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
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
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.