Adapting to the ‘New Normal’: pioneering remote Mercator scoping missionsBy Donia Hammami, Executive in Charge of HMRC-WCO-UNCTAD partnership, WCO Secretariat
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a major shift in how we work, live and engage with each other – both on a personal and a professional level. After the initial shockwave, and following an adjustment period, we now find ourselves in a situation that is commonly referred to as ‘the new normal’.
The WCO Secretariat has adapted its working methods to these unprecedented times and is now supporting Customs administrations requesting its assistance on a remote basis, the main condition being the administration’s willingness and ability to engage in such a way.
This article looks at one particular example: the remote delivery of Mercator Programme Stocktaking & Forward Planning missions by the WCO team overseeing the HMRC-WCO-UNCTAD Programme.
Financially supported by the Government of the United Kingdom through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the HMRC-WCO-UNCTAD Programme aims to support developing countries to effectively implement the provisions of the World Trade Organization (WTO) Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) under the auspices of the Mercator Programme, the WCO umbrella programme for all activities related to trade facilitation.
The missions referred to involved the Customs administrations of Eswatini and Zambia, and took place during July-September 2020. What are the practical experiences drawn from these? This article zooms in on the perspectives of the leadership of the respective administrations and of the accredited Mercator Programme Advisors (MPAs) leading the missions, while also addressing programme management considerations.
Launched in 2014 and designed to assist governments in implementing the Customs trade facilitation measures outlined in the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), the Mercator Programme provides capacity building for WCO Members on the basis of a comprehensive needs assessment and development plan – i.e. the Mercator Implementation Plan. This ensures a more strategic, orderly, consistent and higher tempo delivery of capacity building support.
The Customs-to-Customs approach, through the WCO accredited Mercator Programme Advisors (MPAs), is at the base of the Mercator Programme. MPAs are experienced Customs managers who play a key role in supporting administrations with implementing the TFA provisions on the basis of international best practices and standards, and by leveraging the WCO’s extensive range of instruments and tools.
The context: providing support despite COVID-19 travel constraints
Capacity building and technical assistance-related activities have traditionally primarily been delivered face-to-face. When it became evident that travel restrictions were likely to remain in place for months, the team in charge of the HMRC-WCO-UNCTAD Programme quickly reached out to Customs administrations to assess their willingness and ability to identify potential areas for collaboration and work remotely on achieving the identified objectives.
The Eswatini Revenue Authority (SRA) and Zambia Revenue Authority (ZRA), whose Mercator Implementation Plans were developed in 2018, both responded positively. The Programme team started working in close consultation with the SRA and ZRA Mercator Focal Points in drafting an agenda that would take into account the limitations and constraints of the mission’s remote nature – i.e. online meetings had to be more focused and shorter than face-to-face meetings, with more preparatory work in between. The existing Mercator Implementation Plans provided the basis for these deliberations. Moreover, the three Mercator Programme Advisors (MPAs), assigned to oversee the delivery of the revised multi-year development plan, were also involved. The objective was to take stock of what had already been done and identify possible areas for improvements while also keeping in mind the need to identify activities suitable for remote support.
Using a very popular communication and collaboration software, each stocktaking mission took place over 7 days. It included both information-gathering sessions and forward-planning sessions of up to a maximum three hours. Given that it is not possible to knock on someone’s door for last-minute inquiries or agenda adjustments during a remote mission, each day was concluded with a wrap-up between the MPAs, the Mercator Focal Point and the WCO Secretariat representatives to allow for reflection on the discussions that had been carried out, as well as preparation of upcoming sessions. Moreover, a kick-off session and a closing session with the administrations’ executives were also planned in order to set the scene and articulate mutual expectations – ensuring a conducive environment with the buy-in of all participants.
Alongside the MPAs, the WCO delegation also included experts from the WCO Secretariat working on risk management, Time Release Studies, gender and diversity, and Human Resource Management. Moreover, prior to the missions, development partners such as the World Bank and UNCTAD had been consulted to obtain an understanding of their ongoing in-country engagements.
The Members’ perspective
The WCO being a membership-driven organization, its support is only as good as the Members perceive it to be. In this light, the officer in charge of overseeing the delivery of the HMRC-WCO-UNCTAD Programme liaised with the Customs Heads within the ZRA and the SRA, together with their respective Mercator Focal Points, to seek the administrations’ feedback on the remote Mercator Stocktaking & Forward Planning mission. The question they were asked was: what impressions have the colleagues from Eswatini and Zambia taken away from the virtual working sessions, and what conclusions would they like to share with their colleagues from other countries?
Sydney Chibbabbuka, ZRA Commissioner of Customs Services, explained that the news that ZRA staff had been infected by COVID-19 came as a shock to him. The pandemic disrupted the workflow and impacted the administration’s performance, which is partially measured in terms of how much revenue is collected against the set targets. However, the Commissioner said that he drew some inspiration from Zambia’s President who, in his address to the nation, had underlined that this was the ‘new normal’ to deal with.
