USDA speeds toward e-filing

More by congressional prodding than by choice, the Agriculture Department finds itself among the front-runners of agencies working to meet the requirements of the Government Paperwork Elimination Act.

GPEA demands that agencies make most transactions electronic by October 2003. But Congress passed the Freedom to E-File Act, which set a June 20, 2002, deadline for three USDA agencies'the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development'to implement GPEA. That's 16 months before other federal agencies.

USDA has spent three years converting from paper-driven interactions with its constituents to transactions via the Web, said Chris Niedermayer, e-government executive and associate CIO at Agriculture.

The first virtual interactions began in December 2000, when USDA launched a Web site at www.sc.egov.usda.gov for farmers to access all departmental forms. The site provides links to 221 forms in Adobe Portable Document Format.

Common look and feel

'The forms have a common look and feel and are formatted the same way,' Niedermayer said. The best part about putting the forms online is that farmers no longer have to contact different agencies to obtain the forms, saving time and money, he said.

By making the information available electronically, farmers can tend to their livelihoods, Niedermayer said. Previously, farmers often had to stand in long lines at county Farm Service Agency offices to obtain forms, sometimes at offices in more than one county if they owned land in multiple counties.

This June, USDA brought online the second phase of the initiative, letting farmers sign and submit forms electronically.

The department used SiteMinder 5.0 from Netegrity Inc. of Waltham, Mass., to implement an e-signature application for the forms, which USDA creates using Java and Microsoft Active Server Pages. Nsite Technologies Inc. of Rock Hill, S.C., helped integrate the e-signature app.

To manage the data flow, USDA has a cluster of IBM Netfinity and Hewlett-Packard ProLiant ML370 servers running Microsoft Windows 2000 and IBM Tivoli systems and storage management software.

The online initiative has worked 'as an accelerator for USDA to learn new skills in developing and supporting e-gov and approaches to delivering programs and services,' Niedermayer said.

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