The Business of Government Hour

 

About the show

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.

The interviews

Join the IBM Center for a weekly conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business.

Woody Hall interview

Friday, February 7th, 2003 - 20:00
Phrase: 
Woody Hall
Radio show date: 
Sat, 02/08/2003
Guest: 
Intro text: 
Technology and E-Government...

Technology and E-Government

Complete transcript: 

Arlington, Virginia

Tuesday, January 28, 2003

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, the co-chairman of The IBM Endowment for The Business of Government. We created The Endowment in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. Find out more about The Endowment by visiting us on the web at www.businessofgovernment.org.

The Business of Government Hour features a conversation about management with a government executive who is changing the way government does business. Our conversation this morning is with Woody Hall. Woody is the assistant commissioner and chief information officer of the U.S. Customs Service.

Good morning, Woody.

Mr. Hall: Good morning, Paul.

Mr. Lawrence: And joining us in our conversation is Craig Petrun.

Good morning, Craig.

Mr. Petrun: Good morning.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, Woody, a lot of people have been hearing about the Customs Service lately. Could you give us an overview of the various functions of the agency?

Mr. Hall: Sure. Customs was established in 1789. It's one of the oldest law enforcement agencies in the U.S. Government. We're responsible for protecting America's borders from terrorism and other unlawful activities. We enforce hundreds of laws and international agreements that protect the United States, and we're also a major source of revenue, collecting more than $20 billion a year in tariffs. We do a variety of things, from protecting intellectual property rights, enforcing duties on imported goods, doing drug interdiction, trying to interdict the illegal shipment of weapons and other sorts of technology that might be dangerous, and then we act on behalf of many government agencies trying to ensure that dangerous foods or goods or chemicals are not imported into the United States.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, one of the things that you mentioned was that you work closely with other agencies to guard our borders. Now if I remember my civics right, the DEA and the INS and numerous agencies work at the borders. How does that come together?

Mr. Hall: Well, that's right, Paul. In our capacity as the agency charged with protecting the borders to the United States, we enforce the laws of more than 30 different government agencies. We not only work closely with a number of these agencies in the operational environment, we also share our technology with them. We have numerous computer systems that serve to link agencies with border security responsibilities. Although Customs developed these systems primarily to support our own mission, they are used daily by more than 30 other federal, state, and local agencies with border enforcement responsibilities.

For example, our trade system, the automated commercial system, interfaces with other government agencies to electronically transfer data on import transactions. The interface eliminates the need for paper copies of other agencies' forms, which are otherwise required by Customs with the entry or entry summary of a shipment. The other government agencies' interface allows filers to comply with Department of Transportation, Bureau of Census, Federal Communications Commission, Food and Drug Administration, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requirements.

We also operate and maintain the Treasury Enforcement Communications System that supports inspectional personnel at borders and ports of entry by linking terminals in the Treasury Department's law enforcement facilities with other organizations throughout the world. There are in excess of 40,000 active users from over 30 different federal agencies. The primary users of the Treasury Enforcement Communications System include U.S. Customs Service; Immigration and Naturalization Service; Federal Bureau of Investigation; Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; Drug Enforcement Agency; Internal Revenue Service; U.S. Department of Agriculture's Animal, Plant, and Health Inspection Services; and the Department of State and the Secret Service.

Mr. Petrun: As the assistant commissioner and chief information officer for the U.S. Customs Service, can you tell us a little bit about your specific responsibilities in that job?

Mr. Hall: Well, I'm responsible for managing all of the technology and scientific resources that support the Customs' mission. Specifically, I manage all of our software development efforts and our automated information systems, including those systems that support our trade, enforcement, administrative, and financial functions. I also manage the Customs' research and development efforts; the Customs' computer and related resources, including our infrastructure; all operational aspects of the Customs' computer security program; our internationally accredited laboratory system; our Information Resources Center, which is a virtual library that personnel can access nationwide; and all of the management administration functions that go with these activities.

