There is no inevitable law that means public sector organizations have to be characterized by lagging or flat productivity. Our simple antidote to this widespread view is to consider an area where substantial productivity growth has been successfully achieved. We focus here on the customs regulation of exports and imports in the UK, an area of operation that is one of the oldest and most fundamental ‘business- facing’ activities of the modern nation state. From the earliest period of the transition from mediaeval feudalism to Renaissance era states, the ability of monarchs and republics to regulate international trade was a cornerstone of their ability to raise revenues and to encourage (or depress) national economic activity. In the modern period, we first briefly discuss how the growth of international trade has produced greater economic and political pressures for the speedier and streamlined implementation of customs checks. The second section examines how in an exceptionally open economy the UK government moved at an early date to effectively automate its customs operations and to shift from volumetric to risk- based methods of controlling shipments in and out of the country. Section 3.3 then shows in detail how the UK customs agency achieved rapid productivity growth in the decade from 1999, and traces the influences involved.
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