The Business of Government Hour

 

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The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. The executives discuss their careers and the management challenges facing their organizations. Past government executives include Administrators, Chief Financial Officers, Chief Information Officers, Chief Operating Officers, Commissioners, Controllers, Directors, and Undersecretaries.

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Bonni Tischler interview

Friday, June 1st, 2001 - 20:00
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Bonni Tischler
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Sat, 06/02/2001
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Bonni Tischler
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Arlington, Virginia

Monday, December 18, 2000

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome to the Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and the co-chair of the PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government. We created the Endowment in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. To find out more about the Endowment and its programs visit us on the web at www.endowment.pwcglobal.com.

The Business in Government Hour focuses on outstanding government executives who are changing the way government does business. Our special guest tonight is Bonni Tischler, Assistant Commissioner for Office of Field Operations at the U.S. Customs Service.

Welcome, Bonnie.

Ms. Tischler: Thank you, Paul, glad to be here.

Mr. Lawrence: And joining me tonight is Craig Petrun, also of PwC. Welcome, Craig.

Mr. Petrun: Hi, Paul.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, Bonnie, let's start out by finding more about the Customs Service, could you tell us about its overall mission?

Ms. Tischler: The U.S. Customs Service, really, is charged with protecting our borders so that cargo or persons crossing our borders, either entering or leaving the U.S. have to deal with U.S. Customs. And we are there, basically, as the front line, so to speak. We walk a very fine line between facilitation and cargo coming into the U.S. In our law-enforcement, we have a complex mission that includes enforcing over 60 laws for about 400 or 600 laws, sorry, for about 40 different agencies.

And it's really a soup-to-nuts agency. We do it all. The laws that we enforce are our own in terms of the trade laws, and then we enforce laws for things like, for instance, the Food and Drug Administration, Agriculture, the Drug Enforcement Administration. And so we have a plethora of activities we participate in.

Mr. Lawrence: Can you tell us more about the role of the office of field operations and how its mission works at the U.S. Customs?

Ms. Tischler: Sure. I think one could say that the office of field operations is what most people perceive as mainstream Customs. I have approximately 13,000 people who work for me and a $1.2 billion budget. And these people are actually on the front lines: 7,500 inspectors, more or less. These are the people you see, our folks in blue, when you come into the country. We have import specialists that handle our commercial cargo. We have our Customs enforcement officers that are basically K-9 handlers, and other assorted folk who participate in that particular mission.

Mr. Lawrence: Tell us about your own career and the various positions you've held at Customs.

Ms. Tischler: Well, actually, I had a really unusual career to wind up in the Office of Field Operations. I started with Customs in 1971 as a Customs security officer, whereas most people remember it as a Sky Marshal. In other words, I was hired to ride airplanes and keep them safe from hijackers. And I was hired in 1971 just as the government changed their attitude towards women in law enforcement. Prior to an Executive Order in January of '71, women could not carry weapons in the federal service. And so, it was changed by Executive Order and then Customs, actually, was the first federal agency to hire women in that capacity.

Following my sky marshal stint, I stayed with Customs as, actually, an EEO officer. I did EEO investigations, but very briefly. And then I became a Special Agent, which is a criminal investigator position, and I stayed within that realm all the way, really, until this year. So, I was a working-level criminal investigator. My specialties turned out to be money laundering and narcotics. I was eventually assigned to something called Operation Greenback in Miami, Florida, which was the first anti-money-laundering project ever in 1980. The Customs, IRS and the Justice Department came together to, in fact, start this project and, really, the work that we did was a precursor to the Money Laundering Act in 1986. So it was very satisfying.

And then I came up to headquarters, and I became a Branch Chief and then a Division Director in Financial Investigations and later in smuggling. And then in 1988, I became the first female Special Agent in Charge of anyplace when I went to Tampa, Florida, which was at that point our second largest office. And I was there for seven years, enjoying the west coast of Florida, and then became the Special Agent in Charge in Miami for two years before I came up to headquarters in 1997 as the Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Investigations. So, I'm really quite privileged to be able to straddle both sides of what Customs does, essentially.

Mr. Lawrence: It sounds like you've spent most of your career in public service. And the question that comes to mind for me is, what drew you to the public service arena at the beginning of your career?

