Customs tells CMR vendors to shape up

SYDNEY (10/03/2003) - The Australian Customs Service has moved to quell a revolt amongst external users of the second release (R2) of its Integrated Cargo System (ICS) software system, ordering participating IT vendors to put the stabilization of the current release ahead of further development of the system.

The move comes after the contents of a dossier of user complaints sent to Customs about the second release of ICS was obtained and published by Computerworld. Among complaints were claims ICS R2 is so immature that it could not be considered worthy of alpha release status for testing purposes.

Since then, Computerworld has been sent a formal response to the complaints by Customs to allegations, addressed to the ICS User Representative group which represents the interests of exporters required to ICS.

"Our immediate focus is on analyzing and resolving outstanding incidents and we have advised vendors that in the coming weeks industry test incident-resolution takes precedence over ongoing development. We will be discussing our approach to this and future testing with developers over the coming days," writes Customs' National Director, Office of Business Systems Jenny Peachey.

Peachy also states that the "resolution involves further clarification of the EDI business rules, some adjustments to the IT environment and minor code issues. Customs and its vendors are as keen as industry software developers to ensure that these incidents are attended to as soon as possible."

The letter does not say whether R2 will meet the March 1 release date or if it is under revision. A spokesman for the ICS User Representative group said that members would have to digest the contents of the letter before commenting.

ICS is a cornerstone of Customs' massive Cargo Management Re-engineering (CMR) project to replace the export and brokerage industry developed EDI system Customs Connect with a Web-based model co-developed by Customs and a consortium of IT vendors led by Computer Associates. The project aims to facilitate all aspects of Customs involvement in the import export process, not least the clearance of goods leaving Australia and the collection of GST on goods entering it.

CMR users include ports, stevedores, airlines, freight brokers, logistics firms and trucking lines, all of whom are compelled to interface with the system to do business. Australia handles around 2 million export movements a year.

Current and former vendor staff have also contacted Computerworld, complaining poor project management by Customs that pits vendor against vendor is creating its own issues - and that targets and deadlines are unrealistic. The staff complain that they are often left in the dark as to many of the requirements for the system until the last minute, making planning and management nearly impossible at times.

A consistent theme is that inter-vendor relations are souring because people working on ICS and CMR are required to only communicate to each other through Customs, thereby slowing progress and creating factions. Questions were also raised as to whether punishing "already stretched" contractors was resulting in high staff turnover and a loss of talent, creating further delays.

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