By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Chamber of Commerce's chief executive says "there's really no downside" to Customs' new digital system, but called for "patience" as all parties go through their "learning curve".
Jeffrey Beckles, urging the private sector to stay the course over the Electronic Single Window's (ESW) roll-out, told Tribune Business that it will ultimately produce "gains and benefits" for both businesses and government by making cross-border commerce more efficient while cracking down on revenue leakages.
Speaking prior to yesterday's launch of the ESW's education and registration drive, Mr Beckles said the Chamber of Commerce was committed to working with Customs and all sides to iron out "any kinks" given that the initiative is a key element in the Minnis administration's e-government transformation.
"It's a new process which means a learning curve on both sides of the fence," he added. "We know it's a system that works globally, and need to get our minds around it. We're going to work to strengthen the partnership with Customs to make sure the relationship is as smooth as possible, and make sure users of the system are well versed in how to use it.
"The system is data driven, which means as people use it more often it becomes more efficient. The process should become a lot more seamless and efficient. What's more important is we want a new system, and the users are a great part of its overall success. We're working with the Ministry of Finance and Customs to ensure that message is very clear."
It is doubtful that Abaco's private sector and shipping/import community share Mr Johnson's optimism either. Tribune Business revealed last week how Abaco's business community was "extremely upset" over "delays and added expenses" created by the transition to the new digital process.
Ken Hutton, the Abaco Chamber of Commerce's president, warned that unless rectified these issues would increase the cost of clearing goods and, ultimately, the cost of living as any price rises will be passed on to consumers.
"There are still significant delays clearing goods, and there are issues still yet to be dealt with properly. The biggest issue is that the actual workload in clearing goods has increased between 400-500 per cent," he said.
"It's definitely affecting the clearance of goods out of the port and, based upon how much extra time and work it's taking to do these entries on the ESW system, I can foresee that the cost of clearing goods is definitely going to increase and that's going to increase the cost of living in Abaco. An entry that would normally take three hours is now taking a day-and-a-half. An entry that used to cover one page on a C13 now covers 15 pages or more."
Lance Pinder, operations manager at Abaco Big Bird, told Tribune Business: "Brokers are working until midnight. We do our own brokerage at the farm so we know. It's really time consuming and unclear. It was put into effect with almost no warning.
"I have talked with other business people and we expect it will raise prices around 5 per cent. People are having to hire more staff. People in Green Turtle Cay are having issues because their stuff can't be cleared in time to catch the weekly mailboat, so it's stuck in Marsh Harbour for a week. It's really putting a mental and physical strain on people here in Abaco."
Mr Beckles, though, said the Chamber planned to work with Customs to "maximise the roll-out as best we can" when the ESW is introduced "seaside" in New Providence next month.
"At the end of the day it's going to make life easier and more efficient but, like everything else, we have to work out the kinks and encourage people to become as engaged as possible to mitigate the initial challenges we have," he told Tribune Business.
"We're satisfied Customs is working on their side to make sure the infrastructure is in place and that the support is there on the back end. There are shippers and port authorities that have to be involved, so there are quite a number of moving parts that have to work seamlessly to make sure the process works.
"As always patience is needed on everyone's part. It's a nationwide change that's going to affect everybody, and requires collaboration, patience and commitment to see it through. It's a huge change. We've not had a system like this before. The country's made a commitment to digitise and this is one of those steps to that," Mr Beckles continued.
"There's going to be tremendous benefits. It allows us to become more efficient, allows us to collect the necessary data. We need to strengthen our data capacity for better budgeting, better analysis of how exports and imports work. It should allow for better analysis and planning."
Mr Beckles said revenue leakages should also be captured by the ESW, so "there's really no downside to it. It makes us more efficient, allows us to collect data to provide proper analytics for policies, and shoring up the collection of revenues.
"That's a good thing," he added. "It requires us to get to know the system, function with it, and we should see gains and benefits relatively soon."