USDA tests new ways to listen

Federal Register notice

Got an opinion about what makes a good system — or what makes for a flop? The Agriculture Department is looking for individuals from government and industry and citizens at large to help them develop e-government programs that are more in tune with what users want and need.

Agencies have often incorporated feedback from focus groups and users when developing systems, but the USDA is taking it a step further by creating a standing organization to guide its development efforts.

The USDA Technology and eGovernment Advisory Council will have nine members, and officials are hoping for as broad a cross-section of the department's users, industry partners and employees as possible, said Scott Charbo, chief information officer at the USDA.

"The advisory council is not a selection group; it's not a vendor group that will be making recommendations," he said. "The secretary felt pretty strongly that we want to get closer to the people we are providing services to.... We want to get outside of the Beltway to where the people are [whom] we're impacting."

The purpose of the advisory group, Charbo said, is to bring in user input as early in the system and initiative development process as possible, before the department makes any significant investments. "We can come to them with some business requirements and get some early feedback [on whether] we're on the right track," Charbo said.

With an advisory council, an agency can also "get a much more complete dialogue than with a call for comment," said Bob Woods, chairman of the Industry Advisory Council and former commissioner of the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service. "It's much more formal."

Putting together a group under the Federal Advisory Council Act, which sets the guidelines for such advisory groups, is no small task, with many hoops to jump through to get approval and then many rules to follow once it's in place, Woods said.

The decision to take this step should send a message to users, who have often seen agencies ignore reports from advisory groups, that the USDA is going to listen to what this group has to say, he said.

Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, said he supports the USDA's efforts.

"At the end of the day, e-government has two goals: improve the public's access to government information and services and improve internal government operations by making them more efficient and effective," Davis said in a statement. "An advisory council can help us achieve those goals by seeking input from the very stakeholders affected by e-government: citizen 'customers,' employees and businesses."

"This new council will help bring customer feedback to the department — a too-rare occurrence in the public sector," Davis said.

The advisory council's success depends on USDA officials setting a clear agenda, said Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Enterprise Solutions Division of the Information Technology Association of America, an Arlington, Va., industry group. "Anything that is a step toward getting more input is positive, as long as it leads to something," she said.

With technology connecting so many services and functions, getting user feedback early in system development is essential, said Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc., a nonprofit technology research and development organization for local governments. "Life has become so complicated that we have to listen to all our stakeholders," he said.

Agriculture officials already conduct focus groups, and the CIO's office can show real improvements in applications, which were demonstrated at farm shows nationwide during the past year, Charbo said. Feedback from those shows has already resulted in "quick changes" that people in the field said were critical in their decision to use the systems.

But the advisory council would be brought into the process well before a system or initiative reaches the demonstration point, Charbo said. "You really want to get that initial customer feedback before you make major investments," he said.

"The idea of catching people while the department still is not totally committed and hasn't spent significant resources and time on a system that they only think people will use is an important step," Toregas agreed.

The USDA's enterprise architecture will top the council's list of priorities, Charbo said.

The agency has centralized a good portion of its infrastructure and common systems under its architecture, including everything from back-end financial and human resources systems to user-focused grants and loans systems.

But officials are now looking for input on whether they are focusing on the right areas for user needs as they go forward, and there are also specific projects under way and under consideration, such as content management and Web portals.

"They're going to have a very full slate," Charbo said.

He said he talked to other agencies to see how they solicit user input. Most agencies are still using informal or more focused methods, he said.

The nomination period for the advisory council ends Jan. 15, 2004. The department will establish a team of officials from across the USDA to evaluate the candidates before settling on the final group. Officials expect the group's first meeting will be in June 2004, Charbo said.

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Agriculture Department wants you

Nominations are open for the Agriculture Department's Technology and eGovernment Advisory Council until Jan. 15, 2004. USDA chief information officer Scott Charbo said the plan is to hold the first meeting in June 2004.

Once in place, the council will have a busy schedule guiding many areas of the USDA's e-government plans, including:

* New initiatives, such as the departmentwide e-Authentication and e-Training programs.

* The department's enterprise architecture, particularly the need for new interfaces between back-end systems and external users.

* New services and technologies, including Web portals and content and document management.

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