Oversight, not overreach

The Customs Service finally awarded its $1.3 billion modernization contract last month after years of debate over the price tag and program management.

Under the Customs Modernization Prime System Integration Contract, the agency will continue rolling out the Automated Commercial Environment to replace an antiquated system that periodically breaks down and causes massive backups at U.S. ports. With more than $1 trillion worth of exports coming into the country, and increases projected every year, the system is crucial to keeping the United States competitive in a global economy.

If history is any indication, the Customs Service would have had a tough job ahead of it. Agencies haven't had a good track record in developing mega- information technology contracts, which historically have run over budget, fallen years behind schedule and failed to meet expectations.

But Customs will be required to follow an increasingly popular management model: Before the agency can spend money on the project, it must first get approval from Treasury Department officials, the General Accounting Office and congressional appropriators. Similar rules apply to the Internal Revenue Service for its modernization contract, estimated at $5 billion.

We do not know whether this stronger oversight role will keep those huge IT contracts' costs, timelines and performances in line, or if such micromanagement of modernization contracts will interfere with and possibly hinder those procurements.

To be sure, agencies' performance in managing big IT projects hasn't been stellar. The Clinger-Cohen Act, which simplified the way agencies could manage contracts, was part of the solution. More accountability may be another step in the right direction.

But too much oversight could backfire. Congress has shown little interest in learning about or financially supporting IT initiatives such as e-government and information security.

If Capitol Hill approaches the oversight role as an active participant, however, by teaming up with Customs to meet the goal of improving the flow of exports into the United States, then such oversight would be welcome and warranted.

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