The harvest of an IT career
- By Judi Hasson
- Jan 23, 2000
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
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
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
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."