USDA steadily cultivates e-gov

USDA steadily cultivates e-gov

BY PREETI VASISHTHA | GCN STAFF

Implementing an easy-to-use electronic filing and retrieval system was one of the Agriculture Department's major electronic-government achievements last year.




Another area the department needed to work on was information security. In a report released last August, the General Accounting Office criticized the department for making little progress in its plan to strengthen information security. It said USDA lacked a strategy for doing so and did not have sufficient resources.

At risk

The report, USDA Needs to Implement its Departmentwide Security Plan, said the department would remain at risk for cyberattacks and could not provide a secure environment for expanding e-government unless it implemented the information security improvement efforts.

Leo, however, is optimistic about handling security this year.

'At least we have some money now,' he said.

The department had $500,000 in fiscal 2000 for security, which Leo said was insufficient. For fiscal 2001, the department requested approximately $8 million for the same, but got only $4 million.

The department is also concentrating on building a security staff.

Carnill said that, because the emphasis of e-government is customers, USDA agencies should work on a comprehensive database that serves all agencies and makes it easier for users to get information.



Who's In Charge


Joseph Leo

Chief Information Officer



Ira L. Hobbs

Deputy CIO



William Hadesty

Associate CIO for Cybersecurity



Keith Jackson

Associate CIO for Telecommunications Services and Operationsr



Gregory L. Parham

Associate CIO for IRM



Kathleen A. Rundle

Associate CIO, National Information Technology Center



William E. Gardner

Senior Policy Advisor, Service Center Implementation






TOP CONTRACTORS

(in millions, June 1999 - March 2000)








































IBM Corp.$121.9
Intelligent Decisions Inc.38.2
Electronic Data Systems Corp.14.1
American management Systems Inc.13.3
Dell Computer Corp.1.3
Premier Members Federal Credit11.5
Kajax Engineering Inc.7.9
Comteq Federal Inc.5.9
Unisys Corp.5.6
Bay State Computers Inc.5.4
Alta systems Inc.3.6
TOTAL$227.4

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size="3">www.usda.gov



IT spending grows steadily



Sources for this GCN Inside include Federal Procurement Data System and Input of Chantilly, Va.



The system lets farmers download and submit some completed and modified forms on the Internet.

The House passed the Freedom to E-File Act last April and required the department to post certain forms within 180 days of enactment. The Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Sen. Peter G. Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) and passed in November 1999, required the department to provide online access to information on farm programs, quarterly trade, and economic and production reports.

'I feel proud that we were able to provide a mainline agricultural support program for farmers and met the deadline,' said Joseph Leo, USDA's chief information officer.

Greg Carnill, electronic-business executive at the department, said, 'Considering the sheer size and scope of the program and that we met the deadline makes it a significant step forward toward an ultimate e-government.'

The Farm Service Agency, Rural Development and Natural Resources Conservation Service, which were specifically affected by the legislation, worked together to make the transition from paper to Web forms. Once the Web forms were designed, the agencies had to get clearance from the Office of Management and Budget before they were posted. The forms commonly used by the agencies' customers are available at www.sc.egov.usda.gov.

Under the Freedom to E-File Act, the department will create a fully operational system by 2003 whereby farmers can retrieve and file all relevant forms.

Another USDA step toward e-government was the launch of the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's e-permit site last May, Carnill said. For the first time, importers who wish to bring fruit, vegetable or animal products to the United States can look up the requirements on the APHIS Web site, at www.aphis.usda.gov, and submit their applications online. Importers can also track the progress of their applications online, and renew or amend existing permits.

Tribulations and trials

Along with those successes, the department faced some problems, too. A critical challenge was recruiting and retaining a skilled information technology work force. The department has been experiencing a loss of skilled IT employees through retirement, buy-outs and increased recruitment from the private sector.

'It's clear to us that the IT force is critical and we have been looking into this problem,' Leo said. 'We should not forget that a pay raise will definitely help retain people.'

USDA also launched a study of its IT work force last year with the help of Deputy CIO Ira Hobbs, who is also co-chair of the CIO IT Workforce Challenge Committee. The study analyzed the reasons IT professionals were leaving the department, the current situation and trends.

'There are no major warning signals,' Leo said, adding that Agriculture officials expect 2001 to be a stable year.

Carnill said another problem is Congress issuing mandates on the implementation of new programs without funds.

'We have reduced resources, we are working on old systems and at the same time, we are making transitions from the old to new systems,' he said.


align="right" width="210">


size="2" color="#FF0000">Completing the farmers' sizable online file and retrieval system on time was another step forward for e-gov, USDA's Greg Carnill says.
Major Programs
' Field Automation and Information Management. Under this initiative aimed at updating technology used by the department's field staff, USDA has distributed more than 4,000 Gateway Solo notebook PCs to meat and poultry inspectors. An easily searchable database lets inspectors quickly view agency notices, directives and regulations while in the field.



Current Research Information System. This is USDA's documentation and reporting system for ongoing and recently completed research projects in agriculture, food and nutrition, and forestry. The system has undergone a number of changes in recent years, making improvements for participating institutions inputting data and for users seeking information. The database is maintained in-house, which officials say gives them greater flexibility and control of its structure, content and accessibility. Other improvements include faster updating of records, updated and simplified classification, and more information per project.



Common Computing Environment. The USDA Service Center's key systems program aims to provide a Common Computing Environment for the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development and Natural Resources Conservation Service personnel in service centers. The CCE will include a common information technology investment strategy, telecommunications capability, office automation tools, administrative applications and IT support organization. The USDA wants the system up and running by 2002.



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