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Customs to replace manual processes with ICT solutions

by Sam Murphy •
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The Australian Customs and Border Protection Service (Customs) will rely on technology-based solutions to cope with estimated staffing cuts of 600.

According to a Federal Senate Estimates hearing on 19 November 2013, Customs plans to reduce its workforce of 5,000 full-time equivalent (FTE) employees by 12 per cent to 4,400 FTE by 2017-18.

Michael Pezzullo, the Chief Executive Officer of Customs told the hearing, “We really need to right-size our workforce, which at the moment is through a program to reduce it to 4,400”.

Customs will opt for an improved technology suite to mitigate the impact of a shrinking workforce, the Senate Estimates Committee was told. “We need to combine that reduced workforce with better technology and other capabilities to at least meet the minimum standards both around protection but also around customer service,” Pezzullo said.

The Coalition Government has announced its plans to cut 12,000 jobs from the Australian Public Service (APS) through natural attrition. More recently, it has added a comprehensive staff freeze, and an instruction to agencies not to renew contracts with non-ongoing staff that are not deemed essential. However, this last measure will have a negligible impact on Customs, which only employs 28 non-ongoing staff, according to Pezzullo.  

Senate estimates also revealed that Customs is facing estimated budget cuts of $733 million over the forward estimates period to 2017-18 - a 15 per cent funding reduction per annum. Pezzullo states “in order to achieve those program reductions of $733 million dollars, we need to shed [staff]”.

Customs has been steadily adopting automation and sees itself continuing to do this as its financial capacity to provide support for manual processing decreases. Pezzullo earmarked border processing as a key area in which to reduce staff numbers. The introduction of the automated border processing technology, Smartgate, has already decreased queue times, he told the Senate Committee. However, Pezzullo noted to the Committee that much of the processing is currently manual.

The tight fiscal environment will be the backdrop to a major ICT overhaul that includes improving the technologies that will compensate for a smaller workforce. The Agency issued a Request for Information (RFI) in October 2013 for solutions involving systems integration, big data analytics, cloud computing and specialist software applications.

A Capability Review handed down in May 2013 found that Customs’ IT systems “have not kept pace with the Agency’s changing and challenging environment”, and are unsustainable in their current form.

The ICT project is the largest at Customs in nearly 15 years – the last being the plagued $205 million Cargo Management Re-engineering (CMR) project.

The RFI is part of Customs’ 2013-18 Blueprint for Reform to modernise systems so that it is better able to deal with the rising influx of travellers and trade. “Through a combination of automation and other forms of technologies—such as analytics, better intelligent systems and biometrics—we really need to get the operating model looking forward”, Pezzullo said to the Committee.

With the planned reliance on better technology to support a reduced workforce will come the requirement for a more highly skilled workforce to operate new systems, particularly in regards to big data. Customs’ 2012-13 Annual Report states, “These changes will need to be supported by a workforce of highly skilled intelligence analysts capable of exploiting this information for better border outcomes”.

The Reform Program is due to be completed by 2018, by which time Customs will be operating with a much smaller workforce.

Related Articles:

ICT solutions likely replacement for outgoing staff

Market consultation underway for major Customs Reform Programme

ICT roles feel the cold under APS job freeze

For more information, please contact the Editor (02) 9955 9896.

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