EDITORIAL – Customs improvements must be a priority

“More than three years after making recommendations, there is still no revenue concessions policy, nor is there any systematic monitoring of the revenue concessions awarded, and so it is not known how much money has been foregone or whether the things promised in return for the concession awarded have been being delivered.”
– Auditor General Sue Winspear

It is reassuring to hear that Customs and Border Control officials are taking seriously a series of recommendations made by the auditor general.

The audit report, released late last week, revealed a number of troubling deficiencies in operations. Auditors describe what might be called a rudderless agency, conducting business without a strategic plan, little workforce management or training, and no clear and consistent policy for revenue concessions.

These critical failures simply cannot be tolerated in an agency charged with such vital responsibilities. Indeed, the only proper response to such a damning report is an expression of “unequivocal commitment to implement the recommendations”, as the CBC offered. We urge them to waste no time in following through on that pledge.

The ‘to do’ list is daunting: Develop a strategic plan with attendant performance measurements, ensure that employees are properly trained and held to the highest standards of integrity, modernise information technology systems, the list goes on.

It is true, as auditors noted, that their recommendations are based on an evaluation which predates the agency’s recent reorganisation, and that at the time of the audit, after a three-year stretch without a permanent collector, the Customs Senior Management Team had been in place for just over a year. Now that turnover and reconfiguration is behind it, the agency is in an ideal position to implement meaningful changes.

The news comes on the heels of an announcement that the agency is undergoing a paradigm shift from a ‘command and control’ to a ‘risk-based and intelligence-led approach’ that empowers public-facing officers to exercise their judgment rather than taking a ‘one size fits all’ approach to every interaction.

Late last month, Michael Ebanks, deputy chief officer for human resources and immigration, told members of the Association of Caribbean Commissioners of Police that the new approach is paying off. “We’ve seen a record number of refusal rates,” he said. “That’s a direct reflection of recognising legitimate versus illegitimate passengers and goods.”

Teaching customs and border patrol agents to recognise red flags and suspicious behaviours will allow them to better target would-be lawbreakers while reducing friction for everyday travellers. It is an efficient, customer-friendly use of resources.

And it is a good step – the first of what must be many – toward creating the effective, professional and transparent agency our islands deserve.

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