USDA to transfer service center workers to central IT

Beginning this fall, as many 750 former field office employees and 250 contractors will begin new jobs in the Agriculture Department's information technology services organization.

The transfer of jobs to USDA's central IT group is a new phase in the department's effort to create a common computer and network infrastructure for serving the dept's consolidated service centers. There are now 2,762 service centers across the nation, which has more than 2 million farms.

The infrastructure project lays the groundwork for a new era in which USDA will deliver many of its agricultural services to farmers and ranchers via the Internet. Nine of USDA's service centers, however, are still beyond the reach of basic T1 network service, said Richard Roberts, executive project manager, this week.

USDA's expanded IT organization will provide help-desk, Web-server hosting, network security and other communications services to the USDA service centers for a reimbursable fee. The centers house the county- and field-level offices of three of USDA's largest agencies — the Farm Service Agency, National Resources Conservation Services and Rural Development.

Speaking this week to members of the USDA Technology and eGovernment Advisory Committee in Washington, D.C, Roberts said his models for planning the consolidated computer and network infrastructure have been Hewlett-Packard Co. and a few other large corporations. "It's a major league effort," he said.

Unlike those companies, however, Roberts has to rely on congressional appropriations for keeping the project on track. This year, he said, the modernization effort, known as the Common Computing Environment (CCE), received a $118 million line-item appropriation from Congress and an additional $50 million from the agencies.

"We have to defend that budget," Roberts said. On Capitol Hill, infrastructure upgrades are especially vulnerable, he added.

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