The word ‘reform’ is a constant in the daily life of a customs officer. No customs administration among the 177 members of the World Customs Organization has not had a reform program in progress or planned. This is ultimately quite normal.A new World Bank publication “Reform by Numbers” will no doubt appeal to customs and tax reform experts and change agents.
It was written in the context of new and innovative policies for customs and tax administration reform. Eight chapters describe how measurement and various quantification techniques may be used to fight against corruption, improve cross-border celerity, boost revenue collection, and optimize the use of public resources. More than presenting ‘best practices’ and due to the association of academics and practitioners, the case studies explore the conditions under which measurement has been introduced and the effects on the administrative structure, and its relations with the political authority and the users. By analyzing the introduction of measurement to counter corruption and improve revenue collection in Cameroon, two chapters describe to which extent the professional culture has changed and what effects have been noted or not on the public accountability of fiscal administrations. Two other chapters present experiments of uses of quantification to develop risk analysis in Cameroon and Senegal.
By using mirror analysis on the one hand and data mining on the other hand, these two examples highlight the importance of automated customs clearance systems which collect daily extensive data on users, commodities flows and officials. One chapter develops the idea of measuring smuggling to improve the use of human and material resources in Algeria and nurture the questioning on the adaptation of a legal framework to the social context of populations living near borders. Finally, two examples of measurement policies, in France and in South Korea, enlighten the diversity of measurement, the specificities of developing countries and the convergences between developing and developed countries on common stakes such as trade facilitation and better use of public funds.
The “gaming effect” is well known in literature about performance measurement and contracts performance, because there is a risk of reduced performance where targets do not apply, which is detrimental to the overall reform. It is crucial to keep in mind that, by themselves, indicators “provide an incomplete and inaccurate picture” and therefore cannot wholly capture the reality on the ground. Measurement indicators must be carefully chosen to ensure that knowledge is being uncovered.
Measurement, for purposes of reform, should not be “copied and pasted” from one country to another. Due consideration must be given to the varying aims of the customs service and the specific political, social, economic, and administrative conditions in the country.
Measurement applied to experimentation is also about how donors, experts, and national administrations work together. On the one hand, national administrations in developing countries ask for technical assistance, standards, and expertise that are based on experiences of developing countries and use experts from such countries.These requests encourage the dissemination of such models. On the other hand, reforms of customs or tax administrations are represented as semi-failures in terms of the initial expected outcomes set by donors and politicians – usually the end of a reform is the time when donors and local administrations become aware of the gaps of their own representations of success.
While scientific and academic in approach, lets hope it means more than just miserable experimentation in target countries.