The U.S. Department of Agriculture
(USDA) is suffering a droughtÂat least
it is within the world of the President's
Management Agenda (PMA). Unlike six
other agencies that have achieved success
ratings, USDA has yet to experience the pride
of being green. (See "Getting to Green," Fed Tech, March
2004.) In the five categories in which the Office of
Management and Budget (OMB) rates performance, USDA
has achieved "mixed results" in only two. The remainder
are mired in "unsatisfactory" ratings.
The OMB quarterly scorecards are a catchy way to compare
agency progress on the PMA, but like any shorthand tools,
they don't tell the whole story. They don't reveal that not only
are USDA, NASA and other agencies working to meet the
formal objectives of the PMA, but they're also applying
technology to create unique applications that could help
them run their operations more efficiently and even redefine
how agencies communicate with the public.
And the scorecards don't explain how
USDA shows leadership, especially in the
e-government arena. USDA recently unveiled
a sophisticated Web service that is breaking
down the bureaucratic barriers that have
frustrated farmers and ranchers for decades.
Laying the Groundwork
At NASA, key areas of its "green" plan
center on information technology security
and the migration to governmentwide
e-government services, a PMA area for
which the agency has thus far received
only a mixed-results rating. (Not a stranger
to "green," NASA received top ratings
in two other categories in the last round
Now, NASA has made moving to an
electronic payroll system a top priority of its
e-government efforts. By August, the agency
will be using an e-payroll application run by
the Interior Department, one of a handful of
larger agencies that offer this common service
to other federal entities. NASA is converting
data into common formats to enable all
information to migrate easily from a legacy
payroll system to Interior's application.
NASA recently completed a business
process re-engineering effort to prepare
for implementation of its new Integrated
Financial Management system, an
enterprise resource planning application,
reports Patricia Dunnington, NASA CIO.
"We have the advantage of having spent
a number of years looking at our internal
processes and understanding where there
were opportunities for improvement," she
says. "We understand that some processes
can be an artifact of how you are accustomed
to doing business versus the processes that
are really essential to conducting business."
Striving for Leadership
USDA staked out its goal of becoming a
technology leader last January when
Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman
committed the agency to an ambitious
e-government initiative. "The computer has
already taken its place next to the plowshare
and tractor as indispensable to farmers," she
said at that time.
In 2004, USDA will invest in nationwide
high-speed communications networks,
authentication technology for secure Web
transactions and content management tools.
All of this is infrastructure, and not an
end in itself. But it is enabling the USDA
Customer Statement, a modest-sounding but
potentially rich application, to take flight.
After a farmer or rancher (the customer,
in the USDA's parlance) signs on,
this straightforward-looking Web page
presents a comprehensive listing of all
of that customer's dealings with USDA,
using continuously updated information
from seven separate USDA databases.
Launched in March, USDA Customer
Statement's capabilities will slowly be
expanded as the application rolls out to
new users throughout the year. "Each day,
about 116 people are registering for our
authentication service," says Scott Charbo,
the USDA's CIO. However, USDA doesn't
have figures for how many registrants go on
to use the Customer Statement, he adds.
Sowing IT Seeds
The agency faces a daunting challenge
in improving customer service because
its services are so diverse. Twenty-eight
agencies and nearly 2,700 offices operate
throughout the country to manage
everything from farm price support and
conservation programs to the Forest
Service and food stamp distribution.
Farmers and ranchers may interact with
several different offices to initiate loans,
collect disaster payments or conduct other
business. Customers often have to travel 100
miles to a USDA office "just to sign some
piece of paper," Charbo says. "And, typically,
customers would be on a tractor during our
The USDA Customer Statement will
centralize many of these services into one
Web-based application. To set up an account,
customers must go to a USDA office and
present a driver's license or other official
identification to open an account and receive
a secure login ID. Once registered, users can
conduct much of their business online
from their own PCs. They can view their
personal statements, which look similar
to standard bank statements. Individual
sections summarize participation in USDA
conservation programs, including associated
payments, while other sections provide
farm loan information.
"We also integrated geographical data
and imagery that's tied to the customer's
account," Charbo says. Users can, for
example, see digitized maps of segments
of their property deemed eligible for
disaster payments because of floods.
Charbo lists features he expects to add
during the next two years: secure electronic
signature technology that will eliminate the
trips customers must make to sign USDA
forms, and interactive maps of customers'
land that use geographic information system
technology and overlays for roads, soil types
and other geographic features.
The USDA Customer Statement is not
yet a finished product, and Charbo likes it
that way. Gradual development, even under
the pressure of the PMA, is a beneficial
break from USDA tradition, he says.
