Human Resources and Organizational Issues in Customs

Author:Luc de Wulf

Human Resources: An Organization Is Only as Good as Its Staff. Staff Profile. Recruitment. Training. Staff Compensation. Integrity and Sanctions. Customs Organization and Organizational Placement. Internal Organization. Customs' Position in the Overall Government Structure. Advantages of Merging Customs with Other Revenue Agencies. Autonomous Revenue Authorities. Management Structure and... (see full summary)


    The contributions of Michael Lane and the assistance of Melanie Faltas are gratefully acknowledged.

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Customs is a unique organization among government agencies in that it is neither a domestic agency nor an international agency. It is poised on the international borders,1 not only as an expression of a nation's sovereignty, but also as the nation's guard against external threats to health,safety,and the environment protecting (for better or for worse) domestic industry and collecting revenue to support the government. It must be aware of the border implications of national priorities concerning domestic crime,immigration,labor,the economy,and agriculture.At the same time, it must maintain an awareness of international issues and their potential impact on the nation, and it must be knowledgeable about national obligations to trade and transport treaties and conventions. In many ways, customs organizations relate more closely with their counterparts in other countries than they do with other agencies in their own government. They frequently look to customs administrations internationally and in neighboring countries for assistance and for ideas on how to improve operations or enforcement, as well as to exchange information on emerging threats.

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The first section of this chapter deals with the modern management of human resources (HR) in customs. The second section addresses issues related to the more traditional customs organization, while the third and fourth sections discuss two recent organizational issues that have received considerable attention in recent years: Autonomous Revenue Authorities (ARAs) and management contracts. The final section provides operational conclusions and recommendations. The annexes provide checklists for issues of human resources management, management contracts, and ARAs.

Human Resources: An Organization Is Only as Good as Its Staff

Good management of human resources is probably the single most important issue that affects the efficiency and effectiveness of customs, irrespective of its organizational structure. This cannot be overemphasized as all aspects of customs management and customs clearance, including the application and maintenance of modern information technology (IT), will require that staff is qualified to operate the existing systems efficiently and to prepare the existing services for the introduction of new processes and techniques. In doing so, staff must be attuned to developments in international trade logistics and must adjust to shifts in emphasis with respect to customs' mandate.

Historically, customs work consisted of the manual labor of inspecting cargo, vessels, and passengers, and patrolling long stretches of border between ports of entry. Customs management was close to higher ranking government officials, while its staff was often poorly educated, trained, and compensated. This arrangement undermined professionalism and integrity in customs.

Increasingly, government services are being held to higher standards. The imperatives of a globalized economy on customs have become clear. A modern customs administration, responsible for protecting and representing the government at its country's borders and ports, must use a professional work-force and an enabling technology to accomplish its mission. Managing human resources at customs can be broken down into several phases:

* defining the desired staff profile

* establishing a recruitment process that ensures that customs has the desired staff on board

* training incumbent staff to maintain skill levels

* ensuring that the compensation package enables customs to motivate and retain staff

* ensuring that poor performance and integrity failures are promptly sanctioned.

Staff Profile

A modern customs administration needs to define the profile of its desired staff. The general educational background of all staff should be sufficiently high to ensure that they can acquire and maintain the skills required by a customs service. Such skills are bound to change over time and will increasingly require expertise in accounting, intelligence gathering, finance, investigation, analysis, training, planning, and HR management. All these functions will increasingly adopt procedures that rely heavily on the use of IT. Modern workflow analysis should be used to determine the desired distribution of personnel across the various skill categories.

Some of the major services required of customs, and the professional qualifications essential to fulfilling these requirements, include the following:

* Enforcement of domestic laws and regulations at borders. These laws and regulations should comply with all international customs conventions and standards to which the country has subscribed. Hence, staff should stay informed about developments in international trade negotiations and the requirements of globalization. Staff need adequate legal expertise to internalize the developments in the trading and international customs community and to translate them into domestic legislation.

* Implementation of modern customs clearance processes. With heavy IT input, modern risk assessment is based on modern intelligence gathering techniques to facilitate trade and to be attuned to private sector trade logistics advances. Expertise is required in IT as is the ability to perform risk analysis and post-clearance audits.

* Maintenance of open communications with the trading community. Customs must ensure that the trading community has full information regarding its obligations and that the trading community's views are taken into account in decisionmaking at customs. Communication Page 33 skills are required, but operational interface with the trading community must be conducted at arm's length.

* Enforcement of laws relating to intellectual property rights, security, drug trafficking, and, eventually, labor and human rights. While labor and human rights may not be the national priority, the need to enforce such legislation may emerge depending on the outcomes of future trade negotiations. This requires the capacity to integrate the agendas of other agencies into customs procedures.

* Collection and dissemination of international trade statistics requires IT expertise and an awareness of the importance of statistics for economic decisionmaking.

* Management of customs' HR requires sound human resources management and human resources development expertise.


Adjusting the existing staff profile to the desired one is frequently a gradual process. As the older staff retires, new staff has to be recruited not only for replacement but also to provide for any expansion in service. The recruitment effort should be a systematic one and could involve the announcement of job vacancies. Such announcements should clearly state the desired qualifications of the new staff, such as academic background, previous work experience, and so forth, and should clearly describe the recruitment process. Transparency in the recruitment process is important as this will set the standard for a new career at customs and curb the tendencies for favoritism and clientelism that often plague recruitment in the public sector.2 Public advertising of vacancies as well as participation in job fairs and visits to schools of higher learning are recommended to ensure that qualified people apply for the advertised jobs. Potential recruits should be subjected to stringent background investigations performed by trained investigators who might interview neighbors, associates, and previous employers. Checks of police records should be performed, as well as credit and bank account checks to assess the extent and sources of income. Entry requirements would include testing for the specific skills and aptitudes. Human resources management staff in customs could undertake these tasks in-house or could turn to recruitment professionals. New recruits should be advised that a career in customs involves rotation to enhance multifunctionality and to avoid the development of potentially unsavory relationships with the local trading community.3 New recruits with no prior experience in customs-related work should undergo intense training and testing to prepare them for their new assignments. If successful, they should undergo a probationary period before being confirmed as customs staff. Such probationary periods often last a full year, during which the employee can be terminated for unsatisfactory performance or disciplinary problems without the complex recourse to appeals and administrative tribunals. Following this probationary period and satisfactory performance evaluation, the trainees should be confirmed. Relying on transparent performance criteria aids supervisors and enhances the transparency of the recruitment process.

Most customs organizations traditionally rely on the recruitment of young candidates who are then schooled in the best practices of the customs service through a combination of academic and on-thejob training. However, modern customs practices require staff to possess expertise that cannot easily be attained through training within the customs service. Expertise in IT...

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