Customs calls a halt to its modernization pilot

Customs calls a halt to its modernization pilot

Customs' Charles Armstrong says modernization will lose momentum.

By Shruti Dat'

GCN Staff

Lack of funding forced the Customs Service this month to signal the end of its Automated Commercial Environment pilot, but delaying the modernization effort will be costly, a senior Customs systems official says.

Ending the pilot will slow momentum, break up vendor and agency teams, and require upgrades of the service's antiquated systems, said Charles Armstrong, Customs' modernization director.

Customs planned to replace its 16-year-old Automated Commercial System with ACE. The goal of the modernization is to expand the use of electronic transactions between the bureau and importers, exporters and customs brokers. By doing so, Customs expects to increase trade compliance and reduce the time required to clear cargo.

Moving on

After the ACE pilot, the agency had planned to begin a $2 billion, 15-year project to revamp its law enforcement and administrative systems. Customs officials said they wanted to model the project on the IRS Prime contract.

But now Customs must revisit its plans. It will shutter the ACE pilot on March 13. After that, private-sector participants must stop using ACE to submit data about goods for import and revert to using ACS.

'We've basically exhausted our internal options,' Armstrong said. 'We've taken a lot of hits this year because we are competing for the same money as other Treasury Department bureaus.'

Armstrong said Customs officials are meeting with Treasury officials to find alternate funding. The most feasible option may be to await fiscal 2001 funds to rekindle the project, he said.

Lisa Ross, acting assistant Treasury secretary for management, said, 'For the forward development of a modernized system, the budget seeks additional funding totaling $210 million through the implementation of a user fee to meet these development needs.'

The Clinton administration wants the service to support the modernization initiative exclusively through user fees. President Clinton's fiscal 2001 budget proposal seeks no appropriated funds for the effort.

The budget proposal does include $56 million to sustain ACS, Ross said.

Armstrong said 2005 is the earliest that Customs could deploy ACE if it received the necessary funding next year. He warned that delaying the modernization will not be cost-effective because the agency will end up pouring money into upgrading components of a system built with 20-year-old technology.

ACS, a custom Cobol system, uses electronic data interchange to track, control and process imported goods, said Jerry Russomano, director of the Software Development Division.

No time to stop

But ACS, which operates around the clock on an IBM Corp. mainframe running OS/390 at Custom's Newington, Va., data center, is paper- and labor-intensive.

'We have a processor that is 70 percent efficient, but it only takes one component around the architecture to bring that down,' Armstrong said. 'The system does not scale to meet the demands of today.'

Customs has estimated that the value of imports this year will be $2.6 trillion, and of exports $1.2 trillion. Russomano said the volume Customs handles has doubled during the past six years and will double again by 2005.

The chance of overloading the system is a constant threat, officials said.

Armstrong said. 'We can't afford to get into a debate about fees and appropriations.'

Armstrong said Customs will lose its momentum by stopping the ACE pilot and delaying the modernization.

'It is a bad-faith effort on the part of the government,' he said. 'We will lose personnel and corporate institutional knowledge.'


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