The path to modernization
- By Judi Hasson
- Nov 17, 2002
CCE Web site
It may not be the fastest approach to rolling out a multimillion-dollar program, but the Agriculture Department is modernizing its computer systems the old-fashioned way — in-house, on its own and with no outside integrators to pave the way to create a single network.
While information technology projects in government have relied on outsourcing and, more recently, managed services, the USDA is moving forward with its own plan to eliminate separate and incompatible systems.
After years of planning, the first phase of the Common Computing Environment (CCE) — which is the cornerstone of the USDA's Service Center modernization program — is almost complete.
There is no prime contractor for the complex task of creating a common IT infrastructure that spreads out like a spider's web, connecting USDA offices in virtually every county in America.
There is no vendor integrating tele-communications with other systems within CCE, including the Farm Service Agency (FSA), Rural Development and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.
Instead, at the helm is Scott Snover, project manager for CCE, and a platoon of USDA experts with hands-on experience about what today's farmers really need.
"We've pretty much managed it ourselves," said Snover, who is based in Fort Collins, Colo. He describes the project as a "partnership between government and industry."
"The [CCE] agencies own it," said Scott Charbo, chief information officer at the USDA. "They own the decisions. They are going to make it work. The three agencies are working together as one. When and if things break, we're going to fix it."
So far, network servers have been installed in field offices connecting three disparate USDA agencies. In addition, management tools such as e-mail are being brought online. The USDA has started a major telecom upgrade to support Web applications and e-government initiatives. In the next year, the department's field offices will have 24 times the telecommunications capacity they have today.
That's a huge step forward for an agency known for its bureaucracy and a plethora of paper form requirements. Now owning computers and wireless phones, farmers are demanding faster and better access to the resources they need. It has been no easy task. The CCE encompasses about 35,000 workstations, 8,000 printers and 2,700 network servers across 2,600 USDA offices.
More than 500 government personnel from the three service center agencies have been working since 1996 to build a common IT investment strategy with common telecom capability and automation tools.
"Because we're working with three agencies, it becomes critical that we keep ourselves on top of the pieces and parts," said Jack Zechman, who manages the USDA's interoperability lab in Beltsville, Md., and is responsible for configuring and certifying CCE.
The USDA counts the launch in June of its Web-based Centralized Authentication and Authorization Facility (WebCAAF) among its recent CCE successes.
The system enables farmers to electronically submit forms that they had to download and fax to local USDA offices in the past. According to Owen Unangst, CCE's electronic access team leader, nearly 200 forms are available online and almost 2,000 farmers have signed up, along with 45,000 USDA workers who handle the forms. Under the Freedom to E-File Act, the USDA must make its forms accessible electronically by 2003.
Still, many do not know about WebCAAF. "We've been trying to get that information out much more," Unangst said. "But USDA is in the throes of trying to implement a brand-new farm bill, and people are so engaged in getting the law implemented, they haven't gotten to e-commerce."
To use WebCAAF, a farmer simply registers, receives a user log-in, password and authorization, and then electronically submits the form online. WebCAAF is in the process of making the entire process electronic, although farmers still have to handle some parts of the application process the old-fashioned way — on paper.
"We believe that as electronic government becomes more and more real, our estimate is that within a few years, our electronic customers could [number] up to 2 million," Unangst said.
In addition, Unangst said some features are being tested, including the electronic loan efficiency payment. Farmers can submit an application and get electronic funds transferred to the farmer's personal bank account completely online.
"Of course, you are never done with an implementation," Unangst said. "By the time you reach your goal, expectations are evolving."
Critics Weigh In
Some critics, however, say the USDA would have moved faster if it had hired an integrator to make sure every component works. Hardware purchased five years ago will have to be replaced on a rolling basis, and farmers, ranchers and rural homeowners still cannot do every task online.
"Our view of the world works if farmers, ranchers and rural homeowners can apply and get approved without ever having to go to the office," said one congressional aide.
Some farmers are frustrated. "Every county does things differently," laments Kent Krukewitt, a farmer in Homer, Ill. "Currently, each county has control over the process, and it differs from county to county, and I guess that is why I cannot file forms online."
Sometimes, Krukewitt, 52, who farms 1,800 acres, spends as long as five hours at his local USDA office signing up and certifying his farming needs, waiting patiently while a USDA staff person keys his information into a computer.
"I do get information from the USDA Web site, but since the local office is still the main contact, personal filing is the only way forms are accepted," he said. "I would like to be able to file forms electronically and save the hours I spend at the FSA office, but either the local office does not have the authority to do it or is not willing to make the change."
Many of the nation's farmers are far ahead of the USDA when it comes to taking full advantage of technology, according to Warren Clark, an agribusiness consultant in Chicago. Among the 200,000 farmers earning the top revenues in the United States, 85 percent own computers and 65 percent are connected to the Internet, he said.
Every county office now houses the three key Agriculture agencies, eliminating the many trips that farmers had to make to visit different offices. Every county office now has its own server. That means farmers will fill out a form just once and it will be available to all three agencies at the same time.
To do all this, the USDA turned to Compaq Computer Corp., now owned by Hewlett-Packard Co., to purchase $28 million in hardware for 32,000 seats. Compaq also designed its Microsoft Corp. Windows Active Directory. It tapped Microsoft's Window XP, Office XP, Exchange 2000 and Operations Manager to monitor events across the environment.
EDS worked on developing Exchange SMS and Microsoft Operating Manager architecture.
"We have found that this partnership works well in bringing together technical expertise both from within the government and industry, along with an understanding of the business requirements and operational environment," Snover said.
And to keep the security tight, CCE's internal network will be protected by firewalls at the edge of its network, where it meets the Internet. Servers and workstations are being configured based on a security template from the National Security Agency's guidelines for Windows-based networks, according to Snover.
Modernization takes time, but Snover is optimistic that services will improve now that the basic infrastructure building blocks are in place.
"We still have a brick-and-mortar presence, and we will continue to have a brick-and-mortar presence because our customers don't all have computers," he said.
"But the concept that each agency has its own office has changed," he added. "We're all using the same tools...and three or four years ago, that definitely wasn't the case."
The Agriculture Department’s Common Computing Environment is the cornerstone of the department’s Service Center modernization program.
Here are some CCE highlights:
* Allows farmers to visit one office for assistance instead of different offices if land crosses county lines.
* Provides a common set of desktop computers, applications and other tools so farmers can file information once instead of multiple times when seeking monetary assistance.
* Provides a Web-based program that will enable farmers to apply for federal programs online.
* Gives three USDA agencies — the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development and the Natural Resources Conservation Service — the ability to consolidate systems and share data, such as geographic information systems.