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CBP History March 2015

Photo of U.S. Customs Assistant Commissioner Norbert Strub witnessing a demonstration of the agency's new IBM computer system.
50 Years Ago, Customs Enters Age of Automation
by David D. McKinney, Ph.D.

U.S. Customs Service Assistant Commissioner Norbert Strub, right, is shown the new computer by IBM Representative Dean Remsen. Cover image courtesy of IBM web archives


T he introduction of automation at the Customs Bureau in 1965 was a subset of a larger initiative to transform the federal government. Just as much of society had been changed by the Industrial Revolution throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, President Lyndon Johnson foresaw that all of society, along with federal operations, would be transformed by the adoption of automation in the second half of the 20th century. He also believed that the integration of automation throughout the federal government would be part of his presidential legacy.

The presidential election of 1964 became a means for Johnson to create an identity for his administration distinct from that of President John Kennedy, whom he had succeeded following Kennedy’s assassination in 1963. Johnson envisioned the federal government as an apparatus for building a “Great Society.” Like this new society, the federal bureaucracy would have to be reimagined, redesigned and rebuilt.

Johnson’s landslide victory in the election gave him his mandate to implement his extensive plans to remake the federal government and American society. He announced his intent even before his inauguration to his full term as president.

On Jan. 4, 1965, he delivered the first ever televised State of the Union address, where members of Congress and their constituencies learned at the same time of his ambitious plans for the next four years. He broke with the general practice of delivering the address in the afternoon and moved it to the evening so more people could hear and see him. He informed the nation that he was “... reviewing the structure of the entire executive branch of this government ... to reshape it and to reorganize it to meet more effectively the tasks of the 20th century.”

Johnson in August 1965 explained the extent to which he saw automation impacting the nation. He named a commission to determine the use of technology and automation to drive economic progress. When announcing the members of this commission, he noted that technology and automation were vital to national security and to prosperity. He wanted the U.S. to harness these emerging capabilities in all aspects of life. He saw technology and automation as a means “... to remove dullness from the work of man and provide him with more than man has ever had before.” These benefits were also to be sought for federal employees in a re-envisioned executive branch.


Identifying a role for automatic data processing

Prior to the 1964 election, Johnson had charged his Cabinet and agency heads to examine how their organizations work, project how workloads will increase with the introduction of his proposed initiatives and plan for a federal government that used data processing to handle increased workloads and advance productivity. Within the Customs Bureau, a survey group had been named in March 1963 to undertake a comprehensive review of the bureau’s management structure. This group also included representation from the Office of the Treasury Secretary, Bureau of the Budget, and Civil Service Commission. As this group continued its work in 1964, it addressed the presidential directive by looking for non-traditional means to undertake the projected, unprecedented expansion of the bureau’s workload. It specifically recommended the adoption of automation in the redesign of Customs.

The group issued its report in December 1964 titled, “An Evaluation of Mission, Organization, Management.” With its comprehensive analysis came recommendations affecting all aspects of operations. Three recommendations addressed automation:

“The bureau should move faster with feasibility studies and acquisition of automatic data processing equipment.


“Responsibility for development and installation of automatic data processing should be placed under the fiscal management officer.


“Computer systems analysts and staff should be employed to install automated systems and train employees in the use of the systems. This would be a continuing staff for maintenance and improvement of the automatic data processing system, including studies extending its use to other activities to insure maximum benefits and use from the installation.”

The third recommendation proved to be the most transformative. The survey group saw the creation of a professional bureau staff of computer systems analysts to not only maintain systems, but also to study operations and expand automated data processing throughout the bureau. As both systems designers and analysts of workflow, this staff would become agents of change within Customs.

Four months after the release of the report, President Johnson sent Congress a comprehensive plan to reorganize Customs. The plan transformed virtually every aspect of the bureau from reclassifying political appointments as civil service positions to restructuring management and redesigning daily operations. A critical and uniting aspect of the president’s plan was to introduce automation to expedite workflow, free employees from repetitive tasks and better track agency transactions. When the president submitted the plan to Congress on March 21, 1965, he specifically called for the “introduction of automatic data processing equipment . . . . to transform a respected arm of the Federal Government . . . . in line with the aims I expressed in my State of the Union Message to the Congress on January 4.”

Supervisor of Automatic Data Processing Patrick McAllister holds a reel of tape, which was extracted from the first Customs computer and stored in the memory bank, a group of cabinets that held tape reels.
Photo of Supervisor of Automatic Data Processing Patrick McAllister holdi a reel of tape

Toward a smoother, more economical functioning of Customs

The overarching principle for the reorganization and the introduction of automation was greater efficiency to manage larger and more complex workloads. As the president himself noted, “It is my opinion that the betterments which can flow from Reorganization Plan 1 of 1965 will benefit our economy and contribute toward a smoother, more economical functioning of an important Federal agency ... .”

Of the members of the original study group whose recommendations inspired the reorganization plan, it is significant to note the leadership of Lester D. Johnson. Johnson was a career Customs employee. He had started as a messenger and clerk in San Francisco. He had worked as an appraiser and as a Customs representative in the Far East and in Europe. He had also served as the chief of the Office of Investigations. And throughout the course of the study, Johnson had assumed increasingly more responsibility for directing the bureau. He became assistant commissioner in early 1964 and was designated acting commissioner on Oct. 1, 1964.

