Interview: Anne F. Thomas

Online access is a pricey goal

Anne F. Thomas

Anne F. Thomson Reed has served as the Agriculture Department's chief information officer since August 1996. Congress caught USDA off guard earlier this year with HR 82'the Freedom to E-File Act, which would direct USDA to expand electronic access to services. The bill, introduced in February by Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), would require the department to establish an electronic filing and retrieval system no later than 180 days after the bill's enactment.'GCN recently talked to Reed about her take on E-File.

Jack Zechman, manager of Agriculture's Interoperability Lab in Beltsville, Md., configures a Dell Latitude CPi notebook. Zechman has set up new PCs for users in the department's Rural Development bureau, which in January received $8.5 million to buy PCs through USDA's Common Computing Environment for the Service Center Program. Rural Development users are getting Compaq Deskpro EP PCs with 400-MHz Pentium II processors, 64M of RAM, 6.4G hard drives and Microsoft Windows NT 4.0, and Dell Latitude CPi notebooks with 266-MHz Pentium II processors, 64M of RAM, 4.3G hard drives and NT 4.0.

REED: E-File is the right objective. Clearly, that's where we need to be moving. The infrastructure envisioned for the Common Computing Environment takes us there. Furthermore, the business process re-engineering projects that we've been engaged in take us there as well'there's not any clash or contention at all about the objective.''

But a substantial number of people we serve'farmers and limited resource farmers'still do not use computers. We have to be sensitive to the customers we serve today, many of whom still prefer and depend on face-to-face contact. All our customer surveys support that, too.

The National Agricultural Statistics Service did a study last year for us on the degree to which farmers and ranchers depend on computer technology for their work, focusing on the impact of Y2K. They did a statistically valid survey, looking at large farmers and small farmers. The figure they cited was 25 percent. I find that astonishingly low, but then many farmers and ranchers are not full-time and have fairly small operations. Many others have major enterprises, and technology is absolutely critical and essential to their productivity.

If you look at the statistics, a low percentage of farmers use computers. I suspect, though, that if you ask who the largest producers are and where most of our food supply comes from, you'd see a different number. That's just my gut instinct. Even so, everything tells me that computers are in the future, and we have to position USDA for that.

The department's contention with E-File is timing and resources. They want us to implement E-File 180 days after it passes. We simply don't have the infrastructure'the personnel or the technology'to do that.

But it's also about clearly thinking through the issues of security and privacy. We need to exercise care in those areas. And I know they [congressional leaders] wouldn't disagree with me on that. But I think 180 days is just a little too challenging.

There's too much opportunity for error'even if the resources were available.

Resources are a different issue. As you are aware, we had a fairly substantial increment in our proposed budget [$74 million] for the Common Computing Environment to take us to the next step. The House did not approve the increase. It wasn't really a $74 million increase because a portion of that was in the base.

I want to see how all the numbers shake out. We wanted to pull that amount out and display it separately. They didn't do that. They left the money that was in the base, but the increment, which was about $40 million, was not approved.

We don't know how the Senate is shaking out, though quite frankly, it doesn't look good. The Senate's numbers are comparable to the House's numbers, and their strategy in this respect doesn't seem to be too far apart.

We'll just have to wait and see. We'll have to make some decisions based on what kinds of resources we receive.

We will continue to try to move forward, but the rate and scope of what we can do will be affected by our resources.

Major programs

Common Computing Environment for the Service Center Initiative'The Agriculture Department Reorganization Act of 1994 called for consolidating the 3,700 offices that make up the Farm Service Agency, National Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development agencies into 2,500 offices to provide farmers with one-stop shopping. Through the effort, USDA will integrate its legacy Farm Service Agency applications.

LAN and WAN Voice project'The department this summer completed the $130 million LAN and WAN Voice project'the first component of the Service Center Initiative. The project rolled out a common telecommunications environment at 2,500 field service centers.

Integrated Systems Acquisition Project'USDA in September 1995 awarded a $425 million contract to IBM Corp. to provide the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service with LANs, WANs, hardware and software for the agency's nationwide integrated office automation network. The ISAP procurement includes database software, word processing and spreadsheet software, e-mail and common operating systems. With a uniform system, APHIS is expected to save more than $600 million over the contract's 11 years.

Integrated Information Management Program'Agriculture in February 1995 awarded a 12-year, $276 million contract to IBM to provide ADP and integration services at 880 Forest Service offices nationwide.

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