Bill threatens Ag with loss of IT authority

The chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee is proposing that all authority for
Agriculture Department systems spending be handed over to a three-member IT System Control
Board.


In a bill introduced Sept. 30, Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) blasted the department for a
"lack of strong central leadership" that has led to "hundreds of millions
of wasted dollars over the past decade."


The bill said the proposed control board would "force the department to act as a
single enterprise with respect to information technology."


Under Lugar's plan, the ITS Control Board, made up of the Agriculture secretary and two
presidential appointees, would have sole authority over the department's IT budget, set at
$1.4 billion for fiscal 1997.


Anne F. Thomson Reed, the department's chief information officer, described the move as
unwarranted.


"We certainly understand the senator's frustration," she said. "But we
believe that the implementation of the CIO legislation (the IT Management Reform Act,
which took effect Aug. 8) and the capital investment planning process we are introducing
will serve the same purpose that the board would."


The bill, filed in the final days of the 104th Congress, was a parting shot from Lugar
in an ongoing feud between USDA and Congress. It follows a springtime letter from Lugar
and his House counterpart, Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), to the General Services
Administration complaining that USDA continues to spend millions of dollars to perpetuate
stovepipe systems rather than consolidate operations and re-engineer business processes
[GCN, July 8, Page 3].


Filed just two days before the end of the 104th Congress, the bill was referred to the
Agriculture Committee and died when Congress adjourned. A committee staff member said
Lugar probably will reintroduce his proposal early next year during the 105th Congress.


USDA officials were surprised by the bill. Reed said she and her staff have been
conferring with Lugar's staff since the May 31 GSA letter. "But this proposal was not
surfaced," she said.


Under the bill, presidential appointees to the board would come from the private sector
and would require Senate confirmation. Within 90 days of taking office, the board would
produce a business plan for the department through March 2002. A majority of the board
would have to approve all IT expenditures for the next five years. Its authority would
expire at that time.


The board's overall mission would be to develop and implement a plan for a single
architecture and to provide the leadership, planning and accountability that the senator
said now is lacking.


The bill criticizes the department for not re-evaluating its IT needs in light of the
Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, which approved the consolidation
and reduction of agency field operations. Decisions still are made agency by agency,
rather than being based on departmentwide needs, it said.


"The department has failed to adequately assess the impact the FAIR Act will have
on the needs of its customers," the bill said. "The department has continued
information technology procurement absent future business need considerations."


Reed said the department's new approach to IT involves more deliberation, addressing
systems needs from a managerial as well as a technical perspective and putting those
requirements in the context of business needs.



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