She parcels funds for old, new systems

She parcels funds for old, new systems

As Agriculture Department chief information officer, Anne F. Thomson Reed oversees a range of systems projects. One of the most ambitious, she said, is the Service Center Initiative to re-engineer the business processes and develop the Common Computing Environment for 2,500 service centers nationwide.

Named CIO in August 1996, Reed has also directed USDA's year 2000 preparations and led the integration of its telecommunications services. Other items on her agenda include moving to a capital investment decision-making process for systems, developing a systems architecture and setting security procedures.

Reed also takes part in many governmentwide information technology programs. This year, she was co-chairwoman of the Planning Committee for the Industry Advisory Committee's recent Executive Leadership Conference. She also is an advisory committee member for the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association. And last year she was co-chairwoman of the CIO Council's Interoperability Committee.

She has a bachelor's degree from Goucher College in Baltimore and a master's degree in public administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Staff writer Frank Tiboni interviewed Reed during a recent systems conference in Vienna, Va.

GCN:'The Freedom to E-File Act, introduced in February by Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), directs the Agriculture Department to expand online access to services. LaHood noted that USDA has received $12 billion for information technology over the past 10 years. How do you respond to skepticism from Congress that Agriculture does not have enough funds available to implement the act?

REED: The challenge here is really how do you finance modernization products, which require a significant capital investment. My observation is the current budget structure does not serve us terribly well in enabling us to accommodate significant capital investments.

I've commented several times recently that in the past the great impediment to progress was the procurement system. Well, Steve Kellman, [former Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator], and Congress did a wonderful job of removing that barrier.

Now, the barrier I see is this financing structure, which we're spending a lot of time struggling with.

Have we had a lot of money appropriated for IT over the past 10 years? Yes, but look at where those funds go.

A large part of it is for salaries. A large chunk every year, $250 million, goes straight to the states. It's an entitlement program'we have a 50-50 match with the states on IT systems to support the Food Stamp program.

When you start peeling it back, a significant part also goes to the maintenance of our legacy systems. Somebody recently used the term heirloom systems. Those things just eat up resources.

Is there money left for investment? Yes.

But then you have to make choices about how you do that. We also have an issue, a longstanding one that is no secret, that the resources are allocated in various pots, agency by agency by agency. And while over the past several years, we have begun more systematically to look at projects from a corporate perspective, it's still a major, major challenge to reallocate significant amounts of resources from one agency to another.

On one hand, I have to agree with the congressmen that $1.2 billion is a lot of money in any given year. On the other hand, when you begin to peel back and understand what all the claims are for that money, then it becomes more challenging.

GCN:'Where is USDA in its Service Center Initiative?

REED: We are in the process of fielding the first common desktop PCs and notebooks we purchased earlier this year. We have another major buy already in the works that was part of our Y2K upgrade.

There were certain things we knew we had to do with existing equipment that was not Y2K-compliant. So rather than just try and replace everything, we knew what we were moving towards'the Common Computing Environment'and we were able to make acquisitions that are now a building block.

This buy will not be in the same level as the first buy, which was around $28 million. This will be maybe something less than half that.

What we consider significant is that this is the first time we are delivering a common computer to these service centers. For the first time, each agency is receiving the same equipment and each box is loaded with common software. Right now even if they want to, it's hard for the centers to share personnel resources because they each have totally different systems that are not compatible.

These new boxes come loaded with a core set of Farm Service, Rural Development and National Resources Conservation Service applications. So it just depends on employees keying in their access codes, which will give users access to whichever applications they are authorized to run. In a peak demand in one area, you could give access codes to more folks and with a little bit of training, people could be able to help each other out, which is something that I think would be a good benefit.

GCN: Can you explain why Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) in May introduced the USDA Information Technology Reform and Year 2000 Compliance Act?

REED: Sen. Lugar has had a longstanding interest in the management of IT at the department. He introduced comparable legislation last year. So this is a reproposal of that legislation. It certainly has a Y2K component, but it also is focused at asking what tools the chief information officer has to manage technology in the department.

What the bill is trying to do is give the secretary latitude to realign funds, particularly for Y2K, should the need emerge. He was seeking to give

the secretary another tool to add to his corporate management capabilities.

We are about 97 percent complete for our mission-critical systems, fixed and deployed. We have about five mission-critical systems left that we're following that will retire but have not yet. We carry them on the books because if for some reason they didn't retire, then we would have a problem and we don't want to forget them.

We have a couple of other systems that are in the final stages of remediation. And we have several that are financial systems at the Risk Management Agency that won't cut over until the first of the fiscal year. This puts us late in the game from being able to declare 100 percent victory, but this way just made the best business sense.

GCN:'What's the status of year 2000 renovation at the National Finance Center in New Orleans?

REED: The center has gone through a full remediation. They've gone through testing. They have a time machine and have tested everything through that. But I will tell you we are doing independent verification and validation on NFC's and all other department mission-critical systems.

So even though we believe NFC to be ready, one of the things we've learned from observing our sister departments and agencies is that it doesn't pay to be overconfident and that you are better served by continuing to test.

It turns out some of the tools have gotten more sophisticated and that people are finding that things they thought were compliant still have holes. Are they necessarily major fatal flaws? Well, maybe not.

On the other hand, if you've got dozens of these things to contend with all at once, then it's a lot better if you find them in advance.

What's more

' Family: Husband and three sons

' Car: Toyota Camry

' Last book read: by Joseph Nye and Elaine Kamark

' Last movie seen: 'Shakespeare in Love''

' Favorite Web site:'of course!''

' Leisure activity: Golf

We're not resting easy, but we have dedicated an enormous amount of resources to protecting our information.

GCN:'How do you keep up morale in USDA's IT shop?

REED: It's hard. You've got to continue to spend time on Y2K. There are increasing expectations in terms of just being able to keep the trains running on time.

We're struggling with many of our systems. They're ancient and held together with Band-Aids, patches and the good will of a lot of good folk. We've gone through significant downsizing. We are losing people. We have lost a fair number, and that's still an issue. You talk to the CIOs in the various USDA component agencies and you're talking to a stressed bunch of folk.

We just keep trying to move forward. We keep trying to provide people with the tools they need to do their job. And we are trying very hard to manage priorities. It's not always perfect.

But I have found that people care a lot about their work. It's not just that they care about the professionalism of the IT ethic. It's more that they care about the services that their agency is delivering to the public. They have devoted a good chunk of their lives to making food safe or improving productivity for farmers or fighting forest fires. They care a lot about the substance of what they do.

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