USDA's Leo sows seeds of change

Joseph Leo, team leader of the administrative convergence implementation planning team at the Agriculture Department, explained his function as analogous to that of a basketball coach. As he explained it, he must quickly motivate people to work together as a team and convince them that change will bring positive results.

Leo heads an effort to build a new Support Services Bureau by merging the administrative functions of three USDA organ-izations into one entity by the end of this fiscal year.

"I tell people I am not the player; I am not here to provide all the answers on how it should be done," Leo said. "I'm here to coach a team of experts. I am hopefully viewed as a person of reasonably high character. But more importantly, I am neutral. I have no vested interest in one agency [over another]."

Currently, three separate administrative structures support the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services and Rural Development mission areas. In an effort to deliver better services to USDA customers, the department wants to combine these into one unit and delegate to states the authority to conduct most administrative functions.

The Support Services Bureau will provide administrative support in the areas of information technology, financial management, human resources, civil rights and management services to the county-based offices. A chief information officer will head up an Information Technology Services Branch, and a chief administrative officer will lead an Administrative Policy and Support Branch.

The largest part of the bureau will be the division responsible for IT, Leo said. "I'm told this will be the largest IT organization in the USDA in terms of the CIO's role and importance and size," he said. "The vision is to look at the county-based delivery system and the agencies involved in that to provide a cornucopia of services to rural America.

"There are a number of activities that are common to supporting the county-based delivery system," Leo said. "The vision is how can we move from three delivery support systems to one. When the bureau is born [on Oct. 1], it will be a holistic end-to-end vision. It's a new direction to deliver in an integrated manner support services to these targeted 2,500 offices."

Employee Buy-In

Leo said part of his challenge is to get USDA employees to buy into the philosophy that inspired the concept of the new organization. "I have to get agreement on what common vision and operational plan of the bureau is to be," he said. "I have to get [everyone] to work quickly and thoroughly. This is not a job for status quo maintainers. If you're not an innovator and fast on your feet, you'll never make it."

Leo is no stranger to change. Before his current post, he was deputy administrator for management at the USDA, a job he will return to in October. In that job, he witnessed a revolution in how social service programs, such as food stamps, are delivered. He also worked on the National Performance Review (now the National Partnership for Reinventing Government) and prepared 1993 recommendations on developing a nationwide approach to electronic benefits transfer.

Before joining the USDA, Leo was the general manager for automated systems development and the deputy associate administrator for administration at the Transportation Department's Urban Mass Transportation Administration.

Despite his busy schedule, Leo does find time to get away from it all. An avid bike rider, he thinks nothing of hopping on his bike and riding the trails from Falls Church, Va., to Bethesda, Md., stopping in Alexandria, Va.'s, Old Town district for an ice cream cone.

"While I work with people all day, I get on my bike, and I usually ride alone," he said. "It's a tremendous contrast, and I enjoy that bit of solitude. Some people go to the mountains; I get on the bike."

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