Ms. Tischler: I'd like to say altruism but, actually, I was just looking for a job. I graduated in broadcast communications in the prehistory of, actually, it was just the late '60s, and really nobody wanted a woman. And so I eventually, after a sting in New York at an advertising agency, I came down to Washington and I went to work on Capitol Hill for the Republican Congressional Campaign Committee in their Public Affairs division. And I really liked it, and I really liked being on the Hill, I liked the push and the shove.

And then I left the committee, really, to become a sky marshal, so I really got quite the view of Capitol Hill and was very taken by being that close to history, I guess, you might say. I was attracted to the federal sector in terms of that sky marshal job just because it was an adventurous thing to do and it was nontraditional for a woman. I had met somebody at a cocktail party, actually who had recruited me. And I just thought for a twenty-six-year-old kid that it would be just a great opportunity to see the world. So I didn't have altruistic motives, really, when I came into Customs, but afterwards, I didn't even know the sky marshals were part of Customs. But I think I was there, like, three months, and you can't help becoming involved in Customs and being absorbed into the family because it really is like a big family.

And the work we do. It's a cause-and-effect relationship, I mean, we do the work, we see the results and I think that's a really terrific thing to be involved in.

Mr. Lawrence: What were some of the more challenging leadership positions you've held, and why?

Ms. Tischler: Well, actually, all of them. And the biggest challenge, as far as I was concerned, was getting through the glass ceiling. I mean, that's very bandied about and probably in this day right now, it's not as true as it was in the '80s. But when I became a Special Agent in Charge and had to go out on my own to manage an office for the very first time in a state like Florida, which their entire law enforcement community, the sheriffs and the chiefs, were all male. I knew they hadn't encountered anybody who was a female in their upper-level management or their command staffs. And so, I just sort of landed on their shores, but I was really lucky. I grew up in Florida and I went to the University of Florida and, so, they treated me like a Florida girl and that was very helpful.

So, the initial challenge was just being able to communicate with males in law enforcement and get my agency's mission accomplished. We were very successful at that.

After that, I think, after you've been in the government for a while in a managerial position, like I have, and I've been in doing management, really, since about 1984, it's really turned into a personnel and resource management job. I mean, I wish that it was operational. When I was in the field and we were doing operations or investigations where things were happening, still in all, the heaviest responsibility was how to manage the people and the money. So, that really is the biggest challenge.

Mr. Lawrence: I guess, you may have answered part of this, but it sounds like you have held several leadership positions. What qualities do you think are true to being a good leader in government today?

Ms. Tischler: I think you need credibility. I really think that everything spins off credibility. I'm not that much of a touchy-feely manager. I mean, I came up in a command-and-control kind of atmosphere, but I do believe in participatory management. And so it matters to me, I mean, it doesn't matter to me whether I'm popular or not with the troops. But it does matter to me if I have their respect and that they follow what I ask them to do because they believe in me and they believe in the mission.

I think, an apocryphal story was when I first came into headquarters and took over a smuggling division, I took over something called Tactful Enforcement. It was all of our old patrol function, and one of the patrol officers who was retired military, actually, came to me and said, "I want you to know ma'am, you have my undying loyalty." And I thought at the time, you just cannot fork over loyalty. You can immediately fork over respect, and I think that's what everybody expects. But loyalty is something that you have to earn, and you can only earn that if you're a credible manager.

Mr. Lawrence: It's time for a break. We'll be right back with more of the Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and tonight's conversation's with Bonnie Tischler, Assistant Commissioner for Office of Field Operations of the U.S. Customs Service. And joining me is Craig Petrun, also of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Well, Bonnie, early in your career, you developed what is now known as the Women in Federal Law Enforcement Intra-agency Committee. Can you tell us more about this organization, who its members are, and what its purpose is?

Ms. Tischler: Sure, Paul. I basically had a concept in 1977 that was based on meeting a number of women who were in federal law enforcement positions, and women had just come on in 1971. Here they were on, and it was six years later, and they weren't getting anywhere. Some of them had problems with the traditional problems you would associate with a job that's a 24-hour-job, and things like day care, getting married, having a date, what a concept.

