Dossier: measuring performance

Accountability and transparency features in the United States’ Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (CTPAT) programme

25 June 2024
By the U.S. Customs and Border Protection

Accountability in operations and programme management has been a principal feature of U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s (CBP) Customs Trade Partnership Against Terrorism (CTPAT) programme since its inception in November 2001. The CTPAT programme is the United States’ Authorized Economic Operator (AEO) programme. In fact, CBP implemented a comprehensive approach to hold the CTPAT programme accountable to different parties and entities, to include its own CTPAT partners.

This approach, which includes the establishment of verifiable performance measures, audits, surveys, and assessments made available to the public, has led not only to a high degree of accountability, but also to transparency and trust, as these tools help build public confidence and create a sense of trust in government institutions and those who lead them.

CTPAT employs a system of checks and balances. It is this system that has the most direct impact on how the CTPAT programme is held accountable. There are three main types of oversight conducted on the CTPAT programme:

  1. Internal oversight, conducted by CBP’s senior management officials and by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), where CBP is a critical component;
  2. Congressional oversight, conducted through audits and the submission of reports; and
  3. Independent, third-party oversight via surveys and academic studies that assess and survey the perception of CTPAT members regarding the programme.

Internal oversight

CBP has a formal oversight process that delineates the CTPAT programme goals, objectives and deliverables. The Government Performance Results Act Modernization Act (GPRAMA), one of a series of laws designed to improve government performance management, guides CTPAT’s oversight with objectives that include:

  • Improving the confidence of the American people in the capability of the Federal Government by systematically holding Federal agencies accountable for achieving programme results;
  • Improving programme performance by requiring agencies to set goals, measure performance against those goals, and report publicly on progress;
  • Improving Federal programme effectiveness and public accountability by promoting a focus on results, service quality and customer satisfaction; and
  • Improving congressional decision-making by providing more information on achieving statutory objectives and on the relative effectiveness and efficiency of Federal programmes and spending. (Source: Page 641 of the Office of Management and Budget Circular A-11.)

Federal agencies such as CBP are required to engage in performance management tasks such as setting goals, measuring results, and reporting progress, including identifying and evaluating performance measures.

It is important to understand what some of these terms mean. Performance management uses performance measurement information to help identify performance goals, allocate and prioritize resources, inform managers to either confirm or change current policy or programme directions to meet those goals, and report on the success in meeting performance goals.

Based on the mandate from the GPRAMA, the CTPAT programme developed its own performance measures based on guidelines from DHS and the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Executive Office of the President.

CTPAT’s organizational performance measures are reported to, and managed by, CBP’s Office of Accountability, which in turn reports these measures to CBP’s senior management officials. CBP then reports these measures to DHS, which also shares the report with other Federal agencies.

On a quarterly basis, the programme is required to provide data on three key programme performance measures. The first data is the compliance rate for CTPAT members with the programme’s security criteria. This rate is currently of 98%. The second data is the cost savings benefit that CTPAT importer members enjoy through reduced cargo examinations. This currently amounts to $46 million U.S. dollars, cumulative for Fiscal Year 2023. The third data is the percentage of cargo by value imported to the United States by participants in CBP’s trade partnership programmes. This percentage is currently 51.2%.

Congressional oversight

In the United States, constitutional oversight of the executive branch is an important congressional check on the President’s power and on how the nation’s laws and requirements are being carried out by the executive branch. One of the ways the U.S. Congress conducts oversight of the executive branch is through congressional hearings. Another way is through audits which are carried out by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an independent, non-partisan agency often described as the “congressional watchdog”. GAO provides Congress, the heads of executive agencies, and the public with timely, fact-based, non-partisan information about the performance of government programmes and agencies. The insights gained from these audits enable policymakers to allocate resources effectively and improve public service delivery.

For transparency purposes, GAO audit reports are shared with the audited entity, relevant stakeholders, and the public. In fact, all GAO audit reports can be found on the GAO website at

Over the years, CTPAT has been the subject of several GAO audits, including:

Based on the findings or gaps identified by these reports, GAO issued recommendations which needed to be implemented by CBP before they could be closed. All the recommendations in these reports have been closed.

While these types of audits take time and effort and can be at time tedious and stressful, they should be embraced by Customs administrations as a mechanism to gather constructive criticism that can only make programmes better and more responsive. Importantly, these audits also validate the good work that AEO programmes are doing.

In addition to audits, Congress also requires CBP to submit annual reports on its operations and programmes. One report from CBP to Congress that affects the CTPAT programme is the Strategic Plan to Enhance the Security of the International Supply Chain. This report documents how the programme is accountable to the congressional mandates under the Security and Accountability for Every Port Act of 2006 (the SAFE Port Act) – the legal framework of the CTPAT programme.

Among other things, the SAFE Port Act requires CBP to certify or reject new CTPAT applicants within 90 days; validate all CTPAT certified members within one year of certification; and revalidate CTPAT members not less than once every four years.

Independent surveys and assessments

Since CTPAT is a partnership programme with the trade, CBP gathers and analyses the recommendations and perceptions of CTPAT members regarding the programme. To this end, CBP partnered with academia to conduct independent surveys and assessments.