“As Customs officers, we are considered essential workers and we had to continue to fulfil our duties. So when we received the WCO Secretariat’s proposal to work together remotely, we thought, why not?, because at the rate that things were evolving, we might not be able to meet within the next year,” declared Commissioner Chibbabbuka. “We also wanted to show our commitment to the WCO Mercator Programme and our willingness to facilitate trade flows in the region. We wanted to do our best to thrive under these circumstances.”
Once it had been agreed to go ahead with the mission, the next step was to have the ZRA Project Manager and the Mercator Focal Point coordinate with the Programme team and start preparations. “During the Executive Kick-Off meeting, we agreed that the various experts who were to be consulted had to be fully ready for each meeting and discussion. Each participant needed to come to the office to ensure access to the IT facilities, to fully engage and be available in good time for discussions, and to prepare adequately for each meeting,” the Commissioner noted.
ZRA was not only the first Customs administration to receive a Mercator Stocktaking and Forward Planning mission, but also the first to receive it on a remote basis. According to the representatives of the administration who participated in the mission, it was very fruitful. They even believe that, in future, a “blended approach” should be recommended when delivering such assistance. Although, evidently, field observation and other tasks require a physically presence, this experience has shown that some aspects can and should be conducted virtually, especially those related to the preparatory phase of the mission, including when it came to setting the expectations.
To those administrations that were still somewhat reluctant to engage with the WCO Secretariat on a remote basis in capacity building activities, Commissioner Chibbabbuka conveyed the following message: “Customs have to be dynamic organizations and consider learning as a continuous exercise. We cannot stay static.”
Just a few weeks after the mission ended, the Secretariat started working with the ZRA on the implementation of Article 7.8 of the WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement on expedited shipments. The objective is to help the ZRA to leverage the WCO Immediate Release Guidelines and streamline the air cargo clearance processes. “As health experts focus on finding a cure for the pandemic, we, as Customs, one of the many actors responsible for the continuity of the supply chain, must focus on keeping trade flowing,” concluded Commissioner Chibbabbuka.
At the time of the meeting with SRA Commissioner-General Mr Dumisani Masilela, 27 Customs officers had tested positive to COVID-19 within the administration. However, transmission seemed to have taken place outside of the office environment, and the strict measures adopted by the administration seemed to be working.
“When we were approached by the WCO Secretariat, we had already switched to remote meetings and knew that this could be done,” Commissioner Masilela explained. While recognizing that some activities could not be carried out remotely, he also agreed that some work did not require physical site visits. It was noted that the WCO team had been very pro-active in pursuing this particular remote engagement – more than other international organizations as they ended up postponing missions and being less engaged. “Going forward, there might in fact be a temptation to keep things virtual. A lot of missions would be more effective this way and it also allows for a broader scope of experts to engage,” he added. It is worth noting that more than 84 SRA staff participated in the mission’s sessions.
SRA Mercator Focal Point and a MPA in her own right, Ms. Gugu Dlamini-Zwane, underlined that “during a scoping mission, it is usually a challenge to get the right people to attend. By this I mean decision-makers and officers working at the appropriate strategic level. As most of them were working from home, it was easier to get them all together.” Remote meetings were also very convenient to private sector representatives with whom a special session was organized together with the WCO MPAs, without SRA officers present. For private sector representatives, time is money, and they need to feel that their voice is heard. “The business representatives who participated in the meeting really appreciated the opportunity to share their thoughts and observations. They were members of the Eswatini Customs Business Forum and the meeting also enabled them to identify agenda items for the Forum’s next meetings,” Ms. Gugu Dlamini-Zwane said.
When asked to share key take-aways from the remote mission experience, the Commissioner-General stated: “I really believe that this is the way of doing things in the future. Many people join physical meetings late, for example because they need to come from a different place. Now there is no reason to be late. It generates a lot of efficiency. You start to wonder why we did not use these kind of conference platforms before COVID-19. As the situation normalizes, we have to find a balance between the two and combine the physical with the virtual.”
Maintaining a positive outlook, the Commissioner-General reflected that, to an extent, the crisis generated by the pandemic had been a “blessing in disguise” at many levels as it had pushed the SRA to explore new solutions. For example, the administration had been battling for years to persuade taxpayers to make payments electronically, which was something they were reluctant to do. Now, they were actually excited about being able to do this.
The Mercator Programme Advisors’ (MPAs) perspective
The success or failure of any Mercator scoping mission stands or falls with the expertise and people skills of the MPAs. Their experience, knowledge, preparation and overall commitment is critical to successful outcomes. The Zambia and Eswatini missions were led by three experienced accredited MPAs from HMRC: Mr Terry Madden-Nadeau, Elliot Gough and Syed Moinuddin. Having previously conducted physical in-country missions, how do they look back at their first virtual assessments?
