Good Enough to Advertise

Much of what the federal government does is enforce the law -- whether collecting taxes, protecting civil rights, or ensuring that companies don't pollute. But the government need not forget the legitimate needs of those on the receiving end. With a less confrontational approach, in fact, it actually can improve its enforcement.

Consider the Customs Service's district office in Miami, where not long ago the government's legitimate desire to catch drug smugglers prompted Customs employees to make life difficult for shippers and traders of all stripes. Then Director Lynn Gordon, who arrived in 1990, chose a different approach that, in the end, increased Customs' success not only in catching smugglers but in enforcing other laws. [22]

South Florida is the nation's center of cocaine smuggling, where 40 percent of interdicted cocaine is seized. But the challenges facing the Miami district extend far beyond drugs. Trade is Dade County's biggest industry; travel and tourism rank second. Miami ranks first in the nation in international air cargo, eighth in ocean cargo. A large share of its imports are perishables -- fruit, vegetables, flowers, and fish -- that require immediate processing.

Customs once needed many hours, sometimes days, to clear shipments through Miami. Now, it often can do so in a half hour, satisfy its shippers, and increase compliance with the law. Gordon learned that businessmen were just as concerned about illegal drugs as was Customs, and they complained that Customs' delays in processing passengers and cargo were giving the city a bad reputation for doing business.

In response, Customs officials began to meet about 50 times a year with the trade community, reviewing rules and regulations. Customs advertised the meetings in local publications and distributed notices to the major interests with which it deals. Over 6,000 individuals have participated. Violations, such as incorrectly marking a cargo's country of origin, dropped dramatically among those who attended the meetings.

The Service, which extensively automated its systems, now works with carriers on their anti-drug efforts. Some carriers give Customs computerized lists of their passengers, allowing the agency to cross-check the names for suspicious characters. Although most passengers walk through in less than five minutes, Customs in Miami has seized 6,000 pounds of narcotics from passengers this year.

Finally, Customs has focused heavily on customer service. It has set ambitious delivery times for various categories -- e.g., five minutes or less for a passenger to clear Customs, 24 hours for containerized cargo -- and established 24-hour-a-day service for perishable cargo. Because Miami has so many residents and travelers who speak Spanish, Customs recruits heavily for Spanish-speaking employees.

How good is the service these days? Good enough that the Port of Miami and Miami International Airport now advertise that the city's Customs office works efficiently and works with the trade community.

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