Funding shortage stymies USDA technology efforts

While streamlining efforts have saved the Agriculture Department billions of dollars over the last four years, funding constraints have hampered the progress of departmentwide technology programs and threatened the USDA's ability to realize further savings, a USDA official told a Senate panel last week.

The Department of Agriculture Act of 1994 called for fewer offices, lower employment levels and administrative systems reform moves that were estimated to save $4 billion over five years and improve customer service.

While savings are already evident, "we are concerned that the department has been pushed to make reductions too deep and too fast," said Richard Rominger, deputy secretary at the USDA, to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry. "Because of budget realities, we have put the cart before the horse. We are asking a reduced staff to work harder without the infrastructure improvements, [such as] financial management and information technology, that are needed."

Before further savings are realized, technology programs must be funded, not cut, Rominger said. Congress' plan to limit the amount of Commodity Credit Corp. funds that the USDA can spend on IT would provide only enough money to cover maintenance of systems in service centers, he said. The allotted funds would not cover investment in the Service Center initiative that will provide co-located agencies with the ability to share information and provide farmers with one-stop shopping for services.

"Limitations on funding will retard future progress and could result in a loss of much of what has been accomplished by forcing agencies to retreat into their stovepipe approach," Rominger said.

In addition, the department plans to spend $124 million on fixing the Year 2000 glitch— an unplanned expenditure that will also constrain IT investments.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, said he is glad the USDA is making the Year 2000 problem a top priority. "The USDA has a diverse portfolio of over 200 federal programs and delivers about $80 billion in programs," he said at the hearing. "It is crucial that the USDA's computers function properly at the start of the next century."

Lugar asked Rominger his view on postponing other projects in favor of focusing on the Year 2000 problem. "Year 2000 is the first priority," Rominger said, "but some of the activities in the service centers are complementary to that.... I think we do need funds that make us Year 2000-compliant and provide the networks for the service centers."

Rominger said 60 percent of the department's systems are Year 2000-compliant now, 9 percent will be replaced, 29 percent will be repaired, and 2 percent will be retired.

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