USDA eyes shared IT at three offices

USDA CIO's office

The Agriculture Department is developing plans to merge the information technology staffs at three of its bureaus with the idea of improving services to farmers.

As part of the Bush administration's fiscal 2002 budget proposal, the USDA is proposing to merge the IT staffs of the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development.

The move is part of a larger effort to create a common computing environment at the USDA that will enable the three organizations to share data, equipment and people at the service centers — with the ultimate goal of improving services to farmers so they can visit one office for all their needs.

The administration's budget proposal notes that it is becoming too expensive to maintain the USDA's existing process of delivering benefits.

Although the concept of the combined IT shop is included in the text of the Bush budget, it is not mentioned in the detailed, backup budget documentation used by congressional appropriators.

"It would seem that would be something that would have to be dealt with," said William Gardner Jr., the USDA's senior policy adviser for service center implementation.

"The secretary has the authority to reorganize the department in any way [she] may see fit," a USDA official said, adding that it remains unclear what Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman will actually do.

The new proposal comes about a year after the USDA attempted to create a "Support Services Bureau" that would have combined all the administrative functions of the three organizations. Congress, however, rejected that plan and prohibited the USDA from spending any money to implement such a support bureau.

USDA spokesman Steve Dewhurst acknowledged that the latest effort is a scaled-down version of the earlier plan.

Former USDA chief information officer Joe Leo, a proponent of the Support Services Bureau, said merging the IT operations would be a good first step. IT represented about 40 percent of the earlier bureau proposal, he noted.

The creation of the IT support center would help adjust USDA's organizational structure in support of the common computing environment, said Leo, who is now a marketing and sales executive with Science Applications International Corp.

The creation of a common support structure reinforces the common computing environment, Gardner said. Without a common support structure, organizations may tend to drift back to individual, stovepiped IT systems that cannot communicate with one another.

The three organizations affected by the IT-sharing effort "share something: The fate of $55 billion worth of program delivery rides on" having the common computing environment working, Gardner said.

The 2002 budget request seeks $59 million to complete the agency's common computing environment project. The plan would create an IT platform to support telecommunications, automation and administrative applications across the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development.

"The CCE will reduce the paperwork burden by allowing electronic filing of information from farmers and other USDA customers," according to budget documents.

Under the Freedom to E-File Act, the USDA must make its forms accessible electronically by 2003.

About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.


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