Mr. Petrun: Can you tell us a little bit about your career prior to coming to the U.S. Customs Service?

Mr. Hall: Sure. Prior to coming to the U.S. Customs Service, I was deputy assistant secretary for information management at the Department of Energy. I was there for about 5 years. I was the first chief information officer under the newly enacted Klinger-Cohen Act. The biggest challenge there really was to put all those management processes in place that this new, more disciplined approach to managing information technology required. It actually was a very fascinating place, with their own national laboratory system that does a lot of advanced research and development.

Prior to that, I had spent about 23 years working for the Department of the Air Force in a variety of positions related to the development and deployment of information systems; worked in a number of major commands as a civilian, and my final assignment was in the Pentagon.

Mr. Petrun: Looking back, what experiences do you think best prepared you for, you know, your current position?

Mr. Hall: Well, I guess I feel like my career has kind of built on itself, not always by design. But I think I learned a great deal about program management, particularly program management of large systems, while I worked for the Air Force. During my time there, I had a number of assignments, not only in the logistics and support commands, which used a lot of information systems, but I spent a number of years working for the Joint Chiefs of Staff building command and control systems, and then with the Air Force Communications Command itself, which in those days was responsible for either acquiring or developing virtually all of the base-level communications and computer systems. So that was good experience for me.

While I was at the Department of Energy, I learned a great deal about dealing with senior executives, particularly political appointees. And that's where I first began to interact with the congressional staffs. And these are all important things to know how to do when you're trying to manage large programs, trying to deal with the marketing and the advocacy pieces of building credibility and understanding about why programs are needed, and keeping people assured that you're managing them well and delivering value to the public. And this is all very critical to the modernization program that we currently have underway at U.S. Customs.

Mr. Lawrence: You spent a long time with the U.S. Air Force in the technology areas, and then you left and went to the Department of Energy. I'm curious at that point, what were the factors in your decision to go to a civilian agency versus, say, another military-based agency, or even going to the private sector. I wonder how you thought about that decision.

Mr. Hall: Well, I've reached a point several times in my career where I had the option of going to the private sector, and it's always been tempting. But civil service, I think, is a calling for those of us who spend most of our working careers doing this kind of work. I think most of us take great personal satisfaction from it. We view it as a real opportunity to make a difference, and it's interesting work. That's kept me in government service, I think.

The move from the Department of the Air Force to the Department of Energy was one of those serendipitous things that occur every once in a while. I was very happy with the Air Force. I had spent my career there. I had a very responsible position in the Pentagon. As it turned out, a fellow that I had worked for previously who was a senior officer in the Air Force had retired and come back as a political appointee at the Department of Energy, and he needed a senior information technology executive. So it was kind of one of those opportunities that come up sometimes.

So you really aren't looking, but they're just too interesting to walk away from. And I was about ready for a change and it was the right timing for me. So I was looking forward to the opportunity to work with this gentleman again. It was a good time to be at the Department of Energy, a lot of new things were happening, and we were trying to get the Klinger-Cohen Act implemented. So I decided to make the move.

Kind of unusual for most senior folks in the federal government, but it was a good move for me. I grew a lot personally and professionally, learned a lot. And really I think that shift eventually set up the opportunity to move over to Customs and have the opportunity to lead a major modernization program, which is primarily what I do now.

Mr. Lawrence: Did you have a chance to reflect upon the differences in the management culture of sort of a military-based organization and a civilian-based organization?

Mr. Hall: Well, that's been very interesting. I spent 23 years primarily working for the military on military staffs as a civilian, so that was interesting in and of itself. You find the military departments more structured in lots of ways, but I still found that military organizations have a high regard for initiative and imagination, and so that structure really doesn't seem to have a negative effect on creativity and so forth. I found my assignments and the organizations I worked for at Defense Department very stimulating, a lot of interesting work going on, a heavy use of technology.

