USDA conservation corps to go mobile and add Web tools

The Agriculture Department’s field conservationists will be more accessible to customers under a new initiative to redesign business processes and equip the workers with mobile technologies and Web tools.

The USDA’s National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has about 11,000 employees, most of whom work in the field as conservationists. The field staff meet with millions of property owners to develop and implement plans for protecting soil, watersheds and air.

Under the new “streamlining” initiative that began in January, the USDA hopes to more than double conservationists’ time with customers, according to a customer service improvement plan recently published by USDA.

Currently, the USDA field conservationists report spending as little as 20 to 40 percent of their time in the field working with customers.

The expected outcome of the initiative is for field staff to be able to spend up to 75 percent of their time in the field with customers, the plan said.

The initiative will free up the equivalent of an additional 1,200 to 1,500 field technical staff that will be redirected back into customer contact, the USDA said in its plan.

The conservation service's "current business model and processes overburden the field technical staff, and often leave inadequate time for on-site planning and technical assistance, the foundation for USDA’s conservation programs,” the USDA plan stated. “In addition, NRCS’ information tools used by its field staff are often time-consuming and not integrated in a manner that helps planners to be efficient.”

The department intends to equip its field staff with unspecified mobile technologies to improve efficiency and communications with customers.

“By implementing mobile technologies for its conservationists, NRCS will not only reduce the number of trips for NRCS between the office and the field, but will completely eliminate the need for customers to travel to NRCS offices,” the plan document said.

The plan does not specify whether the mobile technologies to be deployed include laptops, smart phones, tablet computers or some other types of devices. NRCS officials were not immediately available to clarify.

Another tool in the works is new Web-based Client Gateway that will allow the employees and customers to communicate with the agency around the clock.

The gateway will allow program participants to apply for assistance, view plans and contracts, check eligibility, ask questions, digitally sign documents, review upcoming work and do other work tasks.

The agency also is streamlining its business model, redesigning its processes and more fully integrating services such as technical advice and financial aid. The conservation planning framework also is being revised with the use of software tools that can better predict expected outcomes.

“Enhancements to its technology will allow NRCS to better serve customers by integrating conservation effects into NRCS’ planning tools, better describe environmental outcomes, streamline financial assistance program ranking, and support customers interested in environmental market programs,” the plan said.

Other changes also are being deployed as part of the streamlining initiative:

  • Customers will be able to use Web-based technologies to apply for programs, view and sign plans and contracts and check on payments. No appointments or visits to USDA offices are needed.
  • NRCS is implementing new technologies that will minimize duplicate data entry, facilitate automated workflow, reduce training needs and costs and eliminate duplicate functionality in NRCS’ tools. The goal of those changes is to reduce paperwork.
  • The conservation service will integrate geospatial data, environmental models and mobile technologies into its tools, which will improve service to customers.
  • The agency also is making it easier to support systems used by third-party providers hired by customers. This will give customers more flexibility in dealing with the conservation service.

The conservation service was established by Congress as a soil conservation agency during the "Dust Bowl" years of the 1930s. Its mission has since expanded to encompass clean air and water as well.

The customer service plan also include programs serving farmers and ranchers, recreational visitors to public lands, veterinarians and managers of a supplementary nutrition program.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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