USDA focuses on consolidation
- By Mary Mosquera
- May 18, 2004
Scott Charbo, Agriculture's IT steward
Agriculture Department CIO Scott Charbo has worked in the agricultural field since he graduated from college.
Charbo grew up on a quarter-acre grass farm in rural south Florida, and he wanted to work in a field that would offer steady employment.
'I figured people had to eat,' he said, joking that 'the alternative was an undertaker, and I didn't like the status of customers I would have to work with in that field.'
Charbo said agriculture has been a great fit for him. 'I really like working in a profession that stewards the Earth's resources,' he said.
At USDA, he said, he has had the added pleasure of helping the department move into the digital age.
Agriculture secretary Ann Veneman named Charbo the department's CIO just a month after he became director of the Farm Service Agency's Office of Business and Program Integration in July 2002. Agriculture is starting to experience a payoff from its efforts, reducing administrative systems and aligning them with the department's enterprise architecture, Charbo said. USDA also has improved project management and increased efficiency, a must for Agriculture agencies facing IT budget cuts next year.
Before joining USDA, Charbo held IT jobs at companies in the agriculture business.
Charbo has a bachelor's degree from the University of Tampa and a master's in plant science from the University of Nevada-Reno.
GCN staff writer Mary Mosquera interviewed Charbo at his Washington office. GCN: How is the Agriculture Department doing more with less in its IT operations?
CHARBO: We've been able to go from 570 IT projects that were out in the agencies to 340 projects. Instead of spending all our development dollars on a lot of projects that aren't going anywhere, we're moving development dollars over to a single project and making sure it gets done right.GCN: What is your top IT project and what kind of progress has it made?
CHARBO: The largest is the Service Center Modernization, which supports field activities. Within modernization, Agriculture is deploying the Common Computing Environment'a common hardware, software and infrastructure environment for the 2,700 field offices of the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development.
CCE has been deployed. We have set up a virtual private network and put T1 lines in the field offices. We have 43,000 desktop PCs that we manage out there. They have a common image on them, and we're using common software.
We're now working most aggressively with the central operations around that infrastructure: the software development centers, and IT and telecommunications support. Those are in three locations within the three agencies, and we're streamlining that. When you're dealing with a common configuration, and you have three groups making changes to it, it can cause problems.GCN: What will the common environment do for the agencies, and what will it do for USDA's customers?
CHARBO: For the customers, they will see better service. For example, farmers applying for benefits won't have to duplicate tasks for each of the three agencies when they walk into a field office, as they traditionally have had to do.
We have launched the USDA Customer Statement. The statement pulls information from all three agencies' databases into a record that an applicant, say a cattle rancher, can get online.
Traditionally, if the rancher has a farm payment, disaster payment, loan or conservation plan he has filed, he has had to deal with each one of those agencies separately. What we've done is gone through the databases and reconciled this customer under one identification with one statement.
He can authenticate with us at a field office, then run this report online from home for every transaction we have with him.
We've also got his aerial imagery, an aerial view of the farm, which traditionally has been available in the office on a piece of paper. You would register him for, say 56 acres of corn, give it an ID under his name and all the programs related to that 56 acres.
We're moving this to the digital process under our geographic information system initiatives.
There are a lot of business processes that we can wrap up using technology to make us more efficient. For example, to verify paper-based data with a farmer traditionally required a field officer to drive, in some cases, a hundred miles and then return to the office to enter the information into the database.
With the online statements, the field officer can just send an e-mail with a hyperlink that will bring up an authentication page. Then it will bring up a report, the farm's field'that it is 56 acres of corn'and ask if the information is correct.
There's a concern here that the technology replaces county office employees, but it's not. There's more and more workload being placed out in those offices.GCN: What do you expect in the next six months with the Common Computing Environment?
CHARBO: We're in a refresh cycle. We're looking at the architecture for the development and deployment centers. Some desktop PCs are 5 years old, so we're trying to get that into a three- or four-year replacement cycle. Then we update the software and the image on each PC.
In the next six months, we'll roll out more of the GIS products, including an electronic loan deficiency payment system.GCN: What progress have you made in moving projects and lines of business to the common enterprise?
CHARBO: Under the common enterprise, we look at the investments and what programs they support by the line of business, say a human resources system. Let's get all of our HR systems together.
There's been a lot of movement in the last year and a half. In December, we changed the look and feel of our department portal to one that is more customer content-driven.
We had 5 million Web pages at USDA and almost 300 webmasters. You can't manage that way in HTML. Imagine the content load out there trying to find those pages. So we've put together a process where we've aligned those pages under a content strategy, with standards, look and feel, style guides. You reduce the load on software, hardware, on security requirements, on certification and accreditation.
We're doing a single learning management system with the Quicksilver initiative's GoLearn portal, with six or seven agencies working on that. Instead of all the agencies building their own learning management systems and interfacing multiple times to the HR system, we're going to do that once. The agency owns the content.
We're also going through business requirements now for the loan and the HR systems. A common procurement system integrated with the financials is also in a pilot.GCN: What have you found helps with the culture change that new IT requires?
CHARBO: It's definitely time and nudging and getting support from the secretary, the deputy and the executive management'and communicating with the agencies.
We spend a long time communicating'sometimes a year or two in the planning process for some projects. I also think it's really important to execute something to prove that it's possible, such as the revamped portal. You get some consensus, not everybody's happy. But it's the direction we know we want to go and we execute it.
We've done that with the correspondence, learning and authentication systems. Instead of trying to hit the Big Bang theory, we get a big piece of it out there, and then work it and evolve the product and make it better and get more customers.GCN: What progress do you expect to make on security this year?
CHARBO: Our top priority is certification and accreditation of our systems.
Agriculture didn't have a clear database or clear list of its applications systems. We now have the best list of systems now under certification. We worked with the General Services Administration to create a contract with 11 vendors to compete to accredit the systems.
A lot of things attach themselves to certification and accreditation, including audits by the USDA Office of the Inspector General and the General Accounting Office. Material weaknesses are identified through their findings. You correct the majority of those weaknesses through a plan of action and milestones tasks. You can wipe 80 percent of them clean through the certification and accreditation process.
USDA has had an F in security [on the congressional IT security report card]. Absolutely, there will be improvement in that grade. We've vetted the process through our chief financial officer and the IG. They said it looks good, and we're executing that.