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FCW Insider: Christopherson's missed opportunity

So the place to be this morning was an IAC executive briefing with Charles F. Christopherson Jr., the Agriculture Department's chief financial officer and chief information officer. Joe Draham, who organized the session at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Washington, D.C., said that the event was sold out three days after it was posted and there was a waiting list with some 180 people who registered. In the end, there were probably about 125 people packed into a relatively small room in the basement of the Willard anxious to hear what Christopherson was going to say.

There is real concern about what is going on at USDA these days. Nearly an entire tier of managers has left USDA's CIO and CFO organizations. The room was packed because people don't know who is making all the day-to-day decisions within the enormous agency. This happened to be an industry audience, but USDA insiders are concerned as well.

Unfortunately, Christopherson missed an opportunity to address any of those issues. Instead, he did what I imagine is a fairly standard presentation about USDA, talking about how the agency is using IT to save money, about the importance of information security, about the standardization efforts across the agency, about the increasing customer expectations as the Internet generations reaches into the farming community. Unfortunately, there was no discussion of workforce issues -- and certainly no discussion whatsoever of the pink elephant sitting in the middle of the room: What is the Christopherson plan for filling these vacancies. Is he reorganizing? I have heard that USDA has enlisted a search firm to fill some of these slots, but there was no discussion of that.

Furthermore, there was no time for questions. Draham asked a question about the size of the IT budget, but the pink elephant just sat there. I have heard from a number of people that Christopherson has a plan and that he knows what he is doing. If that is the case, I guess I'm confused why he isn't telling anybody. He certainly didn't make it clear this morning, and from what I hear from inside the agency, they don't know about the plan either.

(GSA's John Johnson actually did a elegant job of dodging a hot potato issue down at IPIC earlier this month. He was speaking the day after the Alliant decision was handed down, and he acknowledged that it was the topic on everybody's minds, but that he just couldn't address it at that point. Off-topic, but... we're hearing GSA will announce its next step in the next few days.)

I did introduce myself to Christopherson before the session got started. Unfortunately I had not met him. And I acknowledge that FCW has been covering USDA fairly aggressively, and I think I have been fairly tough on Christopherson.

To be fair, Christopherson has had several interviews with FCW reporter Mary Mosquera, who did a story on Feb. 4 that I think was very fair. (I have tagged all of FCW's Christopherson coverage at del.icio.us/cdorobek/christopherson.) But I told Christopherson that he simply has to speak out more. Nature arbores a vacuum, and there is a vacuum of information. That gets filled with worst-case scenarios -- with nobody at USDA to really talk to regularly. I think he needs to be out there much more -- both within USDA and, frankly, with the press -- giving both employees and industry some insight about what how the organization gets through.

Fairness is one of my personal tenets. I often say that I can't always promise anybody that they will like everything published in FCW, but that we will do everything we can to treat everybody fairly. And, if I had to make a recommendation to Christopherson , I would keep his friends close... and keep the press closer... to over communicate. The press -- particularly the trade press -- can serve as a conduit for getting information out to people. And people are yearning for that information. The trade press in particular will deal with these issues more fairly because, frankly, our readers also serve as our sources. If we burn somebody, you won't talk to us again. And this is a community, and if we are consistently unfair, that gets around. So we take that very seriously

In this case, people simply don't know what's going on, and Christopherson didn't do anything to change that this morning.

I'm very cognizant about sounding arrogant, and it isn't about appeasing the press. But we are not the only ones asking these questions. Others are seeking this information too -- both in government and in industry. And there were about 100 disgruntled people (out of the 125 people there) this morning who felt they didn't use their time wisely.

Again, Mr. Christopherson, I am happy to chat -- both on the record and on background. Our role is to help agencies get their jobs done better, but, to be honest, we aren't killing you. We're just reporting the real concerns that people have. It's time to fill the vacuum with some real information.

IMHO. (as the kids say... For those non-IMers, that's 'in my humble opinion.')

Posted by Christopher J. Dorobek on Mar 20, 2008 at 12:17 PM


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