In the past, the department used a shock-and-awe approach to IT initiatives: At one
time, it tried to manage about 600 separate
projects. Many of them were redundant,
or at least related, and all were vying for the
same limited resources. "We looked at each
of the projects, and we decided that a lot of
them just weren't going to deliver," Charbo
says. "So we refocused our efforts on fewer,
Looking for Quick Successes
The USDA Customer Statement project
could be a model for any agency striving
to conduct well-defined projects built
logically in incremental steps, according
"We're looking for quick successes," he
says. "We're not subscribing to the Big
Bang theory anymore. Instead, we'll take a
slice, make it work, deliver it and then
work on expanding it in the next cycle."
As an alternative to launching a massive
consolidation effort to integrate the seven
data warehouses that feed data to the USDA
Customer Statement, USDA opted to create
common data definition standards and to
build relatively simple Extensible Markup
Language (XML) interfaces to connect the
data stores with the application.
Common standards used in database
application design mean that by signing on
once, farmers and ranchers can access all of
their relevant data from whichever database
holds the information.
"Too often, people use the word
integration without understanding what they
need to do," says Charbo.
"The data warehouses run in real time,
the Customer Statement is real time, and we
don't have to worry about porting large
amounts of data, trying to get the data into
the database in order to change the product
or the statement" as business conditions
change, he says.
The non-technical concerns also pushed
Charbo in this direction. "I thought we
would have more resistance if we tried to
pull those data warehouses into one area
rather than coming up with a product
that was able to use what data was out
there," he explains.
If USDA were to be judged solely on
the strength of these latest e-government
initiatives, it would have already gotten
to green in that category, Charbo says.
But other work has yet to be completed
in the certification and security accreditation
of USDA's entire spectrum of IT systemsÂsomething that hadn't happened in an
organized way before Charbo's tenure.
And certification and accreditation are
cornerstones of the PMA's e-government
"Where USDA has suffered historically is
in security," he concedes. "We never had
an inventory of our systems, so how do
we know what's certified and accredited?"
But the inventory process is under
way. The first batch of about 200 systems
is undergoing certification, and Charbo
expects that 80 percent of USDA's systems
will be certified within the year. "We
hadn't taken any steps to do this in the
past, so this is a huge initiative," he says.
With Agriculture's systems inventory
and certification initiatives put to bed,
Charbo says he's confident that the
drought at USDA will end, and the
agency will see PMA green.
Sharing Common Objectives
NASA faces similar challenges. Several
years ago, it created the Outsourcing
Desktop Initiative for NASA to bring a
standard agency approach to providing
But the hurdles that stand in the way of
e-government success are not solely IT in
nature, says the tech-savvy Dunnington.
Ensuring that all parties on the business and
technology sides understand each other's
needs and the common objectives is of
paramount importance, she says.
"Certainly we're in the IT business, but the
real value a CIO can bring to the organization
is as an integratorÂnot just for technology
but also for cross-cutting management
challenges and needs," she says. "IT is often
required to enable almost any large-scale
initiative, and a central cross-cutting
perspective adds value."
PROGRESS THROUGH STANDARDIZATION
For the Department of Energy, standardization and consolidation are
the keys to e-government green.
A major component in the
standardization plan of the
Department of Energy is the
Integrated Department of
Energy E-Gov Applications
(IDEA) initiative, says Rosita
Parkes, DOE's CIO.
The IDEA initiative was
begun in 2002 by Parkes'
predecessor, Karen Evans,
who is now the administrator
of the Office of Electronic
Government and Information
Technology at the Office of
Management and Budget.
An IDEA task force
identified 19 internal Energy
Department functions that
are common across all
its divisions and bureaus
and would benefit from
centralization. A key example
is the organizationwide
management of desktop
computer systems. By
establishing a central help
desk and standardizing
on the same models and
configurations of computers,
the agency will be able to
more easily solve support
problems as they come up,
says Parkes. Centralized
management will also
simplify such IT chores as
systems will also tighten
security. "This is one of the
biggest drivers at DOE,"
Parkes says. It will make
intrusion detection and
monitoring the status of
Energy's network easier, so
Parkes' staff can more easil
detect problems and move
quickly to prevent attacks
Similarly, Energy has bee
working in the past year to
certify and accredit its
systems, a process that has
been completed for about 8
percent of the systems. The
whole department is workin
to reach the 90 percent
threshold, as specified for
"success" by OMB, in time fo
the June ratings and to win
DOE its e-government green,
THE PRESIDENT'S MANAGEMENT AGENDA
The Office of Management and Budget awards scores from unsatisfactory red to green success.
| Energy Department
Budget and Performance
Source: Office of Management and Budget's latest scorecard rankings, through Dec. 31, 2003 (www.results.gov/agenda/scorecard.html)
DOs AND DON'Ts
Â Focus on a small number of
Â Identify opportunities for quick
successes in large projects.
Â Look for what works at other
public or private organizations.
Â Capitalize on system
centralization and standardization
Â Adhere to the Big Bang theory of
implementing large-scale change.
Â Automate old processes just
because you're accustomed to
doing business that way.
Â Let technology overshadow good
communications and management