House: USDA fails to give farmers Net access

House: USDA fails to give farmers Net access

Ira Hobbs

By Frank Tiboni
GCN Staff

House members scolded the Agriculture Department for making excuses and dragging its feet in rolling out an infrastructure to let farmers communicate with USDA via the Internet.

'Producers have long been frustrated with waiting at local USDA offices to file paperwork, particularly during the time-sensitive harvest period,' Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said at a hearing this month of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight, Nutrition and Forestry.

'Farmers are highly skilled with computers, and we should give them the increased flexibility of filing paperwork electronically,' he said.

LaHood in February introduced the Freedom to E-File Act, which would require USDA to establish an electronic filing and retrieval system no later than 180 days after the bill's enactment.

Food for thought

The bill, HR 852, would also require USDA to give farmers access to public information on farm programs and quarterly trade, economic and production reports.

The hearing on the bill was contentious from the beginning as Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.), the subcommittee's chairman, admonished USDA for providing the members with written testimony only eight minutes before the hearing was set to begin.

'I'm tired and frustrated with the lack of professionalism USDA has shown,' Goodlatte said. Because of the late testimony filing, subcommittee members and staff aides did not have an opportunity to read it and prepare questions, he said.

USDA management supports the bill, deputy chief information officer Ira Hobbs told the lawmakers. But the department wants to modify the bill so it dovetails with USDA's current systems efforts, he said.

The department proposed four modifications:

  • Develop a phased two-year approach to providing Internet services instead of a single electronic filing and retrieval system.
  • Focus primarily on USDA service center agencies: the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the Risk Management Agency.
  • Coordinate implementation of each phase of Internet service with the necessary technical infrastructure investments and business process re-engineering requirements.
  • Plan implementation around the availability of program and technical staff working to address the current farm crisis and year 2000 priorities.

'The department supports the goals of this legislation,' Hobbs said. 'USDA agencies already have broad authority to use new infor-mation technologies to improve our service to customers and agencies and are already moving in this direction.'

USDA, though, would need more funding to carry out the bill's requirements, he said. For fiscal 2000, USDA sought $1.2 billion for IT.

In Phase 1, the department estimates it will need $250,000 to implement a forms system, $50,000 for annual support and 180 days to complete the project. Farmers could download and fill in forms for USDA's highest-volume programs and services, Hobbs said.

Farmers would have to print the forms and mail or fax them to USDA because of security concerns and distribution methods, he said.

More services

In Phase 2, USDA's plan would let farmers submit applications to the department online and the department would create additional Internet services, Hobbs said.

For the second phase, the department estimates it will need $500,000 for systems development, $200,000 for annual support and 12 months to do implementation work. USDA will also need $2.25 million initially to provide basic Internet services and annual Net support will cost another $1.4 million, Hobbs said.

Because the House recently eliminated $74 million for USDA's Service Center Initiative in the fiscal 2000 Agriculture appropriations bill, Hobbs said, the department does not have funds to achieve the electronic access the Freedom to E-File Act demands. USDA can complete only Phase 1 with the current proposed funding, he said.

Goodlatte balked at Hobbs' request for additional funding, noting that over the past 10 years, USDA has received $12 billion for IT projects and services.

When the Virginia congressman asked whether USDA is behind the curve in its computer infrastructure and Internet services, Hobbs nodded in agreement. Hobbs said the department is always looking for opportunities to improve its system, and pointed out that for the past six to eight years, USDA has worked on the Service Center Initiative.

The $3 billion Service Center Initiative aims to provide farmers with one-stop shopping at the department and to consolidate 3,700 field offices.

The initiative also is supposed to establish a common computing environment linking all department LANs and WANs [GCN, May 10, Page 12].

'Our No. 1 priority is the efficient delivery of our services to our customers,' Hobbs said.

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