Algeria launches new Customs information systemBy Hakim Berdjoudj, Director of Studies responsible for the organization of services, Algeria Customs
There can be no improvement in Customs performance without an upgrade of the information system. Given that the system has to be adapted to Customs, a profession that is constantly evolving in the wake of the amendments to the legislative arsenal underpinning foreign trade, this improvement must be treated as a continuous and dynamic process.
Algeria Customs is still using an information system called “SIGAD” (Customs Information and Automated Management System), which was developed in-house over two decades ago, with its first version being rolled out in 1995. The only existing information source on Algeria’s foreign trade, SIGAD provides the computerized management of the Customs clearance process and produces statistics on the country’s foreign trade, which are forwarded on a regular basis to the authorities, in order to inform their economic decision-making. It may well have been through various stages of development, but SIGAD still covers only some of the activities undertaken by Customs.
By introducing a reform plan, Customs has, therefore, undertaken to overhaul the system with the aim of securing interoperability with the systems operated by stakeholders in the international trade logistics chain. Committed to a new management mechanism, the Customs administration has accordingly set about redefining the business and support processes, and adopting the best practice of some leading countries in data processing and information systems, in the form of customer (Customs user)-oriented functional specifications.
The “computerization process” initiated in the 1990s was rolled out without any consideration for one key approach: the process approach. Emerging in the late 1980s, this approach involves analysis or modelling, as well as a methodical description of an organization or activity for the purpose of providing an appropriate response. By this approach, it is possible, for instance, to clarify the roles and responsibilities carried out, understand customer requirements, seek out added value and identify waste, and reduce the costs and time frames involved in the processes concerned.
The benefit of the process approach lies in its contribution to gaining an accurate picture of the relationship between the different components of the organization, i.e. initially identifying the different processes and their interfaces (understanding how the organization operates), subsequently controlling the processes (running the organization), and ultimately optimizing the processes (improving the functioning of the organization) while guaranteeing the safety of their operation.
The concept of interfaces does, of course, call for clarification. “Interface” in this context means the exchange of information. Interfaces are the links between processes. By drawing up interface rules, one is looking to improve links between the different sub-systems. Within an organization, services are open and information is exchanged in all directions. This operating method guarantees communication flexibility, but compromises clarity to some degree. If the communication system is to be effective, this model needs to be improved and made “logical.”
Information system vs. computer-based system
To gain a grasp of the benefit of this approach in the design and deployment of an information system, a distinction should be drawn ideally between the information system and the computer-based system. The information system is a “social system of shared meanings,” facilitating decisions, actions and cooperative measures through the processing of information flows. This system is an integral part of an organization’s operational system; that is to say, the business component and the information-system component are not separate aspects of the organization.
The computer-based system, on the other hand, is simply the computerized part of the information system. In other words, this system translates the workflow into computer language for the purpose of standardizing the information.
Redefining the business and support processes
As part of efforts to overhaul the system, multidisciplinary teams have been tasked with reorganizing or reconfiguring Customs processes with a view to establishing “lean” processes, that is to say, processes that have been stripped of all ineffective operations, and comprise only those tasks that have added value for customers in the broad sense.
In specific terms, at the preliminary level of analysis, Customs macro-processes have been identified and a distinction has been made, essentially, between the strategic steering processes, the business processes, and the support processes. Each macro-process has then been broken down into its basic processes, which have been mapped in the form of actual activities conducted on the ground.
Mapping is an actual snapshot of the situation at a given moment. To depict a process through mapping, a practical observation is taken (e.g. from an interview, enquiry or timing mechanism) at the place where the process is conducted and used as the basis for setting out the different stages of the process, the symbolic representation of events (of the stages), the durations involved, the costs, the distances covered, the frequency of each stage, and the (schematic) links with the stakeholder(s) by stage. This work requires the involvement of a multidisciplinary team on the ground for determining as accurate a diagnostic outcome as possible.
The rules governing the exchange of information at the level of the points of contact identified during the mapping exercise have also been drawn up with the aim of ensuring that customer needs are taken into consideration from one process to another. For example, Algeria’s National Union of Freight Forwarders and Customs Agents (UNTCA) is consistently consulted prior to any decision taken in respect of third parties.
Therefore, Algeria Customs’ new information system will not only integrate all Customs activities, but also facilitate electronic data interchange (EDI) between all players in the international trade logistics chain, including other government departments and agencies dealing with foreign trade matters.
On another note, the success of such an approach depends on an accompanying change involving action on the ground by the players concerned to support their adoption of the new arrangements of the organization, their new role, and their new practices. This has been achieved, in particular through brainstorming meetings, popularization and awareness-raising sessions, as well as through continuous training and monitoring. For monitoring purposes, a form has been made available to users on the Customs website to ensure that the information given will be processed by the Communications Directorate.
In this area and in addition to the meetings regularly scheduled for discussing the Customs information system, a “failure mode, effects and criticality analysis (FMECA)” was conducted with a view to managing risk in relation to the deployment of the new system. Applying this FMECA method, a particular group is able to identify and deal with the potential causes of defects and failure before they arise. Criticality is reached on the basis of a triple rating: the seriousness or severity of the effect of the defect or failure, the occurrence or frequency of occurrence of the cause, and detection (probability of failure to detect the cause). The risks identified have included the lack of commitment by staff and system users, their lack of training and control of the tool, and their ability to adapt their work methods.
The workforce has also received a boost by the addition of some 30 engineers and high-level computer technicians, called upon to support their colleagues by introducing new methods. To this end, specialized universities have been consulted and top computer science graduates have been recruited.
Advantages of the new system
The new Customs information system will be rolled out gradually over a period of three years, commencing in January 2019. The old and new systems will have to run side by side during this transition period. Some of the advantages of the new information system include:
- digitizing all Customs procedures and, in so doing, removing the discretionary power of Customs agents, guaranteeing the transparency of operations and reducing the risk of collusion;
- applying fraud classification methods based on multiple criteria for the purpose of imposing fewer control measures while achieving better results, and thereby enabling the Customs administration to perform comprehensively its function of safeguarding the national economy while contributing to social cohesion;
- facilitating the establishment of a risk management hub, which will rely on the dynamic databases that the system will create and on the databases to which it will be connected;
- managing the random, periodic mobility of Customs agents, monitoring careers and skills development, guaranteeing observance of the code of conduct and discipline, and providing for the secure storage of individual staff records through electronic document management for the purpose of managing human resources on the basis of predetermined benchmarks.
In conclusion, it is essential to refer to the efforts made in terms of training. Customs managers responsible for the information system project have benefited from training in supply chain management, and the administration is proceeding to organize consultation groups; these meetings will enable users from the private sector to become acquainted with the new features of the new information system, with a view to guaranteeing its swift deployment and migration.