But, the bottom line is that they were all having significant problems in terms of details, training, and getting promoted. And so, a friend of mine was running the Women's Bureau over at what is now the Office of Personnel Management, and we had known each other through the Federal Women's Program for a number of years. So she said, "well, why don't you come over on a detail" -- this was just before I became an agent -- "why don't you come over on a detail and why don't you start something up." They had just started something called Women in Science, which I guess is still in existence today, also. So, I went over there, and I gathered up some of the more senior people I knew in some of the other agencies. Specifically, Jo Ann Kotcher for instance, who is with ATF and has just retired from them. And we put a committee together that wanted to -- was based on exploring why women were having obstacle problems within the criminal investigations area. That's all we were looking at back then. Well, now, it's expanded to any law enforcement position within the realm of federal law enforcement.

But, in any event, they did a survey and they talked to a lot of women and they saw what their problems were. It was pretty much, you know, what I was saying, you know, training details and getting promoted. It was called back then the Interagency Committee on Women in Law Enforcement. It's changed since then, and it's just gone private now. At the time that I put it together, Justice and Treasury cosponsored it. But recently it was, they decided it was too much of an advocacy group for the government to sponsor, and so it's gone private just like NOBLE, which is the black law enforcement executive organization and some of the others.

So, people who belong to it are women who are, and men for that matter, who are involved in any of the federal agencies in the U.S. And, also, we have foreign membership and state and locals belong to it, as well.

Mr. Lawrence: Okay, can you also, going with that theme, talk about some of the challenges, and especially leadership challenges that female law enforcement officers face today? Earlier in the program, you mentioned the idea of credibility, respect, loyalty being important in leadership positions today. What unique challenges do female law enforcement officers have in obtaining those kinds of characteristics?

Ms. Tischler: Well, I think these days probably less true than when I first started out. But when women started out in the federal sector in law enforcement positions, there were so many apocryphal stories floating around, how could you possibly be out on surveillance with a female? People would question whether or not you were actually watching the event or messing around with the "girl". You know, could a woman actually handle a gun, would she back you up in terms of a raid or some other enforcement activity?

But that was 1971 and this is now, and women have been in a number of situations over the years that have proven the fact that they can handle the job just as well as their male counterparts. I think it's real important to touch the bases and ring the bells. I think it's important to our male counterparts. I think it's important to the women. I think that it's a credibility issue. I think you can't become a manger unless you've done the job, and the people who think they can skip the rungs of the ladder are sadly mistaken.

I was not a first-line supervisor. It was during a time frame where I was bypassed for a first-line supervisory job, so I kind of worked around it in terms of becoming a program manager and then a branch chief, which was a first-line supervisor but just not out in the field.

So that type of glass ceiling doesn't exist anymore. Women are becoming first-line supervisors. They are becoming second-line management. They are becoming executives. Almost all the agencies have female SACs right now, special agents in charge, and I just think the atmosphere is different.

Mr. Lawrence: So, in other words, then it is important to actually do the various types of positions and jobs that everyone's expected to do as you work your way up through the ranks?

Ms. Tischler: Yes, I think so. But I also think, you know, a lot of women come to me and they say, "well, we'd really like your job." And I said, "hey, you're welcome to it." But, basically, they say, "well, how did you get there?" They went to some class and they talked about goals and stuff like that, and you know, when I started out, I really didn't have the goal of being an assistant commissioner. I just wanted to do the very best job I could do as a senior special agent. That was my original goal.

But as I stated earlier, it was kind of an incremental thing. It was pearls on a string, you know. I'd get a job, and I'd think, "well, I could do the next one." It was like just climbing the ladder rung-by-rung. Well, the women today really don't have to do that. They can, in fact, shoot for something a little beyond the next rung in the ladder. But, for me, that wasn't possible, and I was just looking immediately about what was just ahead of me.

It was less scary that way, too, but it's easier for the women now that know that I and others like me, am out in front of them and have already broken the ground for them.

Mr. Lawrence: You describe many of the things that have changed throughout your career, in terms of acceptance of women, for example. Are there things that haven't changed?

Ms. Tischler: I don't know. I think, I'd have to ask the women who are still out there in the trenches, so to speak. I think there are things that still have not changed for me. Mostly, if I'm at a meeting, it's 99.9 percent male. All in the same gray, and black, and dark-blue suits. It's a real treat when there happens to be a woman, either in another agency or somebody who's a peer at one of these meetings. Not too much has changed in that area, but, of course, I'm still on that first wave and so, hopefully, another five years and some of these women that are following up behind us will be out in these meetings, as well.

