Security add-ons slow Customs' ACE rollout

The Homeland Security Department's multibillion-dollar project to expedite the flow of trade data is slowing, as officials add border security features to the program.

The Automated Commercial Environment was conceived as a 15-year, $1.3 billion project when the Customs Service issued the main contract to IBM Corp. in 2001.

According to the Government Accountability Office, Customs and Border Protection's July 2004 project plan for the system raised its expected budget to $3.1 billion and shifted its completion from 2006 to about 2010.

As a result of the increased need to target risky cargo crossing the border, CBP has added four border security software releases to ACE's schedule, bringing the total to 11, according to the agency CIO Rod McDonald.

'The overall impact is to drive out the schedule so the total cost [will reach] $3.3 billion,' McDonald said. The four additional software releases 'interject and integrate the border security focus into the ACE plan.'

DHS' Investment Review Board approved the revised plan last August. The Office of Management and Budget, GAO and Congress also exercise approval authority over the ACE project plan.

Taken together, the new releases are 'targeting technology to integrate rules-based risk management for screening' shipments and identifying risk cargo, McDonald said.

Even as it tweaks the ACE project plan to strengthen its border security features, CBP has forged ahead with the software releases intended to improve processing of shipments and payments across the border.

Planning ahead

ACE's first three releases covered the systems infrastructure and secure portal, as well as account management software that went live last June.

CBP adopted enterprise resource planning software from SAP America Inc. of Newtown Square, Pa., to consolidate and simplify its billing, McDonald said.

'That has been working very well,' he said. 'We started last June 15 by collecting $80 million, which has risen to $109 million as of March 15.'

The fourth release 'consolidates all the current systems for reviewing and releasing truck cargo at land borders, and implements electronic manifests for trucks,' McDonald said.

CBP is operating a pilot of the fourth release at Blaine, Wash. 'We have pulled together seven different systems to address specific ways of bringing in cargo at the land borders,' McDonald said. Trucks are clearing the automated border process at a rate of 30 seconds each, he said.

As ACE has gathered momentum, CBP officials have reorganized the agency to reflect the increasing importance of the new system.

'The ACE program has been the responsibility of the CBP Modernization Office,' McDonald said. 'The legacy systems were the responsibility of the Software Development Division. What we have done now is [merged] those organizations into the CBP Modernization Office.'

McDonald noted that even as ACE has been taking shape, CBP has continued to maintain and upgrade existing systems.

'With bringing in these legacy organizations we have a tremendous wealth of talent,' McDonald said. The agency now has about 1,000 federal employees and contractors working on its border systems projects, he said.

GAO auditors issued a report in March titled Information Technology: Early Releases of the Customs Trade System Operating, but Pattern of Cost and Schedule Problems Needs to be Addressed. The auditors noted that CBP had adopted several recommendations GAO had made in a May 2004 report to stem schedule and cost overruns.

But they warned that 'it is unlikely these actions will prevent future overruns, because DHS has relaxed system quality standards, meaning that milestones are being passed despite material system defects. Correcting such defects will require the program to use resources [such as staff and software] at the expense of later system releases.'

CBP's liaison to GAO, Steven J. Pecinovsky, wrote in a response to the most recent audit report that CBP would modify its expenditure plan procedures to establish the relationship between milestones and system maturity, define program accountability, and clarify the roles of the agency and its contractors.

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above