Culture Change


People, Processes, and Partnerships: Customs Service

After Commissioner George Weise had met every Saturday for some time with the Customs Service's Reorganization Study Team to kick around ideas, its members began referring to Weise's ideas as "what the commissioner wants."

In response, Weise told the team that his ideas should not carry more weight than any others; the team should diagnose the problems at Customs and devise a workable solution. Unaccustomed to such empowerment, the employees had fallen into a familiar role, gravitating to the boss's ideas in order to keep him happy. Now, they have joined with him in a top-to-bottom effort to turn Customs around and give it a push in the right direction.

Customs has a proud history. Before the 16th Amendment to the Constitution, the government relied heavily on tariffs and duties, making Customs its most important revenue-collecting agency. Today, it collects more than $20 billion in duties a year, enforces about 500 laws (on consumer safety, agriculture, the environment, and other matters), serves as the lead agency among 40 in regulating international trade, protects the border against illegal imports and smuggling, and collects trade statistics.

But its recent record leaves much to be desired. As a National Journal article noted in June:

No one questions that the Customs Service is an ideal candidate for overhaul. It's been dogged by complaints from U.S. industries of unenforced trade law violations. Investigators for the General Accounting Office (GAO) have concluded that its lax enforcement methods jeopardize the health and safety of American citizens and expose U.S. industry to a flood of illegal imports. And on a whole host of other fronts, it's gotten the kind of press that no government agency could envy. [19]

Thi ngs couldn't get worse; however, they now hold the promise of getting much better. Several years ago, employees began to lay the groundwork as they crafted legislation to free the agency of outmoded rules and regulations. Then Weise, a Customs import specialist in Baltimore two decades ago, returned in May 1993 to capitalize on those efforts, launching what he calls "the most significant reform for Customs in the last 30 years."[20]

Early on, Weise's recent experience as staff director of the House Ways and Means Trade Subcommittee came in handy. In a risky gambit, he hitched the agency's horse to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), to which he asked Congress to attach the 1993 Customs Modernization and Informed Compliance Act. At the time, Congress' approval of NAFTA was no sure bet, and some Customs officials advised against the strategy. Weise, however, stuck to his guns.

Put simply, the act helped Customs move into the modern age. Upon creating Customs in 1789, leaders of the new nation decided that the agency would be involved in every international transaction. They also directed that importers submit to Customs reports on thosetransactions in writing. What made sense two centuries ago, however, hardly makes sense today, a time of increasingly global commerce. The modernization act freed Customs from transaction- by-transaction processing, allowing importers to submit monthly summaries of transactions and make duty payments monthly. It also allowed Customs to move to total electronic government, as it's doing.

Weise's experience came in handy in another case. For years, Congress had barred Customs from even studying a restructuring of its organization. By mid-1993, though, Weise had convinced lawmakers to lift the restriction, allowing the commissioner to create the Reorganization Study Team in October 1993. With an eye on customer service, less management overhead, and better internal operations, the team crafted recommendations on restructuring the agency.

In a July 1994 report, it proposed replacing its seven regions and 44 districts with 20 Customs Management Centers, creating five Strategic Trade Centers, and setting a framework to cut headquarters staffing by a third. At least as important, the team said Customsneeds to "transform our culture to one based on People, Processes, and Partnerships."[21] To do so, it said, the agency must strengthen existing partnerships and form new ones with the National Treasury Employees Union; involve managers, employees, and customers inits processes; reach out to the trade and other communities; reward better customer service; and use effective measurement techniques.

Recently, Customs has expanded some existing customer service initiatives and launched a slew of new ones. It has held more public meetings to discuss major issues, opportunities, and initiatives; conducted customer surveys in major airports; and tested the use ofcustomer service representatives at major airports.

Although culture change is a long-term process, Customs has taken the first steps. The Close-Up "Good Enough to Advertise" examines the culture change that has swept through its Miami district office.


Return to Table of Contents