When I moved to the Department of Energy, the real difference was this lack of structure. The Department of Energy does a lot of creative work, a lot of advanced research, a lot of academically oriented folks. And so there was more emphasis on flexibility and let a thousand flowers bloom and that kind of thing, and so that was the biggest adjustment I had to make. I went from a place where everybody did a memo the same way and everybody understood exactly how you coordinated a piece of work to a place that was very creative in terms of how it expressed its work effort. But you learn to do that, and so it was just a different culture.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a good stopping point. Come back with us in a few minutes as we continue our discussion with Woody Hall of the U.S. Customs Service.

Customs is in the midst of a large modernization program. When we come back we'll ask Woody to tell us how's it going.

This is The Business of Government Hour . (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour . I'm Paul Lawrence, and today's conversation is with Woody Hall. Woody's the assistant commissioner and chief information officer of the U.S. Customs Service. And joining us in our conversation is Craig Petrun.

Well, Woody, we know that Customs is embarking on a large-scale modernization program. Could you set the context for us, sort of what was it like when you got there and what was the plan that people envisioned going forward?

Mr. Hall: The Customs' modernization program is envisioned as a 15-year initiative that will redesign all of the automated systems that support U.S. Customs. And I was specifically asked to move to Customs to move this modernization effort forward. And the situation as I saw it when I first arrived was that the overwhelming need to replace what had been some very sophisticated systems developed in the '80s was so obvious and so compelling to the Customs Service that they were having trouble selling that to other folks. I mean, the real piece that was missing was a clearly articulated business case that could be communicated to the oversight agencies, like General Accounting Office and the appropriations committees that are responsible for funding the U.S. Customs Service.

And so really what was needed was someone who had been through that before, understood how you communicate the need for this kind of major revitalization of a core capability within an organization. And so that's basically where we started. So we spent several years actually articulating that message, trying to rebuild credibility with the folks who basically have to have confidence that you're going to spend the public's money wisely.

So I think we've done that. We actually were able to initiate the program in 2001. And we're well underway at this point; a lot of design work has been done, and we have actually developed and implemented the basic infrastructure and platforms on which these applications will run over time.

But we're very excited about the modernization program because Customs is very dependent on technology anyway. Our workload has been doubling about every 7 or 8 years since the '80s. And in the '80s, Customs was one of the first civilian agencies to make a large commitment to the use of information technology to leverage its workforce, to be able to keep up with the growth in their responsibilities and their workload with what, until very recently, has been a fairly static workforce. By that I mean the number of people we had to do this work has been about the same for almost 20, 25 years, and yet the workload doubles about every 7 or 8 years.

The only way you can keep up with that and be effective is through the use of technology. And we do that with two basic kinds of technology: one is the nonintrusive inspection equipment that we use to help us detect anomalies in shipments without having to totally unpack trucks and sea containers and so forth; and the other is the use of information. And the only way to effectively do that is to be able to electronically move that information around quickly, get it to the right place at the right time, and that's what the modernization program is all about.

Mr. Lawrence: Let me just ask you one question about the business plan, because it sounded like you answered it. Was it just that the business case depended upon the ROI that you talked about, many fewer people would be needed with the technology, or were there other things that seemed to carry the day?

Mr. Hall: I think it was a number of things. One is, I think we -- we had a very effective legacy system. There were two problems with the legacy system that is the first piece that's being modernized. One was that it no longer automated the business processes that we used. They reflected the way Customs did business in the '80s, and it was very sophisticated at the time, but things had moved on. The private sector doesn't do business that way. We're part of a more global economy. There are a lot of advances that are being made in other countries with the way their customs administrations work.

So there's a tremendous demand from the private sector to be faster, more efficient. And while everyone understands the need for us to ensure the safety of the shipments that are in the flow of commerce, and they understand the need to pay duties and so forth and so on, we've got to be both effective and efficient. And so the processes that were automated were becoming largely irrelevant and we needed to move on.