So I think in terms of seeing women as policy makers, not too much has changed. The women I talk to, the young women in Customs who come to talk to me, claim that they're doing equally well alongside their male counterparts. So, I think things have probably changed down at the bottom. There doesn't seem to be that much concern anymore about a woman taking away a guy's job, which was one of the concerns when I first came on.

So, the policy-making issue, I don't think much has changed. I think we'll see an incremental change over the next five years or so, but it's a density problem. The more women there are, the more women in the chain, the more women in the pipeline and so forth and so on.

Mr. Lawrence: How did all these firsts, or almost firsts, affect you as a manger and developing your management skills?

Ms. Tischler: If you're talking about role models, my role models were all male. And because they were in a command-and-control atmosphere back then, I followed suit. Now, when I tried to do some of the things that the fellows were doing, either, you know, perhaps out for drinks or, you know, maybe some colorful language, I mean, that was -- it didn't work for me. So, I mean, I sort of fell back and regrouped and said, "all right, you know, they're not going to let me a woman, but on the other hand, I don't have to be like them, either." So, I just had to develop my own way of doing things.

I am very forthright and I used to think that there were only two ways you could actually survive within the federal sector in any jobs. And that was to either be so far out in front that nobody could touch you or so Machiavellian that nobody could find you. I never managed to achieve Machiavellian status so, unfortunately, I've sort of developed that reputation for honesty and being out front and pretty much telling it like it is. Although, I've certainly over the past ten years, I think probably softened up the edges and become more diplomatic, but I still am a strong believer in that, and I have no patience for people who work for me who blow a lot of smoke at their management.

Mr. Lawrence: You mentioned how you climbed the ladder, you went from rung-to-rung as you have gone through your career. Is there one rung of that ladder that kind of stands out or an interesting story or situation that you found yourself in that particularly shaped your career and your understanding of leadership?

Ms. Tischler: The thing that shaped me the most was getting a first; that special-agent-in-charge job down in Tampa. It was just a never-before. I'd had a series of jobs, you know, first, first, first, first, and then I wound up in Tampa, and I had 250 people who reported to me. I had to worry about them, and I had to worry about the 24-hour phone call that was going to come in saying somebody was injured, hurt or, perhaps, dead. So, I think that that job probably let me evolve my management style into what it's become now.

Mr. Lawrence: It's time for a break. We'll be right back with more of the Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, and tonight's conversation is with Bonnie Tischler, Assistant Commissioner for Office of Field Operations of the U.S. Customs Service. And joining me is Craig Petrun, also of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Craig?

Mr. Petrun: As an assistant commissioner, Bonnie, in the Office of Field Operations, you're responsible for the cargo and passenger processing throughout the United States. Last year, more than 480 million passengers entered the United States and nearly a trillion dollars in cargo crossed the border. How do you and your staff manage and work through this level of volume?

Ms. Tischler: Well, first of all, Craig, Customs has 301 ports-of-entry around the U.S., and that's the basis of my organization. You cannot manage an organization of 13,000 spread out with those 301 ports-of-entry and headquarters without a tiered-up system of management. It's impossible. So, you know, we have teams of people. We have supervisors, we have port directors, we have directors of field ops and inevitably we have headquarters management. And I believe in a tiered-up system of management when you're spread out all over the U.S. like we are.

I mean, you're talking about volume, and I brought a few little stats for you. So, last year, we cleared 971,000 aircraft and 11 million trucks and 127 million POVs, that's private automobiles, and 211,000 vessels and 2 million rail cars, and 5 million sea containers and ad nauseam, all right? So, with that amount of volume and the people that we have to clear them, we have to depend on a tiered-up system of management and oversight in order to get the job done.

Mr. Petrun: What type management skills do you use to run the tiered-up organization?

