User intervention pays off for Customs system

After two missed legislative deadlines, an unprecedented ministerial intervention and a possible new world record for the length of an IT roll-out, cautious optimism from industry has finally emerged about the fate of Australian Customs Service's now infamous Integrated Cargo System (ICS).

A new go-live date of October 2004 has also been set for the exports component of ICS, with imports now slated to cut-over by July 2005. The new dates come after negotiations with industry software developers - who provide ICS integration software to importers, exporters and brokers – resulted in the first significant progress in more than two years.

The progress comes after industry software developers were given an effective power of veto over any ICS cut-over dates following crisis negotiations with Customs Minister Chris Ellison in December last year.

Under the deal, Customs publicly announced that it would "…not announce a new changeover date for the ICS export component until Customs and key software developers are confident of the system’s reliability".

Some of that confidence has now been restored according to Richard White, managing director of developer Eagle Datamation International.

"Over the last three months [Customs] has improved its act. [Customs CIO Murray] Harrison has been instrumental in that – the change shows. [There is still] a caveat that things work [by] the review dates [of June and July]. We want to get this done, but it is not complete by any means," White said.

White added that it appeared that Customs' testing of the exports system was now down to the last 10 percent, with significant programming problems and glitches being ironed out at the rate of "one to two a week". He added this was a far cry from the previous insistences by Customs that the system was ready to fly when it was not.

ICS Usergroup representative Grant Allison Young said a "general feeling that it is achievable" now existed with stakeholders, and that dates were needed otherwise "it could drift on forever".

"There are two more meetings [for exports]…developers [still] have the chance to pull the plug. But it's pretty positive, it's a reasonable thing," Young said.

Some developers remain wary of giving approval to the new dates. Director of developer HiTech Freight, Doug Meuross abstained from backing the new dates at a meeting between Customs and developers last week, arguing it was the legal responsibility of Customs, not developers, to get ICS up and running.

"We are the last bunnies in the line. [Agreement to dates] implies we may be [legally] approving something as fit for use [when it may not yet be]. It's like peeling the layers of an onion," Meuross said.

Meuross said he had written to Customs CEO Lionel Woodward to express grave concern that export system cut-over dates will coincide with testing of the imports system - a project widely acknowledged as at least 20 times more complex than exports.

Customs shadow Mark Bishop warned running-in a new XML export system in tandem with the old EDI imports system was a "high risk proposition" and clashed with the "busiest time of the year for imports".

"Let's hope they've got it right" Bishop said.

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