Trade system gathers international support

Members of the international trade community earlier this month threw their support behind a U.S. government plan to build a $256 million computer system for processing imports and exports.

The International Trade Data System ultimately would link 350,000 businesses with 104 U.S. federal agencies that inspect and approve cargo, investigate smuggling, monitor safety, collect tariffs and track trade statistics. Although agencies still could maintain their own systems for analyzing import and export data, businesses would file all their forms electronically to a single point.

At a public hearing Nov. 5 to discuss a draft systems architecture plan for ITDS, nine private-sector executives said the project would help reform a "dilapidated" international trade process that "involves too much paperwork" and "slows down business." The government wants to start testing the system this fall.

"Get Info to the Border"

"We do not need to expand the highways," aid Jose Martinez, president of the Free Trade Alliance, San Antonio. Trade with Mexico, he said, is usually delayed because of "paper shuffling" when truck drivers reach the U.S. border. "We need to get information to the border before the trucks get to the border, instead of processing paper on the spot."

According to the draft "Information Technology Architecture/Design Report," one-stop online filing and processing of trade data would save the U.S. government $500 million over the next seven years and eliminate $2.4 billion in paperwork costs for "the trade," meaning the collection of companies that play a role in international trade. The report said one export shipment can require as many as 40 paper forms and cost as much as $200, while imports typically cost $30 to $200 per transaction.

Agencies have been developing ITDS for five years since it was proposed as part of Vice President Al Gore's National Performance Review. Greg Woods, chairman of the Government Information Technology Services (GITS) Board, which oversees the project, said much of the time was spent negotiating with U.S. agencies about what information they would collect from industry. Out of 10,000 data elements, officials agreed on a core group of about 100, Woods said— few enough to make a shared information system feasible.

In addition, the U.S. Customs Service recently completed an evaluation of a prototype system that it operated at the borders with Canada and Mexico. The prototype tested online processing of imports and exports to see if ITDS could work.

The administration plans to request funds for ITDS in its fiscal 2000 budget proposal. Woods said the $256 million cost of the system includes "core project management" and the central pieces of the project.

Customs chief information officer Woody Hall said deciding how agencies will pay for ITDS is the "biggest issue'' facing the project right now. The Treasury Department and the GITS Board have kicked in some $17 million for early project development work, but to move forward, all participating agencies probably will have to invest in the system. "It has not been programmed by anybody,'' Hall noted. "There are a lot of options being discussed right now.''

ITDS would encompass a series of Internet-based networks connected to midrange servers operating a data warehouse. The trade would use electronic data interchange technology to submit information about its shipments to ITDS.

The data would be stored in the data warehouse. An ITDS program office would coordinate a federal intranet, through which agencies would access data needed for their missions; an extranet for secure access to "the authorized trade community and foreign governments"; and Internet access for the general public.

According to the systems architecture plan, ITDS would be deployed at 12 U.S. ports by 2001. At that point, the 34 U.S. agencies that conduct the bulk of transactions with importers and exporters would be using the system.

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