Congress pressures USDA for plan

The Agriculture Department's Info Share program is under pressure yet again from a provision in the Senate and House farm bills that would prevent the department from using funds from the Commodity Credit Corp.

Money from the CCC could have been used by the USDA for initial funding of Info Share. Without it, the department will have to come up with new funding strategies.

That seems to have been exactly the purpose of the bills' provision.

The language was intended to "force the USDA to put together a plan on Info Share to present to Congress," said Andy Fisher, press secretary for the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee. It also puts tighter control on where funds for Info Share come from and where they are being spent, he added.

"If the provision forbids the department from using funds for certain types of purchases, it would have a serious effect on them," said a staff member on the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Appropriations.

The provision in bills S. 1541 and H.R. 2854 says CCC funds cannot be used for salaries and expenses, which would include any equipment purchases to be used for the Info Share program.

The Senate passed its version of the bill earlier this month, while the House is expected to vote on its version in the next few weeks.

The real effect on Info Share will be felt in fiscal 1998, when the USDA plans to make a significant investment in the program, said Greg Carnill, executive officer of the National Food and Agriculture Council.

"The CCC could provide, on a reimbursable basis, up-front investment" for Info Share equipment buys, he said. "The language affects the funding strategy we would use."

Info Share has come under congressional scrutiny before for lacking leadership and direction. In fact, last year $7.5 million in funds was appropriated directly to Dan Glickman, secretary of Agriculture. This money is being used to support interagency re-engineering efforts.

There are no plans for major procurements for Info Share until fiscal 1998. By that time, the current USDA re-engineering efforts will have helped the department make a decision on what architecture and technology to go with, Carnill said.

Info Share has changed somewhat since its incarnation a few years ago. It is no longer a giant departmentwide technology fix but a program that will be conducted in a series of smaller procurements. As a result, it is no longer valued at $2.5 billion but rather in the hundreds of millions.

However, the one-stop shopping concept for Info Share has remained constant, Carnill said.

The program will provide the computer systems needed to operate consolidated field service centers run by the USDA's farm agencies.

Implementation of the program is now in the hands of the National Food and Agriculture Council, which is made up of representatives from the three key agencies now tasked with the responsibility of implementing Info Share: the Rural Economic and Community Development organization, the Consolidated Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resource Conservation Service.

The assistant secretary for administration still has oversight responsibility for Info Share.

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