The other piece was that the components from which this legacy system were built had become very dated. Some of the system software was no longer being supported by the vendors. Some of the hardware was out of date; it no longer had the capacity or even the characteristics that we needed to do business. And so fundamentally, this legacy system that we're so dependent on had just become obsolete, needed to replace it. And so that's really the system part of it.

So we really had to find a way to communicate in plain English to folks that this wasn't just a nice-to-have investment we were trying to make, it wasn't just buying the latest version of something, that we fundamentally needed to automate a whole new way of doing business so that we could stay current and stay out of the way of the flow of commerce while we did our job. And we also needed to be able to depend on a reliable system that was cost-effective to support.

Because, for example, just to give you a benchmark to think about this, when we would have a problem with the legacy system, if it were to go down for two hours, General Motors starts closing plants. I mean, that's how dependent, how interwoven Customs is in the way we do business in this country. And so there are tremendous economic impacts when our system doesn't work. So we needed to address that and address that directly. So that's really why the business case became so important; we needed to articulate the mission-critical reasons why we needed to build this new system. We needed to convince folks that we had really thought through the alternatives and had selected a modern and a reasonable approach to building the system. It would be flexible. It would be easy to change as time moved on. It would be cost-effective.

It turns out that when you make such a major reinvention of how you do business, it's expensive. This program is envisioned to be on the order of $1-1/2 billion. That's a lot of money. And so folks want you to be able to convince them that you know what you're doing, it's a good investment, you've got the necessary controls in place, you've got good risk management, and these were all things we had to accomplish with that business case.

Mr. Petrun: The first part of the modernization effort, as we understand it, is now known as ACE, which stands for the Automated Commercial Environment. Can you tell us a little bit about how ACE is going to help transform the way Customs processes goods at the border, what new technologies it might leverage, and I guess nowadays, very important is, you know, how it might help improve security of our nation's borders?

Mr. Hall: ACE will lay the technology foundation for all modernization programs and deliver enhanced support of the cargo processing and enforcement operations from beginning to end. All related functions for Customs, the trade community, and government agencies, will be supported from a single, common-user, web-based interface. ACE leverages 21st century enterprise resource planning technology that allows users from across Customs to access one integrated system, versus the existing multiple systems that are not linked to each other.

ACE will significantly reduce the effort required to process transactions. It'll reduce paper handling, data entry, financial processing by increasing access to data for Customs employees. It will allow Customs to process, screen, and analyze transactions by accounts, enabling employees to view both aggregate activity, or if they choose, selected transactions. ACE will power expedited release for carriers and shippers that have pre-filed and been approved, and also allow access to all of Customs' integrated systems with a single sign-on through the web portal.

Mr. Lawrence: What does the implementation schedule look like for ACE and other parts of the modernization plan within Customs?

Mr. Hall: The delivery of ACE functions is expected to begin this spring and continues in phases extending through 2007. Delivery will proceed port by port in phases. Initially, seven land border ports will be implemented, followed by another 90 ports and their related centers. Then in the third year, 250 ports, including sea, air, and rail; and, finally, to all ports, modes of transportation, and locations.

Users of the account portal functionality -- this is the ability to deal with organizations as an entity as opposed to the current transaction-by-transaction way we do business port-by-port, so this is a more integrated -- it's more like doing business, like your credit card bill. You get an account summary month by month. That will be expanded up to 1,100 accounts, and then, finally, to all accounts that qualify.

The proposed schedule of major functionality includes implementation of the automated commercial environment platforms and back-end systems. Those have been certified this past winter. Account management and periodic statements and payments will be implemented in the spring and fall of this year. Automated truck manifests and E-release, this gets away from the paper-based review that happens at the border or within the port; it'll be electronic. And a new inspector interface, which will give them a single interface to all the information systems they need, will be done in the spring of 2004.

