Customs regroups its info tech staff

In an effort to improve its compliance with the Clinger-Cohen Act and address persistent criticism of the way it manages its information systems, the Customs Service has reorganized its information technology staff.

S.W. "Woody'' Hall, Customs' chief information officer, said the new structure will allow his staff to provide better services to computer users in the agency. "This is clear, constructive change we are making to improve our responsiveness, to improve our planning, to improve our alignment of resources with customers, to help us to manage our projects better,'' he said.

In two recent General Accounting Office reports, investigators faulted Customs for not having a consistent process for managing software development and for proceeding with its largest systems modernization project, the Automated Commercial Environment, without enough up-front planning. Customs agreed with GAO's findings.

Rona Stillman, GAO's chief scientist for computers and telecommunications, said there are many ways for an agency to structure its IT operations, but successful management depends on whether the decisions made by the IT organization are enforced within the agency. Customs, she added, "seems to understand'' what its problems are.

Structure of Organization

Customs' new IT organization looks like this:

* In the Applications Development Division, teams that supported specific agency systems have been consolidated according to the business processes that they support, such as trade processing, law enforcement and management. In addition, the IT training staff has been incorporated into this group so that "training is more tightly linked to actual design and development of a system,'' Hall said.

* In the System Operations Division, teams of engineers and help-desk staff who supported individual systems have been reorganized into a systems engineering group and an operational support group that will cover the entire agency. Personnel could be shifted to different projects according to agency needs.

* Employees who test applications were moved to the System Operations Group. Hall said he wants his staff to view testing as the way to determine whether a system is ready to field rather than whether it has met specific design objectives.

* Four new teams - dedicated to resources management, program monitoring, strategic planning and architecture development - will report directly to Hall. These teams will be in charge of budgeting, performance measurement, managing the capital planning process, and developing and maintaining the agency's systems architecture.

The latter group, in particular, will help Customs address GAO's recommendations.

"Those are fairly new functions for us,'' Hall said. "They were getting done project by project, and one of the concerns that the GAO raised was that they were being done inconsistently and weren't getting documented very well,'' he added.

Hall said he drew the new organizational chart based on his experience managing IT at other federal agencies, particularly the Defense Department. "I think this would look pretty familiar to a Defense Department person,'' he said.

Hall reassigned managers and staff after Customs Commissioner Raymond Kelly approved the plan in mid-January, "but we are still working out relationships between the groups," he said.

Paul Wohlleben, a former federal chief information officer who is now director of information technology consulting with Grant Thornton LLP, said setting up customer-oriented teams, as Customs has, allows managers to be held more accountable for building complete solutions rather than just a single system or module.

A reorganization "is no magic elixir,'' Wohlleben said, but "the integrated team approach [is] a better way to manage people and get what you want."

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