Ms. Tischler: Well, I really believe strongly that people have to -- we're paying them to do their job. They should do their job. The inspectors should inspect. Their supervisor should supervise them, their port director should supervise or their chief inspectors, actually, ought to supervise what's going on with the inspectors, the port director should be handling their port. The directors out there in our 20, in our Customs Management Centers ought to be strongly operational with strong oversight over those port directors. And headquarters, I redid the office when I came in, and I have executive directors that handle different things. One of them handles field operations in the 20 Customs Management Centers in these 301 ports-of-entry, and they have oversight. I like to know what's going on out there. And, in terms of resource lay down and management, I centralized the budget when I came back into the Office of Field Ops. The Commissioner wanted it that way, and I agreed. Budget was spread out, the hiring was erratic. I centralized everything. It's not ... it's more like a benign dictatorship. Not exactly, but the fact is that I could spread the resources out in a flat environment. If you need positions in Los Angeles, and we don't need them someplace else, hypothetically, we decide where they go. They don't decide, and I think that that's important. If this was an expanding budget environment, we would be looking at it somewhat differently.

Mr. Petrun: Given that sheer volume that you talked about, obviously, you can't inspect everything that goes across the border. How does Customs, you know, deal with that? How do you decide what to search and stop or let go?

Ms. Tischler: That's a really good question. We're hiring a psychic next month. Actually, we do a lot of targeting. And the only way we can target is with advance knowledge. So, we get advance manifests from our air carriers. We get information from sea, land, and rail carriers, and we look for anomalies in the flow in cargo. We look at widgets that are imported, for instance, in terms of our narcotics responsibilities. And maybe the weights aren't right, or maybe they're misdescribed, or maybe concrete posts are coming into the country from Colombia when we don't need concrete posts. So, we depend a lot on targeting analysis and intelligence in terms of our law enforcement functions.

In terms of our trade functions, as well. Low-risk shipments are going to be able to go through. In order to achieve low-risk, they're going to have to show us that they're compliant with our trade requirements and our entry requirements and that they're not off record or we're not interested in them in terms of law enforcement. And if they're that way, we're moving towards letting them come into the U.S. without too much fuss or mess.

Mr. Petrun: You've been with Customs now for almost 30 years, so you're very familiar with the organization. What's been the most surprising aspect of your relatively new appointment as Assistant Commissioner for the Office of Field Operations?

Ms. Tischler: Well, a lot of people ask me that because I just showed up in July of 2000. And so, I had dealt -- you can't be in Customs for as long as I was in Customs, and this is what I tell people without knowing something about the organization in general. You can't be in Customs for as long as I did in the management jobs that I had where there was no interface with the other side of the house, it's impossible.

So I knew pretty much what the Office of Field Ops was, in fact, doing in their enforcement area. The surprise to me has been that I have been able to pick up on as much trade-related and our compliance system as fast as I've been able to do it. I've really only been there six months, and it's been a very satisfying thing to me to know that I'm not totally brain dead after all these years in the government, and I was able to expand into an area that, not that I didn't know anything about it, but that I didn't really have to deal with it on an every-day basis.

And the trade community is very important to Customs, and I was bound and determined to make sure that they understood that I would be an advocate for them. So the most surprising thing to me is that I've been able to actually accomplish as much as I've managed to accomplish in the six months that I've been there.

I do have three themes. I've been working on risk management, uniformity, and oversight. And those things are involved in everything I've been doing and, actually, the uniformity project, the trade is saying oh, there is no uniformity in Customs. Port A isn't like Port B, and so forth and so on, and I basically said, fine, no more apocryphal stories, tell me who, what, when, how, where, why, you know, and we'll track these things down. But that project's sort of taken on a life of its own because the other offices in Customs, like regulations and rulings and strategic trade have really -- and office of information technology, have asked to be on my task force for uniformity because of the functional overlap. And I've been very pleased with that.

Mr. Petrun: Uniformity, I take it, means, you know, so that whenever you enter a particular port of entry, you kind of get treated the same way. Is that what uniformity is about?

Ms. Tischler: Treated. In most of the trade fields, uniformity's really got to do with the classification of merchandise coming into the U.S., but there are other things, you're right; entry of goods and people into the U.S. People have a right to expect that if you come into New York, you'll be treated the same way and your cargo of widgets will be treated the same way at JFK as they will be at the airport in Miami. And that's what I mean by uniformity.

Now, it's a lot easier to enforce uniformity with our law enforcement responsibilities than it is in our trade responsibilities. There have been a lot of clarifications on policy they are sending there at 301 ports-of-entry, and that's what we're trying to get at.