E-release will then be extended to all other modes of transportation, including air, sea, and rail, beginning in the winter of 2004 and proceeding into early 2005. There's a bond sufficiency function that has to do with legal liability of folks who are involved in the importing process; will be implemented in spring of 2006. And then export processing will be added in the winter of 2006, and that will continue into 2007, which is the expected completion of the initial deployment of the new system.

Once these features are implemented the modernization effort will then start to focus on other areas, including passenger processing, investigative and intelligence support, human resources, and financial management.

Mr. Lawrence: We're going to go to a break. This is a good stopping point. Come back with us in a few minutes as we continue discussing management with Woody Hall of the U.S. Customs Service.

This is The Business of Government Hour . (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour . I'm Paul Lawrence, and today's conversation is with Woody Hall. Woody's the assistant commissioner and chief information officer of the U.S. Customs Service.

And joining us in our conversation is Craig Petrun.

Mr. Petrun: Woody, the next question revolves around Customs modernization and the length of the program. It's projected, as you mentioned, to take approximately 15 years overall. In managing a project that large, how do you decide, you know, what to do first? At the end of the timeline, how do you ensure that, you know, what you did at the beginning, you know, 15 years before, is still up-to-date?

Mr. Hall: Right. I think planning is the key. And when you're dealing with a horizon of 15 years, the planning has to be both long-term and strategic and short-term and tactical. And this has to be an ongoing process that allows you to update to adjust to new requirements and changes and new developments in technology and so forth. Actually, adopting this 15-year horizon was something we did after I arrived at Customs, because folks were tending to think of this as what I call "little M modernization." They were just thinking about the automated commercial environment project, which is just a piece.

Actually what needed to be done were virtually all of these mission-critical systems had been developed in the '80s. And at the time, they were all very state-of-the-art, and they still serve us very well. As I mentioned earlier, though, they don't meet our needs in terms of automating current business practices, and they're built out of components that are just expensive to support, if they're supported at all. So we needed to move on.

But you can't do it all at once, so you've got to decide what are you going to do first, what are you going to do next. So we developed this vision of starting with what's essentially the commercial part of the Customs mission. That's where the revenue collection is, it's where most of the interaction with the public and the trade is, and it just seemed to make sense to start there. And that's where the business process reengineering was done first, just trying to reinvent how we do the business of Customs.

Now we knew even then, and this predates 9/11 by a couple of years, that the enforcement part was important. But the enforcement part tends to be what we use. And so the impact on the public wasn't as clear, and so we decided to make that the next phase. And then the third phase was envisioned as our administrative systems: personnel systems, finance systems, procurement systems, and so forth.

So that was simply an attempt to kind of prioritize this and kind of spread it out over the 15-year horizon. For the second two phases, that's basically it. We just kind of made some rough order of magnitude estimates of how long that might take and what it might cost. And then we focused on the details of how are we going to execute the first phase, and that brought us to the automated commercial environment.

A number of things have to fit together to make this kind of plan stay viable over the long run. First of all, you've got to keep everybody aware of the fact that this is not just one project; that we envision replacing all of our mission-critical applications. And we've built the infrastructure to support that in the first phase, but that has to be expanded to meet increased workload and kept modernized if it's going to remain effective. And so folks have to remember that this is a long-term, sustained effort. In fact, I'm not sure the 15 years is when it's done because you're going to have to keep modernizing these things as you go. But it was a useful way to think about the totality of the effort.

And then we have very active internal strategic planning and capital investment and enterprise architecture processes that all have to play together. And these are other ways that you can keep the information about what you're trying to do and what's important current and synchronized. The strategic planning piece is how we stay in touch with our customers about what their strategic mid- and long-term objectives are so that we can be thinking about the technology you need to support those operational requirements.

