Customs outlines a paperless future

Customs outlines a paperless future


The Customs Service has chalked out four phases for its modernization of commercial, enforcement and administrative operations.

'The goal is to become a paperless agency in the next four years,' said Charles Armstrong, executive director of Customs' Modernization Office.

The service in April awarded a $1.3 billion, 15-year contract to IBM Corp. for the project, under which Customs will replace its 17-year-old Automated Commercial System with the Automated Commercial Environment.

'We are in a different place than where we were two years ago. We now have good checks and balances and a good enterprise management process in place.'

'Customs' charles armstrong
ACS depends heavily on paper and manual input and has had several costly shutdowns because of data overload. The service is counting on ACE to help it manage the nation's imports and exports more efficiently, Armstrong said.

The first stage of the modernization, which is slated to begin in December after the agency completes program management and enterprise engineering plans, will target land and border movement, he said.

Importers deemed as low-risk by Customs will be able to file account information electronically with the agency, he said.

ACE will also let Customs build data reference centers where it will store account information for all importers so that they don't have to file the same information again and again, Armstrong said.

The service has $130 million this year for the first phase and plans to seek $80 million in supplemental funds later in the year to start deploying ACE modules by December 2002, Armstrong said.

The second increment, which will take twelve months, will focus on air, sea and rail cargo movement. During this phase, Customs also will migrate data from ACS to ACE and develop interfaces with other agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration and Census Bureau, that track cargo movement, Armstrong said.

The agency expects to spend $308 million on the second phase.

Phase 3 also has a 12-month lifecycle and will focus on internal administrative functions such as better financial controls, ability to track cargo movements enterprisewide and coordination links with enforcement agencies, Armstrong said.

The final phase will focus on improving Customs' ability to oversee free trade.

The service estimates that phases 3 and 4 will cost $333 million and $320 million, respectively.

Funding focus

'We have to keep the energy level on funding the program,' Armstrong said. 'Along with that, it's incumbent on us to show that we can do the modernization as planned.'

Customs began work on ACE more than six years ago. But disputes among lawmakers, import-export industry executives and Clinton administration officials about whether new fees should be imposed to pay for the system hamstrung the project.

After the Clinton administration last fall agreed to fund the project through appropriations, the General Accounting Office reported that the modernization plan was ill-defined, which further delayed the project.

The agency then came up with a detailed ACE strategy that gained GAO approval.

'First of all, we are in a different place than where we were two years ago,' Armstrong said. 'We now have good checks and balances and a good enterprise management process in place.'


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