New funding tools needed

The U.S. Customs Service, similar to many agencies that interact directly

with the general public, is seeing its transaction volume rising sharply

but its investment in information technology staying monotonously flat.

For Customs, the gap between resources and demand is spectacular: The agency

expects the number of shipments it processes to double to 40 million in

the next five years. It is now handling the job with its 17-year-old Automated

Commercial System, which is at 90 percent capacity and whose name hints

of the dawn of the Computer Age.

To get with the times, the agency wants the Automated Commercial Environment,

a World Wide Web-enabled system equipped with smarter databases. ACE would

cost big bucks but would cut the cost of transactions and improve the agency's

performance. Because Customs is in the tax-collection business, that means

more revenue.

That would seem to be a compelling argument to fund ACE, but the program

is barely on the drawing board and Congress is still debating whether to

give the agency money to start developing it. In other words, the agency

is almost guaranteed to do more poorly in collecting taxes in each succeeding

year until a new system is built.

Sadly, for many agencies, that's a familiar predicament. From the Internal

Revenue Service to the Marine Corps, agencies are seeing their IT infrastructure

crumble. In general, Congress has responded to those threats by weighing

annual budget requests. More often than not, money is appropriated to keep

a program running until the next budget cycle, but it's not enough for a

lasting solution.

In the case of Customs, there seems to be a raging agreement on the need

for a new system: Everyone believes costs would decrease, industry would

be better served and revenue would increase, yet little has been done to

address the need.

Perhaps Congress, the federal IT community and industry could use improved

funding tools — ways to provide long-term capital investment for IT. When

so much is riding on major technology projects, the government needs to

take pains to maintain IT infrastructure, just as it does its transportation

infrastructure. Otherwise, despite our best efforts, the current funding

plans only guarantee mediocre service performance.

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