The capital investment piece is how you link all of this back to the budget process, which is where the money comes from. And then the enterprise architecture is really the engineering piece that marries that all together. It's where you define what you currently have, what your current baseline is. Then you map on your future requirements that you're trying to move towards. That helps you understand what the gaps are. Then the gaps have to be turned into programmatic initiatives. That's where you make your investments in new hardware or expanded communications capacity or you tee up new applications development efforts.

So all these things have to be done and they all have to be kept current. And so we have created these processes. They're all linked tightly to not only the modernization piece, but the legacy piece as well. And we've got people who, full-time, that's their job, to keep these documents current and to keep these processes active and viable.

And one of the things that's made it easier to do this at the U.S. Customs Service is that I have full support from my peers at the executive level and from the front office. The commissioner and the deputy commissioner are very actively involved in the governance of these processes and helping us make the priority decisions and make sure that the resources align with the priorities. And that's really what you have to do; to make sure that the pieces fit over time and that you're able to adapt to new priorities as they emerge, because things do change.

Mr. Lawrence: How will you or how are you measuring the success of the program?

Mr. Hall: Well, actually we have a fairly detailed set of metrics that we have created and are measuring parts of the program against. The success of the modernization plan I believe is determined by measuring performance results against the Customs strategic plans, performance targets, strategies, and objectives. Our current focus is on the automated commercial environment, and we are looking at the desired business results that are derived from that strategic plan.

These desired business results, as we call them, have about 500 associated performance measures. A subset of those performance measures is used to evaluate the success of a given release or part of the program in terms of meeting those results and objectives. Eventually, we should see that the automated commercial environment fulfills these once it's developed and fielded. And for example, you know, some of these desired objectives have to do with things like cycle time; they have to do with the effect of the quality of the data that's being provided; have to do with the success of the targeting that we do.

And so the real key here is we're not just measuring technical performance of components. What we've really done is invested a lot of time. And by the way, the technical people didn't do it. We had inspectors and agents and import specialists, and folks who do the work of Customs helped develop what these measurable operational characteristics should be. And so the idea really is to make sure that you can quantify the improvement in your operation from the investment you made in the technology, in the systems.

Mr. Petrun: This is a somewhat related question in terms of, you know, risk. I mean, large programs are inherently risky. What are you doing to manage, you know, the risks over the course of the project?

Mr. Hall: A number of things. And you're right, risk can't be eliminated, but it does have to be managed. If you were to attend one of our recurring program management reviews, which we do frequently -- at the working level, these things go on weekly; at the executive level they go on at least monthly -- risk management is actually one of the elements of these programs reviews. And what we have done collaboratively with the group of contractors who are working with us to build this system, and with heavy input from our operational users, we have identified a list of issues that present risk to the success of the program. And we track those until we feel like we've either closed the issue or we've managed it. But we try to keep a clear eye on the things that aren't as under control as we'd like them to be so they can be managed and mitigated.

We've also undertaken a number of process improvement efforts. One is the Software Engineering Institute framework for how you improve the discipline and manage your place along that evolutionary path to have a very defined, very managed, very coordinated process for developing systems. And I think, like most everyone else who is in the software business or in the information systems development business, we've kind of moved away from a culture that kind of felt like a Pottery Barn, where everybody was an artist and they had their own way of defining and building systems and wanted to put their own special marker/thumbprint on the product, to one that really may not be as much fun, but it feels more like a factory. I mean, it's very engineering, discipline-oriented. Lots of documentation of design, lots of tests.

The actual development of software has actually become a fairly small piece of the time you spend on developing a system. We spend a lot more time on the requirements definition and design part, and then the test and acceptance piece at the end, which kind of sandwiches the actual building of the system in between. But we've invested heavily in developing and documenting these new procedures, training people to use them, coordinating how our folks interact with the vendors and contractors that are working on this important project. And so the management process itself has gotten a lot of attention to mitigate risk and improve our probability of success.

