USDA makes ethics app available to all

USDA makes ethics app available to all

Interactive Web site gets top approval

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

The government's 7,000 Senior Executive Service employees and 3,000 political appointees now have a single online location for obtaining financial disclosure forms and getting help on ethics.

The Agriculture Department has made the interactive online financial disclosure report that it created for USDA's Senior Executive Service employees available for use by agencies governmentwide. Within the next year, Agriculture plans to make the process of filing the forms electronic, as well.

The independent Office of Government Ethics this summer approved the electronic form for governmentwide use. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. had asked the office to let it use the USDA online forms program. FDIC was the first to sign up to use the online service, said John Surina, director of Agriculture's Office of Ethics.

Up to snuff

The USDA online form meets the mandates of the Presidential Transition Act of 2000, which directed the independent ethics office to streamline, standardize and coordinate the financial disclosure process.

Executive-level employees and political appointees received e-mail notice that the service is available via a secure connection to the USDA National Finance Center in New Orleans, Surina said.

Pay up

'Now it's kind of put-your-money-where-your-mouth-is time,' he said.

The finance center does not charge agencies to sign on to the program if they already use the center's personal page as part of payroll services through the USDA center. Agriculture is trying to determine how much to charge agencies that don't subscribe to the personal page.

The center, which serves as paymaster for more than 450,000 federal employees working at 100 agencies, hosts the Web site where the forms can be completed. Users fill in the information, then print and mail the forms. The center hosts a second Web page that lets workers whose agencies use the center's payroll services access their pay records. Each user receives a personal identification number, Surina said.

For the ethics forms, users can log their disclosure information on the site throughout the year, then print and mail the forms when they are due, he said. SES employees and political appointees are required by law to regularly file financial disclosure statements.

Agriculture employees who use the online system access it through the Ethics Office Web site, at www.usda.gov/ethics. A link sends them to the center's secure server.

The center's Web team developed the application using Microsoft Internet Information Server 4.0 and Active Server Pages Version 2.0. The site stows the employee data in an Oracle8 database, said Steve Cunningham, chief of the Web Branch at the finance center.

The center's application server farm uses dual-processor Compaq ProLiant 3000 servers running Microsoft Windows NT 4.0. The database server is a quad-processor Compaq ProLiant 6000 running NT 4.0.

By Oct. 31 of next year, the plan is to allow electronic filing and user authentication, Surina said.

Easy access

'I'm proposing that we not create a bunch of procedural hurdles to getting a certificate' for a public-key infrastructure, Surina said, noting that the finance center would be the certificate authority. The center is considering having two levels of access controls, he said.

A stricter level of identity certification would be required for moving money around than for online financial disclosure registration and other less sensitive issues, Surina said.

The servers at the center use 128-bit encryption. A certificate on the site has the ability to convert 40-bit browsers, while communicating with the site, to a 128-bit access level.

Until the process is completely electronic, interested agencies can let users try out the system on a demonstration page at www.nfc.usda.gov/EPPSample/oge450/index.htm.

The page is not linked to the database but lets a user change the information to see how it works, Surina said.

The user is able to print the data, but once the page is closed, the information reverts to sample data, he said.

An offline computerized disclosure report is accessible at www.usoge.gov/ogeforms/fill450.html.

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