Israel’s bold communication strategy pays off

Given the global recognition of the importance of raising awareness about Customs’ work, I am pleased to share an update on what the Israel Customs Directorate has been doing in this regard, as a lack of familiarity with Customs’ activities hampers efforts to fulfill our mission and lead Israel Customs forward. Sharing this information is fundamental to a successful Customs service.

When I assumed the Director General position, I realized that not only were the public unaware of Customs’ mission, its operations, the scope of its responsibilities and its significance to the economy and foreign trade, but political and government decision makers were unaware too. This led me to the conclusion that Israel Customs lacked the required focus, including material and human resources, and additional funding.

The first action we took was to set a vision, mission and goals, and to ensure that beyond being written on paper, they should also be known by all Customs employees.
Although I assume that this is common practice in all large organizations, including Customs administrations, it is essential that these factors be stressed at every training, course or conversation involving employees, as they are the ones who have direct interaction with the public and the business community, in addition to maintaining constant contact with various government bodies.

The second action was the training of a number of employees with a view to developing their public speaking skills so that they were better equipped to communicate Customs’ values and activities both within and outside the Israel Customs Directorate. I personally dedicated quite some time speaking at various forums in order to raise awareness about Customs’ operations and activities to as many people as possible. At the beginning of my lectures, I would always be amazed to discover that audiences were unaware of any other Customs work beyond the green and red channels at the airport. Our mission to change this was therefore a challenging one.

Furthermore, although the Israel Customs Directorate falls under the jurisdiction of the Israel Tax Authority, which is responsible for value-added tax, income tax, property tax, investigations, etc., even within this large organization, very few are aware of Customs’ activities. Hence our decision to initiate awareness-raising actions aimed at various government agencies, especially those with affinity for and influence on Customs, such as the Prime Minister’s Office, and the Ministries responsible for finance, industry, foreign affairs, transport and defence. This was the only way to promote Customs.

In parallel, we organized professional visits for the political leadership to places of interest and of strategic significance, such as the airport, sea ports and border crossings. Among our guests were the Deputy Prime Minister and Ministers, such as the Minister of Finance, the Minister of Regional Development and the Minister of Intelligence, as well as the Accountant General, the Civil Service Commissioner and employees of different finance divisions responsible for budgets.

This initiative familiarized the visitors with Customs’ areas of responsibility, methods of operation and the difficulties encountered in the field. It also resulted in field Directors and workers being exposed to decision-makers, which significantly increased their motivation. Similar activities were organized for foreign visitors, such as the WCO Secretary General and Directors General from other Customs administrations. We also invited representatives of the business sector to participate in these visits.

In order to equip Customs employees with an effective, informative tool, we produced a professional corporate video which presents the main points of Customs operations in five minutes. This video, along with professional presentations, is the main method we used to meet our goal of spreading the word about Customs’ areas of responsibility and operations. The video’s slogan was “Doing Business”, which reflects the changes we have made to maintain the delicate balance between law enforcement and trade facilitation in order to assist the private sector as much as possible.

Notwithstanding the awareness-raising activities that we had undertaken, we came to the realization that marketing and promotion will not be enough if there is no solid basis of professional work standing behind them. This led us to focus more efforts on training Customs employees, changing most of their rankings, facilitating work procedures and initiating dozens of conferences that included both private and public sector representatives, in order to inform them about our optimizations, and obtain feedback on our activities – both criticisms and suggestions for improvement. Through these activities we created interfaces that enhanced transparency and certainty for the public we provide services to.

Another method used for the vocational training of Customs’ employees is the online ‘web-sharing platform’ where every employee can easily obtain information on rules and regulations, including professional material and all that is required for optimal performance. This is one of the main strategies for Israel Customs’ knowledge management programme for both senior and new employees. Another tool we developed in order to maintain direct contact with employees is the possibility of messaging them instantly when necessary, by sending text messages from a computer system to a large number of employees at once.

pic3Developing ‘Global Gateway’ was another important initiative. This new computerized system streamlines Israel’s foreign trade. The system has helped to reduce costs and save resources, leading us towards better performance; it is also in line with similar systems around the world. Here too, significant resources were required for its promotion. At the same time, we improved the Customs web site, creating a friendlier environment able to fully reflect Customs’ activities, including seizures and other special actions and projects.

pic2For Israel Customs to literally become a family, two Customs conferences with different themes have already been held. All Customs employees – about 900 in total – were invited to the events, which hosted different guests, such as representatives of the business sector, the Minister of Finance, the President of the Chamber of Commerce and the Chairman of the Workers Federation (Histadrut). These conferences created a feeling of brotherhood and encouraged the development of a team spirit.

pic1One of our objectives was to leave behind a rich legacy, namely a progressive Customs service focused on excellence, with a long history. To achieve this we began a project: the writing and editing of a book dealing with the history of Customs in Israel from 1870 to 2010. The book describes the development and growth of Customs in Israel, and offers foresights for future development. Simultaneously, we edited booklets in English and in Hebrew providing an overview of Israel Customs’ operations. We also created unit tags and wallets that were distributed during the first Customs Day and which inspired group pride. New uniforms and work wear were also designed.

In the spirit of the slogan ‘Doing Business’, we realized that our performance also needed to be improved. We therefore used the World Bank report as a reference, and acted to change the rating of Israel Customs in the World Bank’s Trading Across Borders parameter. The results were satisfactory: Israel was ranked 10th for three consecutive years.

pic4To apply for the issue of a special postage stamp depicting Customs, we contacted the Israel Philatelic Service. They explained that only organizations which made an ongoing, significant contribution to the State of Israel were entitled to a stamp. Here, too, we tackled the lack of awareness about Customs’ activities by giving a presentation on the work of Israel Customs. The Philatelic Service then agreed to issue a special stamp honouring Israel Customs.

pic5According to Israel Customs’ vision, it is our duty to provide excellent quality service; all Customs units were therefore encouraged to improve working procedures and to take part in local and national competitions, using the opportunity to present their activities and raise the profile of Customs. Most Customs units did indeed take part in different competitions which exposed them to a variety of enterprises and agencies, resulting in them winning prizes year after year. Israel Customs itself also won the Prime Minister’s Prize for quality and excellence in the public service, which increased Customs’ exposure, bringing further awareness about its work.

In the professional field, the Israel Customs Directorate invested great efforts in order to promote international cooperation agreements and the Authorized Economic Operator (AEO) programme. These activities inspired improvements and further exposed Customs and the important work it does to the general public.

Each of the projects may perhaps seem small-scale, but the principle which kept driving us was action on all fronts to obtain exposure by raising the profile of Customs’ work through various awareness-raising activities. Although the fruits of these efforts are not always reaped in the short-term, especially when it comes to large-scale projects, Israel Customs continues to take steps using this strategy, and this is its recipe for success.

Our experience in Israel has changed dramatically. Customs has come to play a significant role for decision makers, the business community and the public. In addition, Customs employees are prouder than ever to work for the Israel Customs Directorate, as they are now motivated and eager to promote its work. Additional material and human resources have also recently been allocated to Customs.

Finally, I would like to say that in my opinion, the most important area in which to invest is an administration’s human resources, namely Customs’ employees. Their promotion, salary, motivation and professionalism are the key to success, as they are the ones who lead each and every process and without their collaboration it is impossible to succeed.

By Doron Arbely,

Former Director General of the Israel Customs Directorate

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