Mr. Lawrence: That's a good stopping point. We've got to go to a break. Rejoin us in a few minutes as we continue talking about management with Woody Hall of the U.S. Customs Service.

How is homeland security changing Customs? We'll ask Woody for his perspective when The Business of Government Hour returns. (Intermission)

Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, and our special guest today is Woody Hall. Woody's the assistant commissioner and chief information officer of the U.S. Customs Service.

And joining us in our conversation is Craig Petrun.

Mr. Petrun: We finished the last segment talking about risk, and I have one kind of related question to that. What challenges has your office experienced in implementing modernization in terms of overcoming resistance to change from the people's side of change? So in what ways are you helping employees cope with the change that introducing a new system can cause?

Mr. Hall: That's a great question, because I think there is a tendency to overlook the impact of change on an organization. And so we have actually identified that as a special activity that needs to be addressed as part of modernization programs. So while we have a tendency to talk about all the technical stuff, how we're designing the system, how we're getting the requirements identified, and so forth, we actually have a part of our partnership that's supporting the development of the automated commercial environment whose task it is is to help us with the organizational issues.

And what are some of those? For example, we're making a fundamental shift from the way we've been doing business to a new way of doing business. Folks have to be trained; just something that simple. So you have to synchronize the availability of training with the delivery of new capabilities so that they know how to use the system, they know what it means. The data meaning changes a little bit. The way the screen faces look on the computer change a little bit. Just going from a system that they already know where they have to log on and off of various systems and applications to do their work, now they just log on to one place, but now they've got to know how to access those various functions and information through that single, improved interface. Well, that all takes training, and so training is getting a lot more attention than it might.

Just keeping the folks informed. We've got a very active communications staff. This is such a big program and it takes so long to execute, it's very easy for people to feel out of touch or to feel like they don't know what the current status is, and that's not good for the program or them. So we spend a lot of time keeping folks up to date on what the latest happenings are, what's the status of the project. When there are delays, we let them know about that. But mostly, we want them to be aware of what's coming down the road, what they need to get ready for. It helps them think about how their way of doing business is going to change so that they can plan and prepare for it.

These are all things that really have to be wrapped around a successful systems development effort. And of course, you have to constantly recompete for the support you have for a program. New things come along, priorities change, but even with a successful program like this that people understand the value at a fundamental level, we've got a lot of resources associated with this project, and there's always a temptation in any organization to start peeling those away to do other critical things. So it's not a matter of just selling the program once. You have to keep selling people on why it's still relevant, why it's important, it's a good investment, things are being managed well. And so that's a constant job to keep your peers, keep your bosses comfortable with where things are and that it's still a relevant activity.

So you have to work up the chain, you have to work down the chain. Some of it's just keeping the interest and support around the value of the effort. Some of it is preparing people to do business in a fundamentally new way.

Mr. Lawrence: Plans for modernization were already underway before September 11th of last year. How did the management approach to modernization change after the terrorist attack?

Mr. Hall: Like most organizations that are involved in efforts to protect the nation, we have been kind of swept under the label of homeland security, we did actually step back and take a hard look at the relevance of the program. Does this still make sense? Is this still the best thing, the right thing for us to be doing? And the conclusion was yes, for a number of reasons.

One is, operations at Customs are fairly integrated. There's a lot of overlap between what our inspectors do and what our agents do. And so this system, really the information it collects, the information it provides, the analysis, the analytical support that it can support, really help most segments of Customs. And so the infrastructure definitely still needed to be put into place, and the application itself was viewed as useful to Customs in general. So it looked like it was still the right thing to do.

One thing that shifted I think would be emphasis. I think post-9/11, we certainly are far more focused on terrorists than we were. They were always on the list, but I think pre-9/11, you know, our primary role was to ensure that the laws and agreements about imports were enforced and that the revenue was collected. But next to that, I'd say probably drug interdiction was a big challenge for us. And I think anti-terrorism has slipped in above both of those.

