Who could blame customs brokers for doubting claims by Customs and Border Protection that there is now a projected completion date for developing the core functionalities of the Automated Commercial Environment? The agency’s modern computer system for processing trade documentation has been 11 years in the making, after all.
It’s understandable, then, that there were some stern warnings from fellow customs brokers to make ACE participation a priority when brokers and forwarders met in Rancho Mirage, Calif., on April 10. One of those warnings came from Fred Klemashevich, managing director of transport and brokerage at FedEx Trade Networks, who said Customs’ existing computer program, known as the Automated Commercial System, will no longer be in use three years from now.
“They’re going to turn off ACS in less than three years. They’re serious,” Klemash-evich told the annual conference of the National Customs Brokers and Forwarders Association of America.
Adding a sense of urgency to the debate, Amy Magnus, director of customs affairs and compliance at A.N. Deringer, told brokers who aren’t filing under ACE to begin doing so. “CBP’s life is in ACE now, and our life has to be in ACE, too,” she said.
ACE is CBP’s commercial trade processing system. Customs began developing ACE in August 2001 as part of a larger effort to better align the agency’s practices with those of the trade community. That effort began with the passage of the Customs Modernization Act in 1993.
Because of funding limitations and glitches in software development over the years, ACE has moved forward in fits and starts. Customs over the past decade has rolled out about a dozen programs, including a secure data portal, electronic filing of entry summaries and corrections, cargo release, eManifest programs for ocean, truck and rail, and interoperability for other government agencies involved in cargo clearance.
The coming months will usher in several more programs, including Automated Export System re-engineering, automated corrections and deletions under cargo release, a Partner Government Agency message set for other federal agencies involved in cargo clearance and initial entry summary edits.
ACE development, of course, requires funding from Congress. President Obama’s fiscal 2014 budget proposal calls for a slight increase of about 1 percent for Customs automation modernization. The House and Senate versions of CBP authorization for fiscal 2013 support finishing development of ACE, so prospects for sufficient funding in the coming years appear positive.
Customs has a new approach to rolling out functionalities under ACE. Known as agile development methodology, the plan is to release smaller pieces of functionality more frequently. Until now, Customs worked on large modules for a year or longer before releasing them.
Industry experts urged brokers and freight forwarders — ACE applies to exports as well as imports — not only to begin using those programs that have been rolled out, but also to provide input on the development of new functionalities.
Celeste Catano, principal designer, analyst and developer of import software at Kewill Trade and Logistics, said Customs has learned from experience that new programs gain greater acceptance when the trade community has participated in their development. “They heard us, and they know what they have to do to get more people to play,” she said.
The top CBP representative in Los Angeles said the agency likes the fact that brokers and forwarders are outspoken. “You’re not shy, but you come to the table with solutions,” said Todd Owen, director of field operations in Los Angeles.
The goal of Customs in all of its efforts since the September 11 terrorist attacks remains enhancement of security at the nation’s borders, while expediting the clearance of legitimate shipments, Owen said.
The key to achieving these goals is to automate the flow of trade data. In many cases, this involves filing data on importers, exporters and foreign agents, and the cargo itself, before shipments leave a port. That information helps Customs to target risky shipments before the cargo is loaded aboard vessels, trucks, trains and aircraft.
International commerce and cargo clearance are complex processes, especially considering there are 26 federal agencies that can touch a shipment before it enters U.S. commerce. A shipment can be cleared by Customs because it meets the agency’s requirements, only to be held up by Agriculture Department or Food and Drug Administration inspectors because of those agencies’ requirements.
CBP is working with these agencies to coordinate their actions at the border and to provide importers and exporters with a single portal for the filing of all agency documents. The International Trade Data System is the initiative for this interagency effort, and ACE is the vehicle through which ITDS will be implemented.
Customs also is working closely with brokers, forwarders, importers and exporters to act as the agency’s first line of defense for red-flagging risky shipments. Customs since 2001 has rolled out a number of security programs such as the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism in which companies are vetted and certified as “trusted traders.” These companies demonstrate that they have effective security programs imbedded in their operations, and in return the agency promises them fewer cargo inspections.
Owen assured the brokers and forwarders that even though CBP is in transition now, with several high-level positions being manned by interim commissioners, the agency’s security efforts and trusted trader programs are operating without interruption.
Because ACE is the computerized system through which all documentation and interagency communication will flow, it’s crucial Customs roll out programs on a regular basis. ACE still needs more functionality in key areas, Magnus said, and Customs wants companies to utilize new programs and pilots as they come on line.
Klemashevich told brokers that if they delay their participation in ACE programs, they would be doing a disservice to their clients. “ACE,” he said, “will be the way we do cargo release in the future.”