U.S. Customs and Border Protection is losing to the private sector an official who was instrumental in helping the agency get its troubled ACE information technology system back on track.
Cindy Allen is leaving her role as executive director of the ACE Business Office on Sept. 15, Commissioner David Aguilar announced in Seattle at a quarterly meeting of the Commercial Operations Advisory Committee (COAC), according to three people who were there but did not want their names used.
A person familiar with the situation said Allen has accepted a position as head of DHL Global Forwarding's customs brokerage division in the United States, effective Sept. 17. She will be based in Columbia, S.C.
Aguilar said Allen will be replaced by Brenda Smith, executive director of trade policy and programs, the sources said.
The Automated Commercial Environment, or ACE, is being developed as the new backbone of CBP operations intended to handle more data capacity and improve automation for processing imports, communicating with the trade community, mining data on cargo shipments and international travelers to identify potential homeland security threats, and a host of other functions. Companies that use ACE can track their import compliance history and manipulate data to analyze their trade volumes and performance, as well as pay duties on a periodic basis. It will also serve as the common portal for importers, and eventually exporters, to file trade data with federal agencies and then access and analyze that data on an account-level basis, instead of filing separate documentation for each agency.
ACE has been plagued by cost overruns, mission creep and mismanagement that has seen the project drag out over a dozen years and cost more than $3 billion to date. In 2009, the ACE Business was created to better define system requirements for government and commercial users. Former Commissioner Alan Bersin hired Allen in 2010 from the international freight industry where she worked as a compliance specialist to help bring a better understanding of business needs to the project.
Bersin, Allen, Linda Jacksta in the Office of Information and Technology, and others have been credited with making hard choices to restructure ACE project development and contain costs, including issuing incremental rollouts of software functionality instead of waiting until an entire section of programming is completed so that bugs can be worked out along the way and the trade community can start realizing benefits of the system.
On Sept. 29, CBP is scheduled to shut down sea and rail manifest functions in its legacy system and require carriers to file the data through ACE. In-bond transactions through the Automated Broker Interface will also have to go through ACE. CBP says the move is necessary because running two parallel systems until ACE is completed costs too much and is sucking away resources that could be applied to ACE. The decommissioning of the old automated manifest system follows a six-month transition period to allow carriers and software developers for customs brokers to create and test electronic interfaces with the new system.
Aguilar said CBP is recruiting a replacement for Smith in the Office of International Trade. She has played a key role shepherding reform initiatives underway to increase the efficiency of customs clearance, such as simplified entry processing, Centers for Excellence and Expertise, and new rules governing oversight of customs brokers.
Allen's departure should not disrupt ACE because she and her superiors at CBP have put in place such a strong team of professionals to manage the project, Sam Banks, executive vice president for Sandler & Travis Trade Advisory Services and a former deputy and acting commissioner of CBP, said.
"They have their priorities. They have a solid organization. I don't see them missing a beat," he said.
The biggest challenge for ACE now, according to Banks and others, is whether Congress will provide adequate funding to complete the project. ACE has been operating on a shoestring the budget the past couple of years while Congress evaluates its progress.
The Office of International Trade also will be able to maintain its momentum on trade facilitation because Smith did a good job of developing her staff and relying on them and strong leadership remains in the form of Assistant Commissioner Al Gina, Deputy Assistant Commissioner Rich DiNucci and their top lieutenants, he added.
Meanwhile, the 20 industry representatives on COAC voted Ted Sherman, director of global trade services at Target, to be the group's chairman in the next term, according to a source at the meeting. The vice chairman will be Kathy Neal, director of trade compliance for industrial manufacturer Regal Beloit.
They will succeed Don Huber of GE and Karen Lobdell of Integration Point, who will depart COAC when their terms expire in January. There are seven COAC members in total that Customs and the Department of Homeland Security must replace. - Eric Kulisch