Many of Commissioner Bonner's initiatives with the container security, which really has been embraced worldwide in terms of other countries joining with us to speed up the point in time at which we understand what folks are intending to ship to the United States, improving the sharing of information amongst governments, has been embraced very well. And so we understood then that we needed to put far more emphasis on targeting materials and persons who might be associated with terrorist activities. Not so much in the system that we're currently building, but we're also focusing a lot of our effort on how those organizations and persons finance their operations. So the financial piece of what we do has gotten a lot more focus. So it's not so much that we've made a huge shift in our methods and systems as much as we have shifted the focus of our interests to people who may be trying to harm the country through terrorism.

We've also, and we haven't talked a lot about the other kinds of technology that I'm responsible for, but there has been a big shift there, too. In our nonintrusive inspection equipment, which we use to identify anomalies in shipments without having to unload trucks or de-van sea containers, we are now developing new classes of equipment that help us detect chemical and biological agents and radiological material, much of which, by the way, is legitimate. There's a lot of radiological material that's medical or naturally occurring that's in the stream of commerce that you have to be able to discern from truly dangerous material.

So I think the subject of our interest has changed. And what that means for the automated commercial environment is, we have put more emphasis in some of the analytical capability and some of the data-sharing capability that was always there, but we've moved some of that up in the order in which it will be deployed so that we can provide support sooner to the enforcement part of our operation.

Mr. Petrun: Next question: In general, what impact will moving to the new Department of Homeland Security have on the Customs' mission, and even more specifically, your roles and responsibilities?

Mr. Hall: Well, I think -- well, actually, I should step back and say that the information technology folks have been meeting for some months to try to get a head start on what needed to be done to begin the integration of our information infrastructures and our information systems to allow the new department to hit the ground running, so to speak. I think one of the major objectives of the department is to improve our ability to work together, to coordinate our efforts, and to do that through better sharing of information. And that's largely, in my view, been a very successful voluntary and collaborative effort.

A lot of good work has been done to document what all of our legacy systems are or, that is, the systems that already exist that are in use, so that we know where the commonality is, where the differences are, and begin thinking about the difference, the different approaches we're going to have to make, where we're going to have to convert our way of doing it to someone else's so that there's more interoperability, more commonality. And that work's all underway.

I think the real potential for Homeland, and frankly, most of us are very excited about the potential the new department offers, is that while there was a lot of cooperation and sharing before 9/11, it was clear that we could and needed to do a better job. And I think by all being in the same department, that'll be easier. It wasn't that we couldn't do it before, but there was just certain bureaucratic inertia that you had to overcome, that hopefully, we'll be able to eliminate by being inside the same tent, so to speak. And so I think that'll make it easier to do what needs to be done.

I think by being in the same budget request, by working under the same leadership, it'll be easier to align our priorities and to strengthen our business cases for the investments that need to be made. And I think there's just real opportunity to reduce cycle time, improve efficiency, effectiveness, all these things that really reflect just being able to function more like a team. And there is real commitment to make that happen that I see amongst the folks that I work with. And I think that's the real potential.

I don't think of the department as doing something for the first time so much as it's taking a lot of parts that already work pretty well and raising them to a new level that will be able to do this important work better on behalf of the American people.

Mr. Lawrence: Well, Woody, I'm afraid we're out of time. Craig and I want to thank you for joining us this morning.

Mr. Hall: Well, I'd like to thank you.

Mr. Lawrence: This has been The Business of Government Hour, featuring a conversation with Woody Hall, the assistant commissioner and chief information officer of the U.S. Customs Service.

Be sure and visit us on the web at businessofgovernment.org. There, you can learn more about our programs and research and you can also get a transcript of today's fascinating conversation. Again, that's businessofgovernment.org.

This is Paul Lawrence. Thank you for listening.

Woody Hall interview
02/08/2003
Woody Hall

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