Mr. Petrun: You talked in your description of how the monitoring takes place in terms of having information that picks up patterns and trends. What type of training is offered to Customs' employees to stay abreast of some of the tools and techniques to do this?

Ms. Tischler: Well, actually, one thing that our new commissioner or, he's not so new anymore, Mr. Kelly has done, is establish an Office of Training and Development, and I think that's very important. Training, in general, in most of the federal sector, always takes a hit when for instance resources are low. And yet it's the one thing that sort of stands between you and the tigers.

Our training is done on different levels. We have basic training for individuals who are just coming into our jobs like inspector and agent. And we have training at the ports, and we have advanced training. So they're kind of codifying all this training and they're making it uniform so that the training in Port A is not unlike the training in Port B, and I think that's extremely important. It'll be sort ongoing training, so it'll be more or there'll be a lot more refresher training and a lot of, actually, developmental type of training, as well.

Mr. Petrun: Great, it's time for a break. We'll be right back with more on the Business of Government Hour. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to the Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and tonight's conversation's with Bonnie Tischler, Assistant Commissioner for Office of Field Operations of the U.S. Customs Service. And joining me is Craig Petrun, also of PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Well, Bonnie, we hear a lot about the forthcoming retirement wave and the difficulty of attracting young people to government or new people to government. Can you tell us whether these issues are problems for Customs and, if they are, how Customs is responding?

Ms. Tischler: Retirement is a difficult problem for almost all the federal agencies right now, especially, the ones that are in law enforcement. There's a special kind of retirement in the federal sector called, it's a law enforcement retirement. We affectionately call it Succeed, but the bottom line is that there are a lot of eligible people right now. There is a huge bump between now and 2005, where most of the agencies are going to be losing their most talented, their most experienced management, as well as their worker bees, basically. That isn't so much true within the Office of Field Ops because they don't have access to this retirement, but even so when they put the retirement system in known as FIRS, which is the new retirement system, as opposed to what I am in under, it's a portable retirement system. And when they did that, the youngsters, especially, generation X and whatever they're calling Y and soon- to-be Z, they're portable. So, we're losing a lot of people to private industry. Now, sometimes they come back because it's the same thing, they can go back and forth, actually between the public and private sectors because the retirement system has enabled them to do that. And there's a lot of money to be made in the private sector.

The public sector offers, you know, a lot of satisfaction to people who feel, like I do, that you're the cutting edge, that you can change things, that you can't complain unless you're willing to try to change things. But I worry about it because in today's environment, when it looks like it's money, money, money, it's very difficult to attract the younger crowd into, not just Customs, but any of the agencies. I know because we talk about it all the time to our peers and our colleagues in the other law enforcement services, and everybody's having the exact same problem. And especially the more tuned in they are to any technological advances, and the computer geeks are all running around trying to make a lot of money in software companies. It's very hard for us to attract those kinds of people.

Mr. Lawrence: Do you think public service is for everyone or are there particular types of individuals you think are probably best suited for that environment?

Ms. Tischler: I don't know, I'd like to think we attract a lot of different kinds of people. It's just that it sort of depends on where their heads are at. I mean, eventually, they may decide that shark-infested pools of software companies may not be for them and our Office of Information Technology will, in fact, be able to attract these kids. But, you know, Congress has enabled us now to pay different salary structure to certain types of technology employees and more power to us because we really need them and we couldn't compete with the private companies.

Mr. Lawrence: Speaking of technology, what impact will the role of technology play with in-field operations? In other words, moving forward. You know, we talked about the huge volume of things coming and going throughout he country. What role do you think technology needs to play in the future to help you, you know, do that role better as we go forward?

Ms. Tischler: Well, let's just talk about non-intrusive technology, things like x-ray machines or new Vacuses, which are a type of x-ray machine or any one of the targeting devices that we're using, so that we don't have to search your luggage or search your person or search your cargo. And we'll be able just to either sniff it or look through it and be able to see if, in fact, there's contraband there in a timely manner and then release it. That's the ultimate. So, we definitely -- the more of that that we have, the easier it's going to be on us to review cargo for contraband and take a look at people so that they don't feel like they've been singled out and so forth and so on.

