Exporters revolt over Customs software

Australia's exporters are in wholesale revolt over the Australian Customs Service's ICS (Integrated Cargo System) software amidst claims that both IT vendors and Customs are attempting to push a version of Release 2 (R2) of ICS that is so untested and severely bug ridden that it is inoperable.

Computerworld has obtained a dossier outlining a litany of damning user complaints to Customs about the second release of ICS, not least claims that that it is so immature that it could not be considered worthy of Alpha release status for testing purposes.

ICS is a cornerstone of the Customs' massive Cargo Management Re-engineering (CMR) which aims to replace the export and brokerage industry developed EDI system Customs Connect with a Web-based model co-developed by Customs and a consortium of IT vendors led by Computer Associates. The project aims to facilitate all aspects of Customs involvement in the import export process, not least the clearance of goods leaving Australia and the collection of GST on goods entering it.

R2 is the second phase of implementation and is designed specifically for the export industry and is slated to become opertational on March 1 2004.

Former CMR developer EDS was unceremoniously dumped two years ago and replaced by a consortium headed by Computer Associates after failing to reach the first stage of a developmental release. At the time it was dumped, EDS had spent five years developing the project.

The documents obtained by Computerworld show the anger of users who are clearly fed up with what they feel is a mix of vendor and government incompetence in supplying a software interface that they will be compelled by Customs to use to conduct their business activities. CMR users include ports, stevedores, airlines, freight brokers, logistics firms and trucking lines, all of whom are compelled to interface with the system to do business.

Some examples of the complaints include:

“…Customs have foisted on us processes that have not been tested internally and are not of a standard that could even be regarded as an alpha test. Most of the work we in industry are undertaking now involves debugging Customs systems not - as we would reasonably expect - familiarising ourselves with CMR and fine tuning our applications to comply with it”

And:

“The professional credentials of Customs and the contractors including [vendor name omitted] and the [vendor name omitted] consortium is being challenged and damaged by the terrible state of this system. We would recommend it be removed from production until such time as Customs train and resource its staff with the necessary skills and the contractors complete the obviously terribly poorly executed task of developing release 2”

And:

“We…suggest that to minimise costs, industry (the users not just the developers) should be made aware of the true position as soon as possible and a revised testing period start date agreed with Customs as and when their systems are sufficiently tested and debugged for this to begin in earnest”

And:

“The current ICS release is many, many times worse than...any first release of any prior Customs EDI system…Customs has been good developer of EDI systems …[vendor name omitted] its consortium partners and [vendor name omitted] are tragically bad at developing software or at least Customs systems.”

And:

"Customs gives the impression that testing is available and has been since August, with their revised go live date of 1 March. But in reality we have not even begun serious testing and hopefully this may be in October. This is a slippage of another 2 months, and cuts down the development window. Is Customs looking at revising their cut[-]over dates, when they do get the test system available for testing?”

“We currently have no confidence in the EDI message responses received from ICS. To all intents and purposes, the test system is NOT operational for our requirements. Until the test system can consistently respond in accordance to published specifications, we cannot confirm our application is correctly meeting CMR business rules.”

Other complaints reveal user problems with the systems messaging protocol including variations of message response time between five minutes and two hours and "going beyond mere syntax checking into the realm of cross data validation".

Users contacted by Computerworld said that the current Customs offering was so bad that it should be suspended immediately.

"You can't expect us to test if our systems work with it if they can't even get theirs to work. They need to get it into their heads it doesn't work".

Neither departmental or ministerial spokespeople for Customs were able to respond to a list of questions provided by Computerworld on Friday afternoon, but said they would respond in due course.

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