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The interceptor

The interceptor

It takes a strong leader to lead Customs post-September 11. Peter Rosewarne outlines his philosophies …

By the middle of last year world border protection information-sharing standards were fraying. After the long peace, the world’s state border guardians were drifting apart on standards — doing their own thing, their way. After September 11 the guardians did a U-turn and switched to accelerated convergence — nowhere more emphasised than by the rallying around the United Nations Edifact EDI standard.

New Zealand Customs might have intoned a silent “We told you so”. The organisation was a pioneer adherent of UN Edifact and, indeed one of the first global institutions to take up EDI — electronic data exchange, though at first the “D” stood for document, a more apt description of the capability to shuttle replica documents from station to station.

Never was there such a need to silence the Tower of Babel caused by a lack of standards as there was after September 11. Almost overnight all the OECD border protection institutions found themselves transformed in terms of priority from contraband detecting and revenue collecting to terrorism interception agencies.

When the balloon went up on September 11, Customs was ready for the tsunami of border protection enforcement data sharing that would follow in the ensuing months. Customs’ IT modernisation scheme (CusMod) operates in very lean mode. It’s overhead is razor-thin — it only took $10 million to collect $7 billion worth of revenue.

Underpinning CusMod is a philosophy that prepared Customs for the aftermath of September 11, when imperatives on the free movement of cargoes and passengers melted away before the new priority of interdiction.

“It always was control and interdiction. Then as passenger numbers grew and so did cargo tonnage, commercial considerations predominated and the bottlenecks disappeared,” notes Peter Rosewarne, manager of information systems at Customs. “After September 11 security came back again as the priority and it was back to the controls and the bottlenecks. In recent months there has been a partial swing back, and the situation can be described as one of controls and facilitation.”

Indeed, for Customs, with its parallel role for immigration border enforcement, trouble did not travel alone.

September 11 was accompanied by an immense resurgence of the boat people asylum seekers, now focused on New Zealand after the hard line taken by the John Howard government in Australia.

Rosewarne believes less is best when it comes to public knowledge about the Customs systems configuration. In any concerted insurgency the highly automated IT-driven border interdiction systems would be the first elements under attack, he points out.

Better to focus on the planning — in today’s IT parlance, the business thinking that underpinned Customs’ state of readiness for September 11 and its aftermath.

Rosewarne is from a technology background. He began his studies at Auckland Technical Institute (now AUT) at a time when IT was not a mainstream course. Like others of that era, he learned by picking his way through IT-relevant courses in maths and such like.

Rosewarne had an auspicious start in the industry itself. He joined DEC during its glory days. Then, under founder Ken Olsen, DEC, more than any other mainstream company, seemed free of the profit-to-management ratio planning that by the mid-1970s was starting to shackle individual endeavour in all the other majors.

Rosewarne enjoyed the business plan approach in which staff at all levels could devise and implement their own business-within-a-business schemes and with fairly minimal supervision from country management. But as time moved on, so did the competition from other vendors, and the benevolently autocratic grip of Olsen began to give way to a leaner and meaner regime as the flinty numbers men took over.

Rosewarne found himself, as the technical guy, increasingly sidelined to tenders. Often, he recalls, he found himself issuing tenders which, if taken up, he knew simply could not work in practice. The problem would arise when the acquirer hired consultants to deal with the tenders that Rosewarne drew up. Anxious to book time, the consultants would up the ante on the technology, especially in the language used to describe it. In this spiralling and self-defeating process, the purpose of the tender would become lost.

Network tenders, especially, would lose their end-use objective almost from the outset in a welter of micro-specifications. These, of course, would be eagerly seized upon by external consultants anxious to demonstrate their prowess and to boost their hourly time sheets.

So Rosewarne left DEC and put a management skew on his career as he went to work with Jim O’Neill at the French Bull company. He eventually followed O’Neill to Wang.

Next he took over IT at Immigration for five years. In retrospect, it was a stint remarkable for the way Rosewarne outsourced as much as he could. Now, he is moving into his fourth year at Customs.

Though his vigorous outsourcing at Immigration and later at Customs surprised many at the time — and continues to surprise them now — it reflected the key lessons he had learned along the way, especially at DEC.

At DEC, Ken Olsen had insisted that as much of the money as possible that users paid for their systems was to go into the systems and their support. DEC steered clear of the massive sales bonus incentivising that characterised his competition, notably IBM. What you got from DEC, under Olsen, was what you paid for.

Rosewarne looked on as Olsen’s grip on his company began to slip. He saw marketing costs eat into systems implementation income. Rosewarne was unimpressed by this situation and saw that much of the marketing hype could be sidestepped by outsourcing.

Datacom, an organisation that co-incidentally sprang from the experience of chartered accountants in using DEC systems in the early days, is Customs’ mainstay outsourcer.

From time to time Rosewarne goes over performance with Datacom’s famously no-frills supremo John Holdsworth. While they’re talking, Rosewarne likes to hold the mild-mannered Holdsworth’s feet to the fire by reminding him of what he is saving by not financing expensive marketing operations via tendering …

Only through outsourcing, Rosewarne believes, can organisations of any size focus on the long-term or even medium-term business imperatives. Without outsourcing, businesses by definition become concentrated on day-to-day operational procedures. They can never get their heads out from under the bonnet for long enough to go for a decent drive.

The reason many firms get into trouble with their outsourcing, Rosewarne believes, is that they treat their outsourcers rather like visiting repairmen. Outsourcers, he emphasises, must be treated as if they are on your staff payroll. The tendency to draw a managerial line between so-called permanent staff and those who work for the outsourcer has the effect of fencing off what he believes are the inherent benefits of outsourcing. “Outsourcing is a partnership,” he emphasises. “It is the breakthrough area.”

Other Customs outsourcers are TelstraClear and Solnet.

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