USDA will harvest CCE project in 2002

USDA will harvest CCE project in 2002

Three major field agencies will unite under a common IT environment to create one-stop services for farmers

BY PREETI VASISHTHA | GCN STAFF

The Agriculture Department's systems team is confident it will complete its farm services modernization project next year as planned, despite persistent setbacks.

'We worked through various issues last year and are very optimistic that we will be able to provide a fully operational system under the Common Computing Environment program by 2002,' said William Gardner, senior policy adviser for CCE.

USDA plans to implement CCE for its three major field agencies: the Farm Service Agency, Rural Development and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The information technology platform will support telecommunications, automation and administrative applications.

Before the CCE effort, each agency managed its own IT strategy. Now the agencies will share a common plan.


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size="2" color="#FF0000">The Common Computing Environment project is on track, and the new administration should not hinder its progress, USDA's William Gardner said.

By sharing data, equipment and people at its service centers, USDA wants to ensure that farmers can visit one office for services such as farm loan applications and business development assistance.

'Last year, we worked with Congress on issues revolving around management,' Gardner said. 'We also got support from the Office of Management and Budget and the three agencies.'

A change in the management structure has improved the program, Gardner said. Since last May, USDA's chief information officer has managed the modernization programs and funds. But that job is currently vacant; former CIO Joseph Leo left USDA for the private sector last month [GCN, Feb. 5, Page 37].

'Previously, ours was an oversight function,' Gardner said. 'There were three equal agencies. Sometimes they would agree, sometimes they would not. This was a thorny issue.'

Centralized funding

But now the CIO and the office's staff help the USDA agencies resolve their differences and make a decision if necessary.

In addition, instead of each agency getting funds separately, Congress now allocates money directly to the CIO, which increases cooperation among the participants, Gardner said. For fiscal 2001, the department has $59.5 million for the program and is expecting more next year.

The Farm Service Agency's legacy system has generated the thorniest technical issues in implementing the CCE, Gardner said. 'It's Cobol-based and is very proprietary. The old system was being maxed out last year, and we had no immediate technical solution,' he said.

But Congress appropriated $39 million to keep the system running until the agency switches to a new IBM AS/400. The agency this year will retire the old system, a collection of IBM System 36 Model 236 minicomputers. There are 2,600 of them, one in each of Agriculture's county offices, supported by 9 million lines of Cobol.

USDA in November awarded a $27.7 million contract to PlanetGov.com to provide 2,700 IBM Netfinity servers running Microsoft Windows 2000 and IBM's Tivoli enterprise software. The servers, which USDA will install in April, will unite thousands of client systems at Agriculture service centers and provide employees with e-mail and security tools.

USDA also bought 35,000 additional PCs for the three agencies involved in CCE. The Compaq Computer Corp. and Gateway Inc. desktop PCs, and Dell Computer Corp. and Gateway notebook PCs, run Windows NT 4.0 and Microsoft Office 97.

E-filing coming

'If the number of employees changes in any agency, we can still continue working without missing a beat,' Gardner said.

This year, the department plans to phase out old desktop systems that pose security and interoperability problems, Gardner said.

Another priority will be improving security and infrastructure so the agencies can handle the increased traffic that is expected as the department fully implements the Freedom to E-file Act.

Under the law, passed last year, USDA by 2003 must have a system in place that lets users retrieve and file all forms electronically.

USDA is beefing up its telecommunications and expanding its LAN and satellite technology to support the anticipated bandwidth demands.
Gardner acknowledged that the IT work force shortage, a major USDA problem, has hindered the CCE program.

'It's affecting the pace of the program,' he said. 'There are a lot fewer people than there were five to six years ago. Some of them have to do double duty to keep the programs up and running.'

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