The harvest of an IT career

Joe Leo's laugh fills the room as he types with two fingers to demonstrate

that he knows how to use a computer.

The Internet? That's another matter, concedes Leo, the recently appointed

chief information officer for the Agriculture Department. "I'm not a techie-wonk,

and I don't intend to morph into one either," he said.

Still, Leo said he believes technology is the most efficient way to

deliver public goods and services to millions of people, many of whom are

on nutrition assistance, and to farmers and ranchers who rely on government

programs to survive and flourish.

"We've got a large pallet," he said, ticking off the department's

responsibilities, which range from genetic engineering to school lunches.

Leo will oversee the agency's $1.2 billion annual information technology

budget.

Leo, 56, is no stranger to the IT world. "I was doing electronic commerce

before they could spell it in the federal government," he said.

A career federal worker, he has spent the past 15 years as deputy administrator

for management at USDA's Food and Nutrition Service, responsible for IT,

human resources, procurement and administrative services.

On Feb. 1, Leo will replace Anne Reed, the department's first CIO, who

is planning to move into the private sector. Although he has no plans to

make major changes in the direction of the office, he said it is important

to remember that the first priority is service.

"It is important to keep the Agriculture Department in step with the

future," he said. "Are we evolving in a healthy way? Are we making sound

or wise investments?"

At the state level, Leo is known for helping develop eligibility systems

for federal/state programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and welfare assistance.

"There hasn't been a system built in this country that Joe Leo can't lay

some claim to," said Jerry Friedman, the executive deputy commissioner for

the Texas Department of Human Services.

What can Joe Leo lay claim to? He is one of the founders of the electronic

benefits transfer systems in the federal government — the debit cards used

by recipients of federal benefits. He is the chairman of the committee that

helps states buy computer systems to administer food assistance programs.

And he's a member of the National Computer Systems Security and Privacy

Advisory Board, which is grappling with the thorny problem of setting standards

for computer security and privacy. And in 1998, Agriculture Secretary Dan

Glickman tapped him to head a team to streamline services to more than 2,600

county-based federal agriculture offices.

"He's a career guy who has done an excellent job," said Richard Rominger,

deputy secretary of USDA. "So yes, we thought he has the background, and

he has shown the leadership qualities that we think will make for a good

fit."

As technology evolves, Leo will be in charge of delivering even more

information electronically to farmers and ranchers, who will be able to

access their files from their fields. "We're not there yet," said Rominger,

himself a fourth-generation farmer. "There are a few test sites. We don't

have all the hardware and software, but we are working at it as fast as

we can."

As Leo prepares to put all the pieces of his domain together, he said

he knows that every part of the system must hum together to keep the customer

happy. "When they turn on the computer, it works," Leo said, laughing. "If

we fail at that, everything else goes down the drain."

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