One of our four government as a platform workstreams is called department transformation, and it’s all about breaking down invisible barriers between departments and agencies so we can improve services for users.
One recent 8-week discovery took a close look at the processes for importing and exporting goods across the UK border, which are currently handled by 26 different government departments and agencies.
The pan-government team worked with colleagues from HMRC, Home Office, BIS, Defra, DFT, DCMS, Border Force, Animal and Plant Health Agency, Port Health, Trading Standards, Environment Agency, Food Standards Agency, and Arts Council England; not to mention representatives from various trade bodies, port operators and logistics companies too.
They wanted to find out: how could imports and exports be made easier for users if government departments and agencies provided a more joined up service at the border?
A confusing process
Importing and exporting goods is the lifeblood of our economy – for example, a lot of the food we eat and the clothes we wear originate from outside the UK. Government operations at the border are there to make sure the right goods are being moved, that we know what they are, that illicit or dangerous goods aren’t coming into the country, and that the correct duty is paid.
For users, though, the whole system can be confusing and disjointed. Over many years, all those different agencies managing border controls have developed their own ways of managing data and handling information. There’s too much duplication of data gathering and data entry, and there’s not enough sharing of relevant information. All too often, data is inaccurate or arrives too late to be useful. It becomes an uphill battle for our border agencies to intervene in problem cases, simply because the data flow isn’t as good as it might be.
Importers and exporters have told us they find the job of understanding and then complying with all these requirements to be confusing and time consuming.
Many importers and exporters turn to third party freight forwarders to help them navigate a route through it.
We gained a wide range of user insight that reflects the scale and experience of users, for example:
I thought it would be fine showing up at the airport with the paperwork, but it’s confusing about where to go and what you need to do.
In the beginning we'd pick stuff up in the van, but we didn’t know what to do with the forms. We went to Dover to collect goods, and although the people at Dover helped with the forms, and got it cleared, it was really time consuming. We got a freight forwarder to sort out the paperwork and remove the pain.
Without compliance we have no business. Security of our supply chain is paramount for the safety of our products and our brand reputation.
What we discovered
We began with our users. We conducted workshops and interviews with freight forwarders, motor manufacturers, retailers, small businesses, border control professionals and many more.
One of the issues that became apparent in our early conversations, was the difficulty people found in working out what they needed to do to move goods across the border for the first time. If we were going to improve the services, we needed to understand the user experience from beginning to end, from first plans to import / export through to the goods arriving with consumers.
Among many other things, we discovered that business users often lack confidence when it comes to organising international trade. The complexity of the system puts people off, particularly small and medium sized businesses. Simply making the whole process easier to understand would boost their confidence, and in turn boost trade, innovation and ambition.
There’s similar complexity in the computer systems being used by all the different agencies and departments involved. Data gets gathered more than once, then duplicated and stored in different places and in different ways. There’s a clear need for a more joined-up approach.
We need to know more
If this discovery taught us anything, it’s that we don’t know enough yet. There’s a lot more to uncover. Our list of recommendations includes more discoveries and pilots.
We think the next steps should be:
- a pilot data project, enabling commercial supply chain systems to talk directly to government ones. We think this could result in a more transparent flow of data, which would lower costs for business and help government be more certain about what goods are being moved across the border and focus limited border enforcement resources in the right place
- a trial joint working project, testing out multi-agency teams and multi-skilled teams at front line import/export locations, with the aim of reducing overlaps and duplication in different organisations (planned for the port of Felixstowe and Heathrow airport)
- a guidance and advice discovery, helping businesses deal with the complex tangle of compliance regulations that they constantly strive to meet - simply making the process easier to understand could boost confidence among business users, so they can do more international trade
- a licensing and permissions discovery, identifying ways for government and businesses to use data more effectively, reducing duplication and making it simpler to get permission to move goods from place to place
In our discovery, we also considered what issues might need to be considered and addressed if Government was to develop a secure, single experience for people moving goods across the UK border. Our ultimate aim is to facilitate international trade and travel whilst reducing costs, without compromise to the protection of the UK from harm. We’re still a long way away from that, but this first discovery was a chance to understand what the current landscape looks like, and find opportunities for making it better.