The virtues of virtualBy María Fernanda Giordano, Technical Adviser in the Coordination and Evaluation of Customs Operations Directorate, Customs Administration of Argentina
The WCO Secretariat has taken measures and developed tools to ensure business continuity within its working bodies facing the constraints imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past few months, most of the WCO’s meetings have been held in a hybrid format, combining a document-based phase (submission of comments) with online video-conferencing sessions.
Although face-to-face meetings are more efficient, and virtual meetings present significant workload challenges for the staff of the WCO Secretariat, there is a positive side to the new arrangement: it is easier for WCO Member administrations to allow their representatives to participate in the discussions taking place within the WCO working groups and committees as they do not incur travel-related costs.
This new reality has allowed Argentina Customs to increase its participation in WCO meetings to almost 95%. The number of Argentinean officers attending meetings has also risen. As a result, the composition of the delegation assigned to each meeting has been more diverse as well. In total, more than 160 Argentinian officers have participated in the various working groups, committees, seminars, workshops and conferences organized online.
Before the pandemic, the Administration’s usual practice was to select face-to-face meetings on the WCO calendar that were considered to be a priority, based on the allocation of resources for foreign trips. Argentina Customs generally sent a delegation of one or, under exceptional circumstances, two representatives to WCO Headquarters in Brussels to attend the following meetings: Enforcement Committee, Permanent Technical Committee, Harmonized System Committee, Technical Committee on Customs Valuation, Policy Commission and, of course, Council Sessions. Although this may seem like a long list for those not familiar with the work of the WCO, it is actually rather short given that the Organization’s calendar makes provision for over 60 meetings a year.
Argentina Customs also realized the value of participating in the virtual meetings that the Secretariat was already organizing, such as those of the Virtual Working Group on Gender Equality and Diversity. It has recently started to do so by attending the Group’s April 2021 session, during which the Administration shared information on the recent initiatives it had launched in this field.
Argentina has no Brussels-based Customs Attaché and even though Argentina Customs has occasionally asked the Embassy of Argentina to the Kingdom of Belgium to send a representative to a WCO meeting, in most cases, the delegation must come all the way from Argentina to Belgium. Members of the delegation would be selected mainly on the basis of their knowledge and experience of the topic discussed, as well as their fluency in one of the WCO’s two official working languages (English and French).
The language aspect is still decisive, and restrictive, but less so now given that the list of meetings for which the Secretariat provides interpretation in Spanish has been enlarged as part of the “Pilot Project on the Use of Additional Languages at the WCO”.
Most WCO tools and instruments are developed during the intersession, and Members do not have to attend a meeting or committee to be involved in the work done by the WCO Secretariat. Argentina Customs has always responded to written requests, whether it is to answer surveys, provide seizure data to the Customs Enforcement Network, participate in enforcement operations, or provide detailed explanations of its practices and procedures to be included in WCO compendiums and other publications.
Argentina Customs organized the WCO IT Conference in 2014, and a Side Event on E-Commerce in 2017 within the framework of the Eleventh WTO Ministerial Conference held in Buenos Aires. It also actively engaged with the Secretariat in capacity building activities, and has benefited from the Human Resource Development Programmes (Fellowship Programme, Career Development Programme, and Virtual Customs Orientation Academy, among others).
It cannot be denied, however, that participation and engagement have gone a step further with the move to online meetings of WCO committees and working groups. Sometimes as many as five representatives of Argentina Customs have been able to participate in these online events. Each a specialist in a specific field, they have developed synergies and cooperation as they have had to prepare for the meetings together, as well as work together during the intersessions.
Members of the delegation to the Working Group on the Comprehensive Review of the Revised Kyoto Convention (8th Meeting) and to the Revised Kyoto Convention Management Committee (23rd, 24th and 25th Meetings) explained that the virtual format enabled their Administration to participate in these meetings for the first time. During both the preparation phase and the video conferences themselves, they discussed not only the technical topics on the Agenda but many other topics as well, and also got to know each other and create a great team dynamic. As they said, “in less than a year, we have already had two informal work sessions and four formal meetings, and we are proud to contribute to the harmonization of Customs procedures”.
In order to capitalize on the experience gained by each member of the delegation, the composition of the delegation to various meetings has been officially agreed, although with some flexibility. Take the example of the Permanent Technical Committee (PTC). Argentina’s journey began with the 225th/226th PTC Sessions in October 2019, one officer and the Director of the Technical Directorate travelling to Brussels. When it came to the spring sessions in 2020 the pandemic was already spreading, and the WCO Secretariat decided to hold them in a purely document-based format via the WCO CLiKC! Platform, as explained in the article COVID-19: WCO adopts new procedures and tools to ensure business continuity. The Secretariat then developed an interface that offered web conferencing with live interpretation, and the autumn 2020 and spring 2021 PTC sessions were therefore held using a combination of a document-based phase (submission of comments) and web-conference meeting sessions. The very same delegation attended these remote sessions. They learnt how to prepare robust and meaningful interventions, including how to request support internally, and how to meet the needs and expectations of the Committee members. They were also part of the ad-hoc Mini Group which reviewed the PTC Rules of Procedure. The Administration now aims to maintain the same delegation for the fifth PTC session in a row.
Officers who had the opportunity to be involved in the discussions, even if only remotely, expressed their satisfaction and said that sharing ideas and learning from the experiences of others boosted their motivation.
There are, of course, obvious benefits to participating in technical groups maintaining critical standards, such as the WCO Data Model. An Argentinean delegation has been attending the meetings of the Data Model Projects Team (DMPT) since June 2020. “While it is true that face-to-face meetings facilitate networking and the development of good relationships between participants and the Secretariat staff, the move to a virtual format has been very positive as it allowed us to participate in each and every DMPT meeting”, they explained. “We are now in a better position to implement the Data Model and have started mapping our data sets in order to ascertain alignment with it. We also now understand what is on the horizon in terms of updates.”
Another working body which we have started participating in is the Working Group on Performance Measurement (WGPM). The Argentinean delegation to the 2nd and 3rd Meetings of the Group highlighted that “our Administration would not have been able to send us to Brussels due to budgetary restrictions. We worked very hard to contribute proactively to the Group’s discussions, both during the meetings and the intersession, acquiring a greater understanding of the issues and developing a real sense of commitment to the Group’s objectives.”
The same goes for events. Although most WCO events were already streamed live online and available on the WCO YouTube channel, the virtual format makes it possible for more people to attend such events and interact with speakers.
The WCO Secretariat has been able to design not only remote meetings but also remote capacity building. This enabled Argentina to receive assistance in carrying out its first Time Release Study (TRS). During a four-day webinar, WCO experts provided detailed guidance on the TRS methodology to 30 officers and helped them draft an action plan. To those administrations that are still somewhat reluctant to engage with the WCO Secretariat on a remote basis in capacity building activities, we have one message: “Go for it”!
We can learn many lessons from this pandemic. One of them would be that engaging in the work of the WCO is beneficial for the Administration, the country and the international community, and that we should find ways to facilitate this engagement once we are “back to normal”.