USDA boosts modernization

After many failed attempts, the Agriculture Department appears to have gotten

a key computer modernization program on track.

The agency has struggled for years to implement its Common Computing

Environment program across the country. CCE will field a common set of desktop

computers, applications and other technologies to thousands of Service Centers

so farmers can visit one place for assistance instead of three different

agencies.

CCE is the cornerstone of the USDA's Service Center modernization initiative,

which will provide an integrated technology system for agencies that deliver

services at the county level. The USDA wants a fully operational system

by 2002.

So far the road has been rocky. Both Congress and the General Accounting

Office have had serious concerns about how the department has managed CCE.

Most recently, the House Appropriations Committee's agriculture subcommittee

withheld $12.6 million of CCE funding last spring until the USDA submitted

more details on how the money would be spent.

But the modernization program is finally gathering momentum, thanks

in part to a new management structure at the department. The subcommittee

accepted a revised USDA plan, released the CCE money and gave the department

$59.5 million in new funds for fiscal 2001.

Last month, the USDA awarded a $27.7 million contract to PlanetGov.com

to provide 2,700 IBM Corp. Netfinity network servers and associated software.

The CCE servers will tie together the thousands of workstations located

in the department's county-based Service Centers and provide those employees

with business-quality e-mail, security tools and the ability to manage

the workstations and network from a central location.

The servers are the first piece of shared equipment the Service Centers

have had, said Bill Gardner, senior policy adviser for CCE at the USDA.

"This is the linchpin that really brings it all together."

Since March, the USDA's chief information officer has had direct responsibility

for managing information technology modernization programs and funds — a

change that has made a difference, according to officials there.

"One of the problems was we were in an oversight position for several

years, but didn't have direct management control," Gardner said. "We had

three equal agencies with thorny issues. It was slow and difficult to manage

under that environment." Now each agency has an equal voice, but at the

end of the day, a decision gets made.

"Having central funds helps get more coordination," he said.

Representatives from the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources

Conservation Service and Rural Development mission areas and employee unions

now participate on interagency teams so that the "people who have to make

it work" are involved directly in CCE, Gardner said.

"We're really pleased" the USDA is asking for input, said Eugene Lamb,

director of programs for the National Association of Conservation Districts,

representing conservation districts that carry out natural resource management.

About three-quarters of NACD member districts are co-located with USDA Service

Centers.

Lamb said he expects the changes to continue. "It's kind of like conservation — it is one of the things you are never finished with."

The road ahead is long, said Anne Reed, vice president for industry

relations at Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s Global Government Industry

Group and former USDA chief information officer. "It's not even the beginning

of the deployment of technology," she said. "It's not the beginning, but

it is a major step forward."

It's not easy to move from three disparate systems to a single nationwide

system, Reed said. "But given that, [USDA officials have] done a pretty

good job at structuring it."

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