But our computer environment is absolutely necessary. Our automated commercial environment that we've got a five-year plan on right now. When and if we get that together, I believe that, while it won't be the total answer to everything, it's certainly going to be a long way towards data warehousing information and being able to target and being able to release cargo and making it easier for people that are going to leave the U.S. And so, we're pinning our hopes, actually, on ACS, as we call it.

Our Automated Commercial System, which has been the system that's been in existence since about 1984, is a legacy system, it's antiquated, and it's, you know, it's exceeding its useful life right now. And it certainly isn't a data warehouse and, so, we're definitely moving towards this automated environment, we've got to be able to get there.

Mr. Lawrence: That's true that must be a major challenge because, I guess, in terms of importing and exporting, most of the customers you probably service are large corporations who are always on the leading edge, the cutting edge of technology, yet they still have to work through that older system from 1984.

Ms. Tischler: Well, it's not just that. I just, you know, the ultimate will be a paperless environment, I think. Certainly, I wasn't the most technologically inclined person when all this first got started, but it's like that old thing about publishing or perishing, where you either use these computer systems or you're left behind in the dust. And so, we'd like to go totally paperless, that's where we're going and we're being buried in paper right now. If ACS goes down, that's our legacy system, we don't even know how long it would take us to dig out of the paperwork after a week, if that thing was, suddenly became inoperable.

We've done some studies, and it looks extremely challenging, I think the term is, actually, I think it would be like extremely depressing because we'll never be able to dig out of the paperwork. You know, and so, it's absolutely imperative that we have an outstanding system to provide outstanding service for our trade partners.

Mr. Lawrence: In addition to the reduction in paper, how else do you see Customs changing in the decade ahead.

Ms. Tischler: Good question. I think the type of jobs that we have will probably change to some extent. I mean, as more automation comes on, makes it easier to target, maybe our mix of actual jobs will change. I think that that's certainly going to give us some problems because, you know, we have National Treasury Employees' Union is a partner, and they're concerned about the jobs, for instance, in terms of our employees. But, you know, there may come a time where some employee jobs will have to be converted to other positions because maybe they won't be quite as needful as they've been in the past. So I think it's going to present a real challenge to get the right mix of people and to be able to acquire the resources, you know, from Capitol Hill in order to continue our lay-down of automation.

Mr. Lawrence: Do you think that the skills or the basic skills by the people in Customs need to change as you move ahead into the next 10 to 20 years? Or it just needs to be tweaked?

Ms. Tischler: Well, you know, coming from my old job being a criminal investigator, agents will definitely have to become more and more knowledgeable about how to utilize the various databases. I mean, the computers have completely changed the complexion of law enforcement from a criminal investigations perspective.

Our inspectors do a number of different things. Some of them are more or less mechanical and some of them are more or less cerebral. I mean, I was just looking at a passenger analysis unit that was doing some pretty heavy-hitting targeting. For instance, to look at a flight manifest that was coming in to see if anyone was really interesting on the flight that they needed to look at a little closer, and they were really making some big leaps of faith, spinning straw into gold, using the databases just as if they were, in fact, criminal investigators or intelligence analysts. So, any of these job distinctions are going to blur. And so, that's what I mean, maybe we're going to go to more teams of people who are going to be agents, intelligence analysts inspectors because we've got inspectors that are doing intelligence analysts' work and intelligence analysts that are doing agent work. I think that's true in a lot of the agencies, though.

Mr. Lawrence: I guess our last question for tonight is what advice would you give a person growing up in the organization who says, one day I'd like to be a leader at Customs? What advice would you give them?

Ms. Tischler: I think they really need to think about what skill sets they're going to have to acquire and they're going to have to go after the training or developmental courses that they need to really understand budget and resource management. And they need conflict resolution and soft skills that they may not otherwise get. So, rolled into a nutshell, they've got to manage their careers a little bit better.

Mr. Lawrence: Thank you, Bonnie, for being with us tonight. Craig and I have enjoyed our conversation very much.

This has been the Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers and the co-chair of the PricewaterhouseCoopers Endowment for the Business of Government.

To learn more about the Endowment's program and research, visit us on the web at www.endowment.pwcglobal.com.

See you next week.

Bonni Tischler interview
06/02/2001
Bonni Tischler

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