Senators eye USDA reforms

The Senate last week asked the Agriculture Department for assurances that its efforts to evaluate and control the agency's troubled information-technology investments are on track.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) chairman of the Committee on Agriculture Nutrition and Forestry said at a hearing that he does not want USDA "to repeat the mistakes of Info Share and other failed efforts. USDA must focus on the strategic business planning necessary to develop a business architecture and lay the groundwork for intelligent procurement and planning."

Info Share was a $2 billion program designed to provide fully integrated computer systems throughout USDA as it downsized. But Info Share was canceled in 1995 and replaced by a program that was smaller in scope.

Richard Rominger deputy secretary of USDA assured the committee that changes USDA has undertaken in the past few months are "proof of our resolve to make changes in the way we are managing this business."

Changes at the department include a self-imposed moratorium on significant IT purchases that will continue on a month-by-month basis until the recently formed Executive Information Technology Investment Review Board is "comfortable" that key procedures and the departmentwide technical architecture is firmly in place Rominger said.

USDA has received input from all its agencies and is drafting the departmentwide architecture that will act as a blueprint for how agencies should buy information technology what standards to support and how to transition to new systems.

Other recent changes at USDA include a decision to halt installation of telecommunications systems in field-service centers around the country with some exceptions until budget issues are worked out. USDA is restructuring 3 700 county-based field locations to establish a network of service centers that will provide one-stop shopping for farmers. Rominger said the department needs to rethink the number of service centers it will establish.

"The final outcome will depend on what 1998 budget numbers Congress will adopt " he said.

The department also formed an IRM Council Board made up of senior information resources managers from each mission area to help the chief information officer with technical issues. It will provide technical analysis implementation and project management. This group coupled with reviews of department systems from outside organizations will provide the technical know-how needed during this transition period Rominger said.

In his testimony Lugar asked that USDA CIO Anne Reed be given more authority over IT purchases. "The CIO lacks the authority necessary to control IT spending and ensure that proper planning takes place " Lugar said. "She needs the power to evaluate all requests against specific criteria and finally attain some semblance of control over IT spending."

However Rominger said: "We have ultimate authority. If an agency is not following the wishes of the [Agriculture] secretary we can withdraw their authority to make IT purchases."

Sally Katzen administrator for the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs said she is encouraged by the efforts USDA has undertaken so far but stressed that there is still work to be done.

The department's efforts she said will be helped by the Government Performance and Results Act which asks agencies to relate acquisitions to the performance of its mission and the Clinger-Cohen Act which requires agencies to track the performance of large IT systems.

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