On his permanent appointment as commissioner in 1965, he guided the reorganization of the bureau and its adoption of technology following the approval by Congress on May 25 of the same year. From his experience as a career employee, Commissioner Johnson saw the benefit of a professional staff with a clear knowledge of the work of the bureau who developed more complex skills as they moved from entry level to more advanced positions.

The president’s reorganization plan reflected Commissioner Johnson’s vision. It substantially moved management positions into civil service classifications. Planning and administration were to be based on efficient functioning of the bureau and removed from the political arena. Entry-level employees were given a career ladder based on developing knowledge, skills and ability.

The decision as to what tasks were to be automated followed the same consideration. Tasks were chosen that were executed more efficiently by automated data processing and that freed staff to devote more time to complex aspects of operations.

An IBM system 360, model 30 computer is pictured at Miami-Dade Junior College. An IBM 360 was the Customs Bureau's first computer, installed at an office in Silver Spring, Maryland, in May 1966. Photo courtesy of the state archives of Florida
Photo of an IBM system 360 computer at Miami-Dade Junior College

Purchasing and installing the first Customs computer            

One year after Congress approved the Customs modernization plan, the bureau installed its first computer, an IBM 360, model 30, at an office in Silver Spring, Maryland, in May 1966. IBM had debuted the 360 series two years earlier. The IBM 360 provided performance gains from earlier computers because of solid logic technology — half-inch ceramic modules containing faster and more reliable processing than earlier transistors. IBM offered a choice of five processors and 19 combinations of power, speed and memory. The model 30 purchased by Customs was the smallest of the series.

This computer was a departure from the monolithic, one-size-fits-all mainframe that was in use in other parts of the Treasury Department. This computer was the first of a commercial series to use interchangeable software and peripheral equipment that allowed more flexibility and adaptability. These capacities played an important role in the bureau’s future expansion of data processing, as more and more tasks were reengineered for automation.


Establishing a staff to develop and sustain automation

To oversee computer operations and develop new systems, Customs established the Automated Data Processing unit in the spring of 1966. By September, the unit had 36 employees under the supervision of Patrick McAllister. A Customs Today article identified the nucleus of the staff as Charlie Mahone, Harley Brown, Mary Howell, Sharon Sweeney, Viola Dix, Edna Wamos, Margaret McKenna, George Schmid, Ronald Blair, Howard Bowman, James Jenks, Samuel Colon-Velez, Robert Silva, McAllister, and Charles Griemsman.

On July 1, 1966, Customs mail entries from all over the country began processing through the ADP unit. The unit accepted multiple means of input. It utilized a “three way system” of machine-readable type font, punched cards and punched tapes.

In addition to processing, the computer collected additional information and eliminated other duties. For example, statistical information extracted from punched cards was sent to the Census Bureau. This step eliminated the weekly mailing of copies of entries from ports to Census.

The automation of mail entries was followed by a computerized record of the collection of revenue. Collections were classified as they were confirmed on validating and receipting machines at the point of transaction. The validating process then produced a paper tape record of each transaction. This was mailed to the data center where it was optically scanned for input into the computer.

President Lyndon Johnson delivers his 1965 State of the Union Address to members of Congress and a live television audience.
Photo of President Lyndon Johnson delivering his 1965 State of the Union Address to members of Congress

Redesigning work processes and staffing patterns to benefit from automation

Individual offices were encouraged to investigate ways to use automated data processing. In 1968, the Division of Inspection and Control received a unit citation for creating an automated in-bond procedure. The essential feature was centralized control of documents through a redesign of Form 7512-C, Transportation Entry and Manifest of Goods, into a two-part, prenumbered, pre-addressed and prepunched data card. Customs officers sent the original card to the data processing center and the carrier handed a duplicate to Customs officers at the port of destination. There the duplicate was validated and mailed to the data processing center to be matched with the original.

Throughout the remainder of the Johnson administration and into the next administration, Customs continued to identify areas to employ its new computer capacity. This began to impact all employees when human resources adopted automatic data processing. In 1969, Customs brought online its Customs Authorized Position and Employee Record System, known as CAPERS. This system tracked positions by civil service classification and maintained information on employees who held these positions.

The process for automating activities was often began when managers and staffs identified workload aspects to automate. Generally, offices identified individuals to serve as subject matter experts to work with the ADP unit on automation. Together, they examined office activities and broke them down into discrete tasks. They then evaluated tasks for data processing and created systems to automate the identified tasks. From the introduction of automation at Customs, planning and transition to automation were seen as multiyear processes that extended the use of computing power and redesigned how Customs employees did their jobs.

Customs Commissioner Lester D. Johnson receives the Treasury's Exceptional Service Award from Secretary Henry H. Fowler for “dynamic leadership in the reorganization” of the Customs Bureau.
Photo of Commissioner Lester D. Johnson receiving the Treasury's Exceptional Service Award from Secretary Henry H. Fowler