Customs to launch modernization portal

The Customs Service plans to test a new Web portal in October that will serve as the foundation of its modernization program and will change how companies interact with the agency.

Customs officials are looking for a group of importers from a variety of industries to test an account portal that will give firms access for the first time to their Customs data via the Web. The test, expected to last two years, is the first phase of moving to full electronic processing of commercial imports in the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE).

The portal is the cornerstone of the ACE modernization program and "will act as the vehicle of delivery for the majority" of ACE activities, said Charles Armstrong, executive director of the Customs Modernization Office.

The portal will enable Customs to create managed accounts for importers — and, eventually, exporters. Ultimately, rather than filing documentation on every shipment that comes into the country, firms will only have to file once a month. Also, because firms will be organized by account, importers and Customs officers can have easy access to trade information, which today must be analyzed transaction by transaction.

The Web portal will help Customs focus on critical mission objectives rather than spending time "sorting through a lot of individual transactions," Armstrong said. "Rather than dealing with the repetitive importers that bring the same things in day after day and what we consider to be low risk, we'll be able to focus on more higher-risk or first-time importers" and focus on activities such as border security and stopping terrorism.

"Part of ACE's goal is to help us transform the way we do business from being transaction-based to more of an account focus," he said. "And this Web portal is the first step in getting there."

The e-Customs Partnership, a group of companies led by IBM Corp., will develop the portal. During the two-year test, many features and functions will be added to the system, and up to 1,100 managed account holders will access it, Armstrong said.

Supporters are anxious for the test to begin. "We think it's important to move forward on ACE as soon as possible," said Olga Grkavac, an executive vice president at the Information Technology Association of America. "This effort will be a way to demonstrate the positive effort and incredible impact" of modernization.

Kevin Smith, director of customs administration at General Motors Corp., said the accounts portal is "important in and of itself and for what it means for account management and in the context of ACE development." The rest of ACE's functions need to be built up around the portal "to enjoy the full benefits of new systems and new processes," he said.

The latest details on the portal project were published May 1 in the Federal Register. Importers selected for the test must qualify by participating in a joint Customs/private-sector program to increase border security.

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