Taken together, those three sentences are bound to trigger intense skepticism, to say the least, within the business community. But when it comes to the single window – a means for traders to submit all regulatory documents electronically, through one portal – they appear to be true.
An executive order, signed by President Obama in February of last year, directs U.S. federal agencies involved in trade to develop an electronic single window by December 2016. The main vehicle for delivering that dream is the Automated Commercial Environment (ACE) of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Cynics will observe that Customs has been struggling for decades to automate key processes involved in regulating trade. ACE’s predecessor was the Automated Commercial System (ACS), which was intended to track, control and process all imports entering the U.S. A major component was the Automated Broker Interface, which encouraged the electronic filing of import data. But those systems were long in development, and fell short of delivering promised efficiencies.
ACS involved disparate systems that functioned independently, notes Fany Flores-Pastor, director of R&D compliance systems with Descartes Systems Group. ACE, by contrast, was designed from the start to tie multiple modules into a single database. In addition, it focuses on getting the owner of the data be the party that’s transmitting it.
“Before,” says Flores-Pastor, “different parties would be sending the same manifest information, with the possibility of it being wrong from one to the other.” ACE, at least in theory, reduces the possibility of error and the need for data validation.
The single window encompasses much more than the requirements of Customs and Border Protection. When fully implemented, it will serve as the conduit for filing with 12 Cabinet departments and 48 regulatory agencies. Traders will only need to submit their data once, and interactions between partner government agencies (PGAs) will take place in near-real time. Data will flow more quickly, and regulators will have an easier time tagging suspect shipments.
Importers and exporters won’t have to wait until the end of 2016 to begin seeing changes in the way they deal with regulators. The single window consists of multiple processes that are being phased in over a three-year period. The testing of a PGA Message Set, harmonizing all of the data required by federal agencies, began last year. Revamping and incorporation of the Automated Export System into ACE kicked off in the spring of 2014, and export-manifest integration is supposed to occur at the beginning of this year. AES, a joint venture among Customs, the departments of Commerce and State and other federal agencies, was an early effort to tear down the walls between regulatory fiefdoms.
Flores-Pastor admits that the path to ACE and the single window has been a rocky one. “We’ve gone through that pain with Customs,” she says. “We lost faith in ACE. Even the government did.”
Problems included a lack of adequate funding and the need to rethink the initiative’s direction. Recently, however, things have been looking up. Successes include the launch of the entry summary accounts and revenues (ESAR) portion of ACE. In addition, says Flores-Pastor, Customs has adopted a more collaborative approach to working with the trade.
“They are taking inputs from business owners to participate in the development effort, so they can build a system that makes sense,” she says. “They’re drawing on the knowledge of people who do this from day to day.”
ACE is about 60-percent developed now, says Flores-Pastor. It already incorporates import manifests for ocean, rail and truck, and air is slated to be added this month. Information needed for cargo release can be inputted much earlier, leaving time for corrections. That’s of benefit to both government and the trade, she says.
The system also now handles export manifests for air, with ocean, rail and truck to follow. When finished, it will have completely automated a formerly manual process, Flores-Pastor says.
Other agencies are gradually coming on line. As of late last year, at least three programs were in the pilot stage, involving the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. They were busy adding their particular requirements to the generic PGA message set. Already up and running are modules for linking the Food & Drug Administration and other agencies of the Department of Transportation. All involve working groups with close ties to affected segments of the trading community.
So will this massive effort really be finished by the end of 2016? “It’s not going to be easy,” says Flores-Pastor. Progress could be stalled by the trade’s limited resources, as well as the needs of more than a dozen implementation teams and corresponding agencies. Just figuring out how a “generic” format works for 48 agencies is a huge task.
Also in question is the degree to which paper will be banished from the filing process. That’s clearly Customs’ intent, but the trade might not be ready to follow.
“You need to have every entity associated with the supply chain be paperless,” Flores-Pastor says. “Today, there are no regulations that can enforce that.” Freight forwarders and non-vessel common carriers, to name two, are not obligated to automate. Customs hopes they’ll do so out of a desire to remain competitive in a market characterized by low margins and high costs.
“We’ve had a long trip toward ACE, and in the last three years we’ve accelerated the process,” Flores-Pastor says. “But experience has shown that not everything happens as expected.” Nevertheless, the arrival of the single window promises to be a welcome development for a business that’s long been buried in paper and red tape.
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