So apparently Theresa May has asked her Brexit subcommittee to go away and think a bit harder about their two proposed solutions to the post-Brexit EU border and customs problem.

One of the two approaches has been summarised as:

A ‘highly streamlined’ customs arrangement – This would minimise customs checks rather than getting rid of them altogether, by using new technologies and things like trusted trader schemes, which could allow companies to pay duties in bulk every few months rather than every time their goods cross a border

Now over the last 25 years I’ve become used to getting somewhat twitchy when people who aren’t technology experts start talking about how undefined technologies will be able to provide an answer to an otherwise intractable problem. Even more so when the current unproven technology fads are bandied around (in this case I’ve heard Blockchain being mentioned…)

See, the thing is this. Technology is next to never “the solution”. Your solution is your solution, and technology can help you to be able to implement that solution. But to know your solution, you need to have a reasonable grip on your problem.

Need to add up some numbers? A spreadsheet might help. So might a blockchain. So might a database. To be honest, until you ask the question “Why do we need to add up some numbers?” I’m none the wiser.

Once you’ve worked out the Why? then you might be able to start to understand the problem in a context where you can identify elements of how the problem might be addressed. That might include understanding the needs of various users (people, organisations, nation states) and what you will need to get them to do differently, whether that’s feasible, and how you might get them to change. You then might just about be in a position to start to understand where bits of technology might enable both the change and the ongoing steady state. Possibly.

You might, heaven forbid, even find out that you don’t need any technology. Perish the thought.

Not many projects really run like that, from my experience. When they do they have a modicum of success.

But when they don’t they go on forever, they spend inordinate amounts of money, and at the end of it all people scratch their heads and wonder what it was all about.

This is the problem with the “highly streamlined customs solution”. It doesn’t actually say what the problem is, nor does it understand how you might address it. It doesn’t acknowledge that it would involved all of the trading partners involved signing up to what ever “it” was. And all the organisations that are involved in importing and exporting stuff to and from the UK. That that in itself is the mother of all trade negotiations. And then you’ve got to implement the mother of all technology solutions to make it happen. Can’t see that being an issue, no siree.

To say “Technology” is the answer to this intractable problem is about as meaningful as saying the answer is “Cheese”. Or “Dagenham”. Or “Atmospheric pressure”.

But when you’ve got a mug customer there’s always one thing you can be assured of: lots of salespeople licking their lips and making great assurances of how the Blockchain AI MachineLearning Big Data answer is definitely the thing that you need and can you just sign here please…

2 thoughts on “Problem-less solutions

  1. Not having much import export experience but sensing a deep and weighty topic with many nuances when I hear it, the whole border issue with NI feels like a wicked problem which like you say is having solutions pitched at it that are at best bad sales pitches by the customer.

    I haven’t experienced the border itself but I get the feeling it is like county lines or boroughs in London where the only way you know you’re in one or the other is looking on a map.

    Quite how you ensure duty, regulation and the myriad other aspects are enforced or at least not circumvented when you can’t even tell by sight whether you’re in one country or another is not getting resolved by having a trusted trader scheme for bulk duty payment let alone sticking it on a blockchain.

    Oh well, I’ll leave the struggle to those still in the Kingdom and hope we find a not too British solution to the problem.

    1. Having worked as an export manager before the the single market, I emit a hollow laugh when I hear phrases like ”highly streamlined’ being used to describe any aspect of the post-brexit import/export process.

      The wo/man on the Clapham omnibus has absolutely no idea of how complex the process was before the single market – think; paying duty on a parcel from your cousin in Florida and then magnify that 10, no 20X

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