The import/export industry is very worried that significant progress the past 21 months on streamlining techniques and technology to make cross-border trade more efficient for shippers could be in jeopardy after U.S. Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Alan Bersin was forced to step down at the end of December.
But if the signals from Acting Commissioner David Aguilar in his first days in office are any indication the reform agenda at CBP is in good hands.
Bersin’s temporary appointment was only good until the end of the last congressional session. When the Senate did not give its advice and consent to his nomination he had to leave. President Obama theoretically could have taken the unusual step of using the recess appointment process a second time to install Bersin as Customs chief, which would have risked further damage to a shaky relationship with Congress. But then Obama used his recess appointment authority to name three people to the National Labor Relations Board and the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in early January. If he was going to stir the waters with those highly controversial moves, he might as well have included a Bersin appointment.
But he didn’t. Instead, Bersin slid over to the Department of Homeland Security where he’s in charge of international policy.
Under Bersin, CBP undertook a series of changes, such as simplifying customs entry and financial collection processes, exploring pre-clearance of inbound cargo from Canada and Mexico, collaborating with other agencies to stop unsafe imports, refocusing on the ACE trade automation platform, expanding the Customs-Trade Partnership Against Terrorism, promoting account-based processing, and standing up Industry Integration Centers designed to eliminate unnecessary red tape and ensure consistent enforcement at all ports of entry for trusted shippers.
Many members of the trade community believe these and other programs are in jeopardy without Bersin’s driving force to push aside normal bureaucratic inertia.
But perhaps Bersin’s greatest achievement is that he was able to bring about a culture change within an agency that now places as much emphasis on facilitating trade and travel, and enforcing trade laws to protect U.S. manufacturers and taxpayers from cheats, as on securing the borders from terrorists. As such, the career leaders at CBP are now focused on reducing transaction costs at the border, and improving customer service, innovation, and real partnership with industry to co-develop sustainable policies and programs.
So whether Bersin is at CBP no longer matters because the changes he sought appear to be engrained in the people he left behind.
Aguilar is a manifestation of the change afoot at CBP. It’s early, so we’ll have to see how things play out in the 12 to 18 months he’s expected to be at CBP’s helm before another political appointee takes office.
Aguilar comes to his position as a career law enforcement officer. He spent more than 30 years in Border Patrol and eventually led that agency, which is now part of CBP. In early 2010, he was promoted to deputy commissioner of CBP.
It’s safe to assume that his knowledge of commercial cargo processing was limited at first. There is also fear in some industry circles that someone with a law enforcement approach will favor overt demonstrations of police power, such as physical inspections of cargo, without regard to the impact on supply chains.
But, in an intimate gathering with a handful of reporters in his office on Jan. 9, Aguilar appeared to put those fears to rest and demonstrated an excellent grasp of the priority trade issues facing CBP.
If I had closed my eyes I would have thought I was hearing Bersin espousing the mantra that expediting trade for legitimate shippers actually improves security because it narrows the universe of cargo about which there is derogatory or little information and that officers need to scrutinize.
Aguilar committed to build on the modernization effort underway at CBP. On his first full day in office after the New Year’s holiday, the acting commissioner brought in his top deputies with responsibility for international trade “to ensure that we do not step back in any way on all of the things that we have undertaken over the last couple of years,” he said.
He talked about the importance of true engagement with the trade community to “co-create” rules on the front end in a collegial fashion, expanding the reach and role of trusted shipper programs, completing the transition to ACE, coordinating cargo release with other government agencies, and trade enforcement.
Aguilar said he wanted C-TPAT to become the gold standard for importers to protect their supply chains from all threats, such as narcotics and counterfeit goods, not just those related to security.
He also discussed how CBP needs to figure out how to expand from two Industry Integration Centers — for pharmaceuticals and electronics — to other industries.
One of Bersin’s strengths was a private sector-style approach to managing projects with defined goals, timelines, progress measurement and a mindset to keep moving the ball forward in small steps rather than taking years laying the groundwork in an effort to hit a home run with each program.
Keep the momentum with small, constant wins, he believed.
Aguilar seems to be melding that mindset with his own management style, which he said is to reach out to stakeholders and establish a clear operational strategy.
He acknowledged the need for “some substantive, quick” wins in the coming months to maintain the momentum.
Aguilar said he planned to sit down on a frequent basis with the trade press. That shows his desire to communicate with the industry and be accountable for the agency’s progress on the trade front.
Top CBP managers who bought into the changes sold by Bersin seem to be reenergized by Aguilar’s leadership, realizing that all the work they’ve done, and the goodwill they’ve banked with industry, was not in vain.
There’s a lot of work that remains to be done because many of the initiatives mentioned are in their infancy. But the good news is there appears to be no slowing down at CBP with the new leadership. — Eric Kulisch