Customs' systems redo is back on solid ground

Customs' systems redo is back on solid ground

By Mark A. Kellner

Special to GCN

The Customs Service by next week expects to release a request for proposals for development of the long-awaited Automated Commercial Environment.

The agency wants to award the contract early next year to modernize its current customs processing system, which is nearly two decades old.

The Treasury Department bureau is awaiting President Clinton's signature on a fiscal 2001 appropriations bill that would allocate $130 million for ACE.

'The RFP is in its
very final stages, and it looks good,'
CIO 'Woody' Hall said.

Andersen Consulting of Chicago, Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Dallas, IBM Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp. are among the vendors expected to vie for the contract.

'The RFP is in its very final stages, and it looks good,' Customs chief information officer S.W. 'Woody' Hall said last week, adding that it's ready to roll as soon as the bill is signed.
Get control

Through the ACE project, Customs wants to improve its ability to manage and monitor imports and exports more efficiently. Instead of processing each incoming shipment as a single transaction, a major importer would receive a monthly statement covering all transactions for a given company.

ACE would replace the 17-year-old Automated Commercial System, which operates around the clock on an IBM Corp. mainframe running OS/390 at Customs' Newington, Va., data center. ACS depends heavily on paper and manual input and constantly runs the risk of being overloaded [GCN, Feb. 21, Page 6].

Early this year, Customs officials voiced concern that a lack of funding would delay the ACE pilot, slowing the program's momentum and requiring Band-Aid upgrades of the service's antiquated ACS hardware and software.

But the Senate on Oct. 12 voted to spend $233.4 million for Customs information technology requirements.

Championing the funding was Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee.

Andersen Consulting officials took a recent field trip to Customs land, sea and air entry points, said Lisa Mascolo, managing partner of Andersen's Treasury division.

'One of the hard things about these very large modernizations is putting together a team that can work together well,' Mascolo said. 'It's not just vendors, but also the contractor plus the client. The client knows their business inside and out, better than any contractor can possibly understand.'

Can't slow down

The trip brought home the magnitude of Customs problem with ACS, which was written in Cobol, she said.

'Every day, over $2 billion in merchandise crosses the U.S. border,' Mascolo said. 'If Customs slows down, there's a huge ripple effect on the economy. If there's a four-hour slowdown on the northern border, automakers could be shutting down plants. Customs is a big link in the global supply chain.'

One team will win the contract for Customs, which ranks second only to the IRS in annual revenue generated. Written responses to the RFP are due within 30 days of its release, to be followed by oral presentations of one day per contracting team.

The price tag for the modernization could top $2 billion, although the first phase of spending would be roughly 5 percent of that amount, Customs officials said.

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