange/regional integration – Recommendation on the Use of Unique Consignment Reference; WCO Data Model, and the Recommendation related to its use; API PNR Guidelines, and the Recommendation on their use; Integrated Supply Chain Management Guidelines, etc.

These broad categories enable us to appreciate the diverse collection of instruments and tools, as well as the specific aspects that each tool supports. All of these themes are mutually supportive, and provide WCO Members with a snapshot of the types of resources currently available to support their ICT modernization and reform objectives.

IT Guide for Executives

The current mapping of ICT-related tools and instruments goes hand-in-hand with ongoing work being undertaken by the WCO on the IT Guide for Executives. This has been developed as a short handbook which succinctly addresses key aspects of ICT development for senior-level Customs administration officials, as well as officials with direct responsibility for managing ICT projects.

Digitalization offers many opportunities, but some countries may struggle to figure out how to prioritize IT projects based on their strategic goals and resource constraints, and how to adopt new ways of working. The IT Guide deals with strategic planning methodology and tools, highlights the need for IT projects to be based on business processes which take into account international standards and are optimized for effectiveness, efficiency and the level of risk, recalls the importance of change management (see side bar) and of detailed investigation and analysis of existing systems, and reviews ICT project development and implementation phases, and its challenges in terms of follow-up and supervision.

Last but not least, the IT Guide for Executives deals with ICT governance. Responsibilities and accountabilities need to be well established and formalized, and senior managers need to be able to establish an environment that is conducive to collaboration between internal staff and external stakeholders, and to ensure the successful implementation of ICT projects through informed decision-making.

Monitoring trends and practices

As I mentioned earlier, the technology landscape is changing rapidly, with a number of key trends emerging, such as cloud computing, mobile technologies, advanced analytics, and information management. Each of these technologies affects the role of Customs in different ways, and provide numerous opportunities to drive connectivity among Customs administrations and with trade operators and other border agencies, thereby increasing productivity, which leads to greater economic growth.

Part of our work in the months to come will be to monitor and communicate best practices in topics as diverse as change management, human resource policies, and information management. I therefore invite all WCO Members to promote and share information on how they are adapting to the digital environment, how they are leveraging the potential of IT, and how they are implementing and using digital technologies to advance and achieve their objectives and respond to the expectations of traders, transport and logistic operators, and governments.


This edition of the magazine provides an overview of how some Customs administrations are embracing new digital technologies. It also gives a voice to some experts on specific issues, such as data management, private sector initiatives to promote dematerialization, and the integration of platforms across the supply chain. In fact, I am quite confident that our selection of articles on this vital but interesting subject will help to accelerate digitalization across the Customs community while further promoting connectivity, interoperability and collaboration among all trade stakeholders.