USDA slaps new moratorium on large buys

The Agriculture Department has frozen all spending on information technology products and services until it develops an agencywide plan for how its IT purchases should be conducted.The moratorium affects all orders over $250 000 from existing IT contracts and the General Services Administration's multiple-award schedule or in any of the following areas: telecommunications dedicated circuits switches and routers.

However there are exceptions including: renewals of existing contracts for mission-critical maintenance and leasing if optional enhancements or upgrades over $250 000 are not involved hardware and software for Year 2000 compliance and IT acquisitions by organizations other than USDA but funded by USDA grants.Agencies also will be able to request a waiver from the chief information officer in cases where there is critical need that a program continue uninterrupted.

In a letter sent last week to undersecretaries assistant secretaries and agency heads deputy secretary Richard Rominger directed chief information officer Anne Thomson Reed to complete a USDA-wide information architecture document by Feb. 1. That document will establish a common framework for IT investments and set standards and operating policies that USDA agencies should follow when making technology purchases. The department has no such blueprint now.

"I believe that it is critical that we pause to assess our existing and planned IT initiatives and constrain our IT spending until we have the key information architecture elements and interagency coordination completed " Rominger wrote in his letter. "To accomplish this I am establishing a moratorium on all significant information technology acquisitions."

Explaining the purpose behind the moratorium Reed said: "It makes good management sense to ensure that the architecture is in place first and then proceed with acquisitions. There is a sense of urgency and commitment to implement the Information Technology Management Reform Act."

Outside pressure may have had something to do with the decision to enforce the spending moratorium. USDA's technology programs have been criticized by Congress and the Office of Management and Budget for lacking leadership and direction. Most recently in September Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) introduced legislation that would place control of the agency's IT purchases in the hands of a control board. A source on the House Agriculture Committee said the moratorium appears to be an "effort to pre-empt Lugar's bill and an attempt to take the pressure off of the department."

Bob Dornan senior vice president of Federal Sources Inc. McLean Va. said the move to halt IT purchases is "a little unusual. But it's one way of getting the architecture agreed to. It's an attempt by the department to get control over everyone under them."

Rominger targeted three other areas in his letter:

* He asked the Food and Agriculture Council to set a migration strategy for the Service Center Initiative - a scaled-down version of the Info Share program - that complies with the USDA-wide architecture.

* He asked the assistant secretary for administration and the chief financial officer in cooperation with the Modernization of Administrative Processes executive board to create a migration strategy for legacy administrative and financial systems that would include bringing them into compliance with the Year 2000.

* He asked Reed to complete a migration strategy for the USDA-wide telecommunications network that would lay out how telecommunications services will be consolidated.

All three plans must be submitted by March 1.

Vendors' reaction to the freeze was mixed. USDA's IT budget in fiscal 1996 was $1.2 billion. One vendor estimated that if the moratorium were in effect until February it could cause vendors to miss out on $300 million worth of business.

On the other hand David Beddoe responsible for national sales and marketing at Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc. (ESRI) a subcontractor on the Forest Service's Project 615 program said he does not see any immediate affect on ESRI's 615 business.

"It might affect short-term dollars but that is not a real concern for ESRI. The Forest Service has already spent a lot of money on 615 to implement geographic information systems " Beddoe said. "But this could affect other work we do in the USDA. There are lots of places where the USDA is working with GIS technology to do their mission."

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