LIMPING TOWARD TRADE AUTOMATION

LIMPING TOWARD TRADE AUTOMATION

It seems like such a simple idea. Make it so there's just one place where importers and exporters can file all their government paperwork in a single document. And make that place electronic.

We do, after all, live in the Internet age. Every company records its key data on a computer at some point, and the Net gives us an efficient way to share data between different computers. There's no need to retype data, or, heaven forbid, actually submit it on paper. Our technology is just too good for that now.But improvements in technology do not always bring with them improvements in bureaucracy and management, and that's why the simple idea of one electronic place for filing trade documentation is still just a dream. The dream is called the International Trade Data System (ITDS), and it had a dry run called the Natap, which was short for North American Automated Trade Prototype.

A few years back I went up to Buffalo, N.Y., to see how Natap was working at the Peace Bridge between the United States and Canada.

It sounded like they were doing something really cool there by using electronic transponders to automatically identify trucks and their shipments as they crossed the border. If all the documentation submitted previously over the Internet was in order, the truck would barely have to slow down, saving the shipper, the carrier and the government valuable time and money.

But when I got to Buffalo, eager to see this system in action, the folks there just looked at me kind of sadly and said nobody had been using Natap much yet. Years later, it doesn't seem like much has changed.

This year, Natap was dismantled after being used much less than had been hoped. Only one of the border crossings between the United States and Mexico that had been designated for Natap actually saw the program tried.

And ITDS, the permanent system that was supposed to replace Natap, now looks to be at least five years away. How did this happen? Why is it taking us so long to get something so basic into place?

The answer has to do with the fact that technological change always brings with it other changes in the way we do business, and it's those other changes that often cause the roadblocks.

The whole ITDS concept provoked a lot of consternation in the trade community because of a fear the government would use the system to force shippers to submit more information and to be held legally responsible for errors in that information.

With Natap, the government reacted to these fears by trying to sell shippers on the idea that the system was really for their own benefit, and would save them time and money. ''We're from the government and we're here to help you,'' the officials essentially said.

But an electronic data-automation system like this rarely bestows great benefits on users.

The main benefits go to the provider, who needs to employ fewer people doing routine, clerk-like tasks and can, instead, let a computer perform them.

Here, the provider is the government, or, if you like, the general taxpayer. This provider desperately needs to move forward with electronic improvements.

It's not going to help us to get there if we keep being dishonest with ourselves about who is really going to benefit from all this.