Cargo system scores trifecta for legislative delays

In a political first for any IT project in Australia, the cutover date for the Australian Customs Services Integrated Cargo System (ICS) will be given its third and final legislative extension after almost a decade of, at times painful, development.

This time it's the user community dragging the chain.

The extra time, for which the business community has lobbied extensively, will give importers about another month to make final adjustments to their IT systems to prepare for the compulsory switch to ICS' Web-based system to lodge all import declarations with Customs.

Final cutover for ICS will now start on October 12 2005, moved from August 28, with a date for the legislative amendment yet to be set.

The latest delay must present somewhat of a delicious irony for Customs CIO Murray Harrison who joined Customs nearly two years ago.

Having restored order, discipline, deadlines and credibility in the face of ICS' infamous track record of vendor antipathy and user cynicism, the final stage of the ICS project has left many of Australia's largest businesses scrambling to fine-tune their IT and supply chain systems after Customs beat delivery expectations.

While the final cutover date is now in October, a fully fledged version of ICS "will be available for use by industry from July 19, as already agreed at a roundtable in May," according to Customs Minister Chris Ellison.

Ellison said the extension "honours a commitment made to industry that there would be a transition period of about three months in which stakeholders can test their software, adapt business practices and train staff".

One stakeholder present at the latest user group meeting was Richard White, managing director of freight and customs software developer Eagle Datamation International.

White described the meeting as "calm", noting some parts of industry wanted a later cutover date while others wanted a more expedient transition. White said that regardless of when the system was switched on, the fact remained that "Customs has an absolute obligation to deliver a working system".

To this degree, White said, Customs had exhibited a rapid acceleration in the number of bugs it had fixed.

"They are clearing away the high-value incidents first," White said.

The final date for the imports component of ICS will be almost exactly a year after the far simpler exports component went live with almost no fanfare in October 2004.

Possibly relieved by a foreseeable end to the $200 million software development that has almost sent his agency broke, Customs Minister Chris Ellison hailed the final completion date as "the culmination of a long and complex process, and the most ambitious e-government project ever undertaken in this country".

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