Articulating the three MPAs’ joint view, Mr Gough declared that “while the administration’s colleagues on the ground can serve as our eyes and ears – and while sometimes Google maps or other tools can even provide further insights and overall a good feel for the situation at a port, for example – virtual assessments will never fully match the experience of being on the ground and seeing the , volume of lorries, traffic management, actual border stations and interactions with other border agencies. That is to say, seeing the infrastructure in person.”
In light of the above, in their mission reports the MPAs therefore also identified those particular areas that would remain subject to in-country validation once travel was possible again. That said, they all felt that it was quite an exciting time to serve as an MPA. “This remote delivery is new and novel – we are edging forward in a new era. Together we can learn and improve as we go forward,” said Mr Madden-Nadeau. “Both the MPAs and the administrations have to maintain an agile and flexible approach. Responding to challenges is what Customs does best,” added Mr Moinuddin.
They also agreed with the administrations’ view that remote engagement should be an important part of the working approach for scoping missions in the future. Even if it were possible to go back to the “old normal,” a higher level of interaction prior to a mission would have to be embraced – meeting the key people virtually before a mission and establishing a conducive working relationship and trust base.
Furthermore, all three MPAs applauded the level of engagement of the administration staff and of external stakeholders as reflected by the high number of participants in the respective sessions. Some joined from the comfort of their own office, home or even car. The remote nature of the mission allowed also for the participation of a broader WCO delegation, including WCO Secretariat technical experts and the HMRC-WCO-UNCTAD programme team. Moreover, representatives from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), a partner within the Programme, participated in the mission session organized with Eswatini’s National Committee on Trade Facilitation.
The MPAs also considered it a remarkable benefit that the turn-around time of remote missions could be so much quicker. The mission preparations could be completed within a shorter run-up time as no travel had to be planned. Likewise, the first capacity building activities identified could already start immediately after the end of the missions, even before finalization of the mission report, as the Programme team could engage with the heads of the administration during the closing session and follow up accordingly.
Key take-aways from a Programme management perspective
While it is evident that in-country missions serve a unique purpose in obtaining on-the-ground insights, the first remote Mercator Stocktaking and Forward Planning missions highlighted above have proven to be very positive and illustrate that it can be done. Both the Customs administrations as well as the MPAs expressed their hope that they might also inspire other administrations to embrace remote engagement with the WCO Secretariat and fellow Customs administrations to the extent possible.
Even though the Customs community faces many challenges due to COVID-19, its work was, and remains, more important than ever – protecting our societies while keeping trade flows going and ensuring prompt access to essential goods. Therefore, waiting until the pandemic is under control and we can travel again is simply not an option. For the team in charge of the HMRC-WCO-UNCTAD programme, it would also have meant missing the opportunity to provide various administrations with valuable and timely capacity building and technical assistance, as the Programme has only a two-year timeframe (2020-2022).
Many lessons have been learned that will serve to further improve remote missions going forward. In particular:
- top-level support, and a positive and pragmatic approach by all parties involved, together with a commitment to make the virtual mission a success, is of vital importance. The executive-level kick-off meetings play an instrumental role in this regard as also emphasized above;
- the role of the Mercator Focal Points is essential, as they have project management skills and conveying power within their administration to drive the work forward and ensure the right people with the required mandates participate in the meetings in a timely and well-prepared fashion;
- once in-country missions are possible again, it would be appropriate to adopt a blended approach combining virtual and in-person meetings. Virtual missions allow for enhanced stakeholder engagement and efficiency gains. In the same light, they enable the Programme Team to participate directly and contribute to the deliberations, and to conduct multiple missions in parallel;
- from a logistical perspective, virtual missions allow for a shorter run-up time and smoother release of MPAs as no travel is involved. However, they do require more time from the Programme team in terms of coordination;
- remote missions allow for quick follow-up action: a virtual assistance activity can start directly after the mission is closed, as soon as the a need or a request for assistance of the administration has been identified ;
- having the right IT and good internet connection speed or bandwidth is essential.
Supported by the UK Government’s Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) through HMRC, the Programme provides technical assistance and capacity-building to developing countries and most particularly lower-income countries. Working in close synergy with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the GBP 1.4 million WCO programme is a continuation of the successful collaboration with HMRC, which began in 2015, to support efforts to implement trade facilitation reforms effectively through the WCO Mercator Programme. The renewed HMRC-WCO-UNCTAD partnership will run until April 2022. The Programme team is currently working with Eswatini, Lesotho, Liberia and Zambia to explore where technical support can be provided, for example in response to the challenges posed by COVID-19.
To ensure synergy, the HMRC Programme shares its programme office with the Trade Facilitation Programme in Middle Income Countries (TFMICs) Programme which is also funded by the United Kingdom. The latter Programme currently provides tailor-made support to several Customs administrations, including Brazil, India, Philippines and South Africa, on a range of topics such as gender and inclusivity, Customs law review, risk management, Time Release Study, and streamlining of air cargo clearance processes.