Lugar looks to boost USDA CIO authority

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) last week introduced a bill that would give the Agriculture Department's chief information officer more control over technology spending and more power to attack the Year 2000 computer problem.

The bill, S. 949, represents a second push by Lugar, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, to give the USDA's CIO more power to manage information technology at the decentralized department, which includes about 30 subagencies.

Last year, the Senate passed a Lugar-sponsored bill requiring USDA agencies to obtain CIO approval before spending money on large IT projects. Congress rolled that requirement into an appropriations law for fiscal 1999, but the law covered only that year. With the latest bill, Lugar hopes to make the CIO's oversight power permanent. Lugar also aims to give the CIO the power to devote up to 10 percent of USDA agencies' IT budgets to fixing the Year 2000 bug.

USDA CIO Anne Reed told Federal Computer Week that the department largely supports Lugar's proposals. "The management provisions are, I think, generally very positive ones," she said. Reed said the notion of centralizing some IT spending power is a good one for some projects at the department.

"I think there are certain parts of the department and parts of the IT infrastructure that should be managed in a centralized way," such as data centers and telecommunications programs, while agencies should manage more specialized projects, she said. "There are some functions that just ought to be managed at the enterprise level."

The USDA spends about $1.2 billion a year on IT that supports the management of nearly $80 billion in federal programs such as food-stamp benefits and payments to farmers. Most of the IT money, however, is appropriated to USDA agencies, not to the CIO's office.

Lugar also is concerned that the decentralized nature of the department will jeopardize Year 2000 progress. "Centralization is the most efficient way to manage the complex and important task of ensuring that all critical computer functions at the department are operational on Jan. 1, 2000," Lugar said last week when he introduced the bill. "It is also a wiser and more cost-effective way to construct an information technology infrastructure to enable the USDA's hundreds of computer systems to interoperate, which unfortunately they cannot now do."

Bruce Webster, co-chairman of the Washington, D.C.-based Year 2000 Group, said, "Lugar's heart is in the right place" with the bill. But Webster said he questioned whether the Year 2000 authority included in the bill would come in time. "Six months before Y2K is a little late," Webster said. "It's not too little, too late. But it's definitely late."

The USDA is in fair shape for the Year 2000, according to reports. In its latest Year 2000 progress report released in March, the Office of Management and Budget reported that the USDA had fixed 98 percent of its 263 mission-critical systems and had completed testing on 92 percent.

Reed said the Year 2000 emergency supplemental fund enacted last year has enabled the USDA to make the most progress in Year 2000 fixes. The USDA has spent close to $50 million from the supplemental fund, Reed said.

Lugar's bill also would require the Senate to approve the president's choice for CIO at the USDA. Under current procedure, the president appoints the CIO, but the appointment does not require Senate approval. A Senate staff member familiar with the legislation said the proposal should make the CIO appointment process less political because it would help verify a candidate's qualifications and make presidential political connections less of a factor in the nomination of a CIO.

Reed said department leaders have not supported the proposal to make the CIO a Senate-confirmed position because it might take away some of the department's decision-making authority.

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