The goal of FARES was simple, even if the project was not

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When a team from the Farm Service Agency's Commodity Systems Office asked agencies for their system requirements for the Food Aid Request Data Entry System, they received a simple marching order: Just make it better.

Relief agencies were too busy trying to keep up with processing their food orders to tell the computer specialists what they needed, said Ethel Bowers, contract and allocation group chief in the Commodity Systems Office.

The idea behind FARES is that 'if we can get earlier visibility on these orders, we can plan them, buy the food early and arrange shipping. It costs a lot to put food on ships at the last minute,' said Dave Liem, team leader in the office.

The developers soon discovered they had to integrate the processes associated with commodity ordering at several agencies.

Developing FARES, which is part of the larger Commodity Operations System, has been 'an exercise in finding out how various departments can play in the same sandbox,' Liem said.

The Commodity Systems Office took on the job although it had no authority, for example, to demand a statement of system requirements.

'We just bit the bullet and said [that] we will front the first phase of all this,' he said.
The users took it for granted that computer specialists would know what their requirements were, Liem said.

So the staff had to start building as they saw fit and make the system accessible to all the participating agencies, such as AID and USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service.

'It's as much a learning curve of politics and people as data processing techniques, and of having time to put it all together to come up with an integrated system,' Liem said.

Once the stakeholders started using FARES, they saw what it could do for them and began working with the team to expand it, Bowers said.

Although the agency is reaping some savings, 'what we have really accomplished is getting all these people to agree to play in the same sandbox,' Liem said. And the participants have now agreed on some refinements they want made to the system.

About the Author

Mary Mosquera is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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