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What happens when Customs automates?

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Okay. People are asking us for an explanation or an opinion regarding the Customs & Excise Division’s new ASYCUDA system and the recent pronouncements made by the comptroller, so we figured that we would post them so that the discussion can get under way and answers can be provided.

The cutting-edge automated system went live on January 23. However, according to the comptroller of Customs Raju Boddu, the division will only be able to assess its effectiveness when all systems are functioning and transactions are entered into it.  He said, “We need to see in real life how it is really working for us and later down in the year, once the system is implement[ed], we really intend to do an IT audit of the system, whether all the controls are in place or not.”

Seems like a sensible approach to us. After all, we would look askew at any early pronouncement on the system’s success without the benefit of real world experience. Be that as it may, the promise of a streamlined and automated customs system is old and it has left the people wanting. All the touted benefits have been held out like a carrot on a stick long enough to keep it out of our grasp for many, many years. Now that it is apparently here, people have reserved their pronouncements until they can touch, feel, and use it themselves. 

That does not apply to the conspiracy theorists. They see ASYCUDA as window dressing because they claim that politicians will never allow their powerful discretionary waivers to be weakened in any way. They claim that concessions are still one of the most powerful incentives, or to use their word, “bribes”, in a politician’s arsenal and to have that subjected to a formal, documented review process is wishful thinking. And they make that proclamation, seemingly, with no fear of ever being proved wrong.

Conspiracy theorists are sceptics, so we understand their pessimism; however, we optimistically look forward to a more customer friendly customs process. It may be that we are a bit naïve but we cannot resist the sales pitch of the comptroller when he says

things like, “The processing times and the delivery times are going to be reduced drastically; that is our expectation … It is hoped that the time will be cut by two-thirds.”

Now, unlike retail businesses, we are not big importers, but we must admit that we like the sound of a two-thirds reduction in the processing time for importation. We can only imagine the elation of those who regularly import goods.

Add to that the promise that in a short while, all importers will be able to access the system – uploading and tracking their information from the comfort of their homes, and we are sold. Having an efficient way of importing goods is an important factor in becoming an ‘economic powerhouse’. Let’s face it, investors do not want their projects stalled because of holdups at the port and visitors, such as the yachting crowd, have always lamented the slow, complicated nature of our Customs processes. And we haven’t even touched on the local merchants who have a regular stream of criticism aimed towards Customs’ current processes.

Having said all of that, we now get to the interesting bit of the story. According to Boddu, he expects that there will be zero job cuts from the new measure and, in fact, the division would need more people to balance out the volume of work that is anticipated to come in.  He said, “We need more people now, not much, but about 10 per cent increase.”

While we readily admit that we are not entirely familiar with the new process, it strikes us as odd that all of this new technology and automation will require a 10 per cent increase in staff. Isn’t automation supposed to make the system (including human resources) more productive and efficient? We can understand that the government would not want to send persons home, but how did we arrive at a staff increase after automation?

We have a lot of time for Mr Boddu. He has always been very forthright with his comments and taken the time to talk to the press and answer our questions. In light of that, we are asking the comptroller, on behalf of the many people who asked us, to please come forth and give us a better understanding of why we would need to expand the ranks of the Customs & Excise Division after we have implemented an automation system? To most people’s minds, if a system requires more bodies after implementation, then it is hardly automation. 

As we wait for Mr Boddu to provide clarification, we keep hearing a faint voice from beyond calling out, “Only in Antigua!”  Mr B? Is that you?

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