GAO criticizes Customs' modernization procedures

The General Accounting Office said last week that the Customs Service does not have the proper procedures in place to develop software successfully and that it needs to create the procedures before it can "prudently manage'' its $1.4 billion modernization program.

A GAO study of three major systems development projects conducted for the House and Senate appropriations committees found that Customs did not have quality assurance plans, had not documented methods for determining project costs or schedules and had no written policies for project planning, oversight and configuration management. The report said the absence of these policies and procedures partly explain why Customs has not been able to deliver parts of its new Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) on time.

ACE would modernize Customs' aging systems for processing trade information from importers. Its current system, the Automated Commercial System, is not designed to handle current levels of trade activity and does not provide full electronic commerce services needed to speed the entry of goods into the country. But Congress has been reluctant to fund ACE partly because lawmakers believe Customs has not planned the project well.

GAO said that an ACE pilot, called the National Customs Automation Program Prototype, was being developed more systematically than two other projects, the Automated Export System and the Administrative Security System. Nevertheless, the report said, the first phase of NCAP/P was delivered eight months late, and key management weaknesses put all three projects at risk.

In written comments about the report, Customs Commissioner William Reilly said the agency is reorganizing its information technology operations to include a formal software process improvement effort. Customs had started to create software development procedures in 1996 but discontinued the project to work on fixing the Year 2000 bug.

Meanwhile, Reilly said, the agency was training its managers in newly developed procedures for project management, tracking and oversight.

GAO based its conclusions on how well Customs met the requirements of the Capability Maturity Model developed by Carnegie-Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute. Under this model, for an organization to be successful at developing software, it has to have documented, repeatable processes in six areas: requirements management, project planning, tracking and oversight, quality assurance, configuration management and subcontractor management. GAO did not rate Customs in the last area because the agency did not use any subcontractors for the three projects studied.

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