The Customs Service must fill critical management positions to oversee its $1.3 billion-dollar information technology modernization project, according to a recent audit by the Treasury Department's inspector general. Top positions in the Customs Modernization Office (CMO), including jobs in communications and the agency's business management office, which oversees contracts, are unfilled, according to a March IG report. The deputy director's position and another position in business management were also expected to become vacant in January and March 2002. Customs would not say whether the agency had filled any job openings recently. The office, which has eight full-time employees and about 50 contractors, oversees the agency's massive Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) project. "Customs does not yet have the people and systems in place to adequately manage the development of the ACE," the interim audit report, "Customs Needs to Adequately Staff the Modernization Office" (OIG-02-058
), concluded. According to the report, the agency's modernization office needs more staff to effectively manage the billion-dollar project, oversee contractors and establish realistic delivery schedules. ACE will replace the agency's antiquated Automated Commercial System, which is used to process summaries detailing the products in shipments of imports. Increasing trade has caused Customs' current system to fail over the past few years, causing backups at ports and border entry points across the country. Customs awarded a $1.3 billion contract to IBM Global Services in April 2001 to build ACE. "Succession planning and backup is especially important when such a small organization is responsible for such a large and complex program," the report said. The audit recommended that Customs work with Treasury's chief information officer to ensure key positions in the modernization office are filled and suggested sending staff from other Treasury agencies to CMO. Customs disputed the IG's finding that it did not have the staff or systems in place to adequately manage ACE. "While we are always looking for ways to improve our process, this report provides no detail concerning specific problems experienced with the people, systems or reports that would support this opening statement," said William Riley, director of Customs' planning office, in a letter to Clifford Jennings, director of information technology audits in the Treasury IG's office. For example, a senior manager is temporarily handling communication responsibilities, Riley said. Customs agreed to develop a personnel chart for the modernization office to ensure that it has enough staff to manage ACE. The agency also said the assistant commissioner and director of the modernization office have provided consistent leadership for the project, and that Customs employees "are supplemented by extensive contractor support." "The Customs Service is taking the necessary personnel actions to ensure continued, effective management of the ACE program over the life of the project," a statement issued by the agency said. "The office of inspector general has indicated that our planned actions satisfy the intent of their recommendation." The audit also criticized Customs for failing to communicate effectively with contractors and other stakeholders about the modernization effort. The agency could foster confusion if it continues to use bureaucratic jargon in meetings and reports, the IG report said. Customs should also re-evaluate ACE's 2002 schedule to make sure the agency and contractors have enough time and resources to produce quality results. The report said the project's slow start and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and their aftermath underscore the importance of monitoring the project's schedule. Customs agreed to closely monitor the schedule, but emphasized that the current schedule has not been adversely affected. Riley also noted that Customs received more funding from Congress after Sept. 11 for the modernization project, boosting the agency's resources. Congress appropriated $300 million to start building ACE in 2002, up from $130 million in fiscal 2001.