His warehouse wows USDA managers

- J. Norman Reid

Name: J. Norman Reid

Agency: Office of Community Development, Agriculture Department’s
Rural Development Agency

Length of service: 22 years

Age: 53

Education: Bachelor’s degree from Muskingum College;
master’s degree in political science from the University of Missouri in Columbia;
doctorate in political science from the University of Illinois in Urbana.

Responsibilities: As the associate deputy administrator of the Office
of Community Development, I’m in charge of managing support services to USDA Rural
Development’s 900 field offices.

The data warehousing duties came to us by default. By definition we are a community
development shop and not an information technology shop. But we do manage our own Web
sites, which help us to deliver community development information to our remote staff
members. Data warehousing was the next logical step in our development of services.

Data warehousing evolved because we found that staff members needed lots of different
kinds of information, materials that were not necessarily available on their own
databases. With data warehousing, everyone will be able to access a central warehouse
where they can get all the information they need.

The most exciting aspect of my job: What’s been exciting is
planning a way to unify all our different computer systems.

Because we’ve been reorganized several times in the last decade, we’ve been
left with disparate accounting and management information systems. None of these systems
is user-friendly. As a result, we have a difficult time getting critical program data from
our field offices.

The traditional solution to this problem would be to build a new accounting system, but
that’s an effort that would cost millions and take years to complete. Enter data
warehousing. Since the technology exists to connect to all of these databases and present
it in an integrated way via standard Web browsers, it suddenly became possible to solve
the managers’ information needs without replacing a single system. And that’s
what we did.

The second most exciting thing is figuring out ways to enhance the basic program
reporting by building in analytical capabilities and integrating data from other agencies
so our Rural Development field staff have a truly comprehensive picture of what is
happening in the communities they serve.

Greatest data warehousing challenge facing government: It’s not
technology, that’s for sure. The technology is there, but the will to apply the
technology may be missing.

There are a lot of IT managers out there who cut their teeth on large, mainframe
systems. A lot of them are behind the curve on how the Web has opened up opportunities to
rethink the way we do business. You have to have a product that speaks for itself,
something that makes managers go “Wow” before they can say “No, it
can’t be done.” Getting enough resources and space to build that product before
it can be killed—that’s the challenge.

What data warehousing hurdle has been most difficult to overcome:
We’ve been seen mostly as policy and program people. The IT staff members have been
basically skeptical of our objectives and our ability to use their data without harming
it. We had to be creative to get past their initial opposition. And we had to overcome
their fear that the new technology would replace them or force them to learn a whole new
way of doing things.

Federal users’ most exciting new data warehousing technologies:
Online Analytical Processing capabilities in software. As we incorporate these
capabilities in our system, they give our users an extensive capability to easily
customize data access to meet individual requirements, without the need for us to
anticipate all those needs.

Once this capacity is widely deployed, it will truly revolutionize the way we
understand and manage programs.

What best prepared me for this job: I started working with computers
back in the 1960s, though they have seldom been my principal job. Also, for years, I
worked as a data analyst using statistical information to understand the policy issues
facing rural America. Eventually, I graduated from analysis to a position in which I
staffed three national commissions and helped establish the Rural Development
Administration in the early 1990s. I think this experience helped me understand how data
analysis, policy information and policy development need to come together for effective
policymaking and program management.

How I ended up leading the agency’s data warehousing efforts:
Nobody in our agency had experience in data warehousing, and nobody had the time to worry
much about it. There were always more pressing needs simply to maintain the systems we
have. But we saw the long-term need for a data warehouse, and we moved ahead, secure in
the confidence that it could be done. In the end, we were right about that.

The greatest influence on my career: If I had to point to one thing,
it would be the work I did with the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
in Paris. While writing a book on rural development, I got the chance to understand how
the cultural and political differences among OECD countries obscure basic similarities in
the problems they face and condition the ways various organizations respond to them. It
was an enormously broadening experience.

Other interests: Reading, writing, photography, building Web sites, calligraphy.

—Jonathan Ewing

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