CBP first partnered with the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research. Three surveys on the CTPAT programme were conducted between 2006 and 2011. Surveys are generally targeted to a specific group of people to gather their perceptions. In these cases, all CTPAT member companies had the opportunity to participate in these surveys and share their experiences of the programme.

The broad story told by the respondents of these surveys is that the value of CTPAT membership goes beyond dollars and cents. It includes risk avoidance, a communal approach to a safer supply chain, being able to compete for contracts that require CTPAT membership, and taking advantage of the credibility that CTPAT membership brings.

Some of the findings from the CTPAT 2010 Partner Survey include:

  • More than 90% of the respondents surveyed stated that their company had not considered leaving the CTPAT programme.
  • 98% of those surveyed indicated they trusted their CTPAT Supply Chain Security Specialist.
  • The vast majority (90.7%) of respondents that had participated in a revalidation judged it to be what they expected.
  • Improvements in the field of workforce security, decreased time to release cargo by CBP, reduced time in CBP inspection lines, and increased predictability in moving goods were the most important benefits identified by the surveys.
  • Across all businesses, improving or implementing physical security costs received the most mentions of all the potential CTPAT implementation costs, while maintaining physical security and cargo security were the most frequently mentioned maintenance cost items.
  • Only about 52% of all businesses reported that they had a formal system for assessing and managing supply chain risk in place before joining CTPAT. Of those, 87.6% agreed or somewhat agreed that their ability to assess and manage supply chain risk had been strengthened because of joining the programme.
  • Overall, 42.1% of businesses reported that the benefits of CTPAT participation outweighed the costs, 25% said the costs and benefits were about the same, 14.9% said the costs outweighed the benefits, and 18.0% reported that it was too early to tell.

The latest effort to gauge members’ perception of the programme was conducted in 2020 by the University of Houston through its Borders Trade Immigration Institute. The project was overseen by CT Strategies, a consulting firm that provides strategic services to clients to address border management and supply chain issues. All CTPAT members were invited to participate, with 3,279 members representing the entire supply chain spectrum participating in the assessment.

The University of Houston assessment had four primary objectives:

  • Obtain informational assessment of perceptions of the CTPAT programme;
  • Evaluate the CTPAT programme to identify challenging areas and suggestions for improvement;
  • Identify cost-benefit enhancements for industry members and the CTPAT programme; and
  • Establish new or build upon existing programme performance metrics.

The assessment report provides a summary and analysis of its key findings. Some of the findings are very similar to those from the University of Virginia, including:

  • About half of the survey respondents reported that the benefits of participation in CTPAT outweighed the costs, while another 3 in 10 reported that the costs and benefits were equal. Time and resources spent meeting CTPAT requirements were the primary “cost” cited.
  • Several CTPAT benefits rise to the top as important drivers in joining and continuing with the programme.
  • Member continuity with the programme is strong. A large majority (83%) of current members have not considered leaving the programme, which is a testament to the value of CTPAT.
  • CTPAT Supply Chain Security Specialists received high marks. They were viewed as professional, responsible and knowledgeable.

The assessment identified four areas for improvement that the programme addressed almost immediately.

First, the programme was asked to explain its benefits by entity type. To address this finding, the programme now includes a more detailed explanation of its benefits in its presentations to the trade.

Second, the authors of the report also recommended that the programme continue to improve programme-wide consistency through policy, communication and technology. The programme continues to innovate – just recently, CBP launched the third-generation portal system, CTPAT Portal 3.0.

The third area of improvement identified by the assessment was for the programme to provide increased, improved, and more frequent training to CTPAT officials, CBP stakeholders and programme members. The programme conducts outreach at dozens of trade events on a yearly basis, both in person and virtually. These included a Fentanyl Awareness seminar in early 2024, where over 3,000 companies participated in the training. Prior to the report, CTPAT worked with CBP’s Office of Training and Development to develop a three-week course for new Supply Chain Security Specialists at the Trade and Cargo Academy to further standardize the programme.

The fourth area of improvement is related to the development and collection of programme data to accurately evaluate the programme’s progress and set a potential foundation for the development of return on investment (ROI) metrics for CTPAT members. As discussed earlier, performance measures had already been identified and measured by the programme. The programme is also working towards a ROI for CTPAT importers, and will be engaging the trade as well towards the fulfilment of this recommendation.

Concluding thoughts

Accountability by diverse and independent parties is crucial to the success of AEO programmes. They must have documented performance measures and targets that can be verified and reported, and they must undergo systematic audit reviews by a competent government authority. Finally, such programmes must seek the input of their own members via surveys and assessments conducted by independent third parties to determine their perception of the programme’s overall value, responsiveness and relevance in today’s global economy.

Audits, surveys and assessments are tools available to all Customs administrations to discover opportunities for improvement on deficiencies or gaps that AEO managers may not otherwise have been able to identify themselves.

These tools can lend credibility to how the programme is being managed and operated, while increasing stakeholder confidence in the programme. To this end, the final reports need to be made public. In the same way that AEO programmes are based on trust and transparency, Customs needs to be transparent as well about its shortcomings and how it has overcome those shortcomings.

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