COVID-19 : WCO adopts new procedures and tools to ensure business continuityBy the WCO Secretariat
The WCO has taken measures and developed tools to ensure business continuity within its working bodies during the current exceptional circumstances caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. In consultation with the Council Chairperson and Vice-Chairpersons, as well as the Chairpersons and Vice-Chairpersons of WCO working bodies, new working methods and procedures have been identified which can be adapted to meet the specific requirements of the working bodies scheduled according to the calendar of meetings approved by the Council.
The 227th/228th Sessions of the Permanent Technical Committee (PTC), held from 15 May to 3 July 2020, served as a pilot test for future meetings. The meeting was held following a purely document-based approach through the use of the WCO CLiKC! platform. The meeting took place in two phases: during the first phase, participants were asked to consult the meeting Agenda and to provide comments and views on each Agenda item via the CLiKC! platform discussion forum; during the second phase, the PTC Chairperson, assisted by the Secretariat, worked towards achieving a consensus and reaching a decision on any outstanding issues or concerns. This consultation process was conducted through the discussion forum as well as via online conferencing tools. Updated documents were then published, and participants were once again given an opportunity to raise any final concerns.
Some 140 delegates, representing Customs administrations, international organizations and the private sector, participated in the meeting. Over the seven-week period of the meeting, more than 390 contributions and comments were submitted by 32 administrations, seven observers and the Secretariat. All nine Agenda items were successfully addressed with discussions revolving around 21 different topics, including the role of Customs in mitigating the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, e-commerce, strategic foresight, and passenger control and facilitation.
During the meeting, it was decided to establish an ad-hoc mini group responsible for drafting new PTC Rules of Procedure (RoP) to be applied in case of extraordinary circumstances. The draft document was submitted to the 229th/230th Sessions of the PTC which are being held at the time of writing.
The same meeting format was used for the 57th Session of the Harmonized System Review Sub-Committee (RSC) held from 3 to 24 July 2020 with 124 Customs representatives and six observers attending. The Committee provided the Secretariat with an opportunity to test the feasibility of holding highly technical discussions using a document-based approach. The Agenda was reduced to 22 items essential to the timely implementation of the HS 2022 Edition and focused on the sets of amendments to the Explanatory Notes. The move to a document-based meeting in no way impeded the substantial progress being made and, while the meeting presented significant workload challenges for all involved, the results proved that technical drafting was not only possible in such a setting, but that it could be carried out to a very high standard.
In the meantime, the Secretariat has been working on the development of a more advanced interface that offers web conferencing with live interpretation, including the extremely challenging task of providing interpretation in several languages. The new tool has made it possible to transition to a blended meeting format, combining a document-based phase (submission of comments) with online video-conferencing sessions.
During the latest session of the Harmonized System Committee (HSC) being held in October 2020, an online voting procedure is being tested using both the CliKC! and web-conferencing platforms. Such a procedure will enable the Secretariat to deal effectively with all the items usually on the Agenda of HSC meetings should virtual meetings still have to be held into 2021.
From early September until December 2020, when the Council will meet again and decide on the way forward for the organization of meetings in 2021, over 20 committees, working groups and other bodies will have been held virtually.
Drawing on the experience gained, the Secretariat team is now confident in its capacity to hold large-scale virtual meetings and events that are both productive and engaging. It will continue to develop more advanced and value-added features as part of its commitment to provide a positive experience to all meeting participants.
 From 28 September to 29 October 2020.