2017 Management Excellence

Brenda B. Smith and the Single Window Team

Led the development and implementation of a single, electronic portal for exporters and importers to submit information on shipments that cross U.S. borders, saving government and businesses time and money

On average, more than $10 billion worth of traded goods enter or exit the United States each day and must first be approved by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers. Traditionally, importers and exporters had been required to submit information to multiple federal agencies, often on paper forms, and sometimes wait days before getting the go-ahead to move their products across U.S. borders.

CBP’s Brenda Smith has dramatically altered this time-consuming and economically inefficient process. During a four-year period, she organized and oversaw the implementation of an online portal that allows businesses to deal with all regulatory agencies in one place without duplication of documents, and have just one decision-making point for the release of cargo.

As a result of Smith’s leadership, the new “Single Window” system, instituted in December 2016, has eliminated nearly 200 paper forms and hundreds of redundant data requests, greatly reduced wait times for import and export decisions, and will save the government and businesses tens of millions of dollars.

The Single Window initiative had been in the works for more than a decade, but hadn’t gotten far. It received a new lease on life in 2014 when President Obama issued an executive order directing federal agencies with a role in trade to complete a new and efficient electronic system. The effort was viewed as critical to helping the U.S. remain economically competitive, said Linda Jacksta, a CBP assistant commissioner.

Kevin McAleenan, the acting CPB commissioner, said Smith shepherded the development and rollout of the new online system through a combination of “strategic oversight, project management abilities, personal and leadership skills, and a technical understanding of the trade information system.”

“She built partnerships with tens of thousands of importers and exporters, customs brokers, dozens of software providers and 47 government agencies,” McAleenan said. “It wasn’t until we put Brenda Smith in charge that it got done.”

Deborah Augustin, executive director of the CBP’s Trade Transformation Office, said Smith was instrumental to “getting the program back on track and providing the foundation for the success that it has today.”

“That was no easy feat,” Augustin said. “She is collaborative and inclusive, and a real visionary.”

After Smith joined the struggling project in 2012, she established an interagency council comprised of the 47 agencies to build consensus and help solve problems, and she collaborated extensively with private industries ranging from mass retailers to automotive and electronics firms, Jacksta said.

The task was daunting. Smith and these partners had to combine the requirements of all the different agencies and convince them that a single system would provide the data they needed for their particular mission, in a software format they all could use.

To create the technology to support the initiative, Smith and Philip Landfried, a CPB information technology colleague, adopted an approach that relied on both government and private-sector teams to build, test and deploy the user-friendly computerized system.

“This required new regulations, procedures and staff training on both sides,” Smith said.

The challenge was not only technical, but cultural.

“I thought the complexity would be the automation,” Smith said. “But we found that the complexity was in managing the change. There were so many levels of impact that had to be taken into account—policy, operations, education, resources and logistics—on both the government side and in the private sector. To manage this, you had to understand the whole ecosystem.”

Smith’s strategic leadership and persuasiveness galvanized the various partners and led to success of the endeavor.

“It is a testament to her leadership style that she was able to bring these folks together, navigate all the varying agendas and bring it home,” Jacksta said. “A lot of that is style, persistence and understanding the stakeholders. She was the right leader at the right time.”