USDA Service Centers:

Multibillion Dollar Effort to Modernize Processes and Technology Faces Significant Risks

AIMD-98-168: Published: Aug 31, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 30, 1998.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the Department of Agriculture's (USDA) effort to modernize information technology (IT) at its field service centers, focusing on: (1) USDA's plans and ongoing efforts, including estimated costs, to modernize IT for its service centers; and (2) any significant risks in these plans and ongoing efforts.

GAO noted that: (1) USDA's service center IT modernization effort, as currently being planned, will be the biggest, most costly, and complex in the department's history; (2) it involves projects to: (a) develop new business processes; (b) acquire and install telecommunications equipment; (c) acquire, implement, and maintain a common computing environment at about 3,100 locations; and (d) acquire and develop geospatial data; (3) USDA's life-cycle cost estimates show that the department could ultimately spend more than $3 billion for these projects by 2011; (4) the department reported spending about $145 million since starting its service center IT modernization in 1996, and plans to spend over $200 million more during fiscal years 1998 and 1999; (5) USDA's multibillion dollar undertaking faces significant risks; (6) specifically: (a) USDA continues to acquire new technology before it has reengineered business processes for providing one-stop service in all of its service centers; (b) USDA is not managing its IT-related projects for its service centers as investments, using cost, benefit, risk, and performance information to select, control, and evaluate projects throughout their life-cycle; (c) USDA has not completed a comprehensive plan identifying critical milestones, project dependencies, and resources required for the modernization; (d) in acquiring technology, USDA is not following an incremental approach that uses cost justifications and performance measures for each increment to reduce risks associated with large-scale acquisitions or projects; and (e) USDA lacks the project management structure needed to manage a modernization of this magnitude; specifically, USDA has not assigned a senior-level official with overall responsibility, authority, and accountability for managing and coordinating the separate, service center IT modernization projects and for ensuring that the Clinger-Cohen mandates have been met and that critical tasks are completed on time and within budget; (7) as a result of these risks, even after spending billions of dollars on its service center IT modernization, the department may not obtain an adequate return on its investment, meet the needs of its customers, or achieve the Secretary of Agriculture's vision of one-stop service; and (8) many of the weaknesses GAO identified are similar to those that caused USDA's earlier Info Share program, which cost more than $100 million, to fail.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Congress limited FY2000 funding to meet Y2K requirements for USDA's Service Center initiative due to the weaknesses that GAO identified.

    Matter: Until the department resolves its critical weaknesses and institutionalizes the processes needed to manage its service center IT modernization in accordance with the mandates of the Clinger-Cohen Act, Congress may wish to limit IT funding for the USDA service centers to only that necessary to: (1) bring mission-critical systems into compliance with year 2000 requirements; (2) implement cost-effective efforts that support ongoing operations and maintenance; and (3) develop and document a concept of operations and the new mission-critical business processes necessary to provide one-stop service at all sites and integrate the service center business process reengineering project with the county-based study.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA developed a concept of operations and incorporated it into the Service Center Modernization Plan of the USDA County-Based Agencies, agreed to by all the county-based agencies. The plan articulates the desired concept of operations and how USDA plans to achieve it. It also incorporates the accepted recommendations from the county-based study and documented requirements from the agencies' Business Process Reengineering projects for the Common Computing Environment (CCE) equipment being deployed. Moreover, USDA obtained an independent assessment of the IT portion of the plan in July 2000 and subsequently developed a specific "blueprint" plan for the IT modernization in December 2000, endorsed by the Administrators or Chiefs of these Agencies, that describes how the Service Center Agencies will carry out the overall IT modernization effort.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should, before investing in any effort to modernize USDA's IT beyond that necessary for making mission-critical systems year 2000 compliant and cost-effectively supporting ongoing operations and maintenance: (1) develop and document a concept of operations and the new mission-critical business processes necessary to provide one-stop service at all sites; and (2) integrate the service center business process reengineering project with the count-based study. One approach for ensuring completion of these actions would be to assign accountability to the Deputy Secretary who would need to work with the Under Secretaries and Assistant Secretaries for the service center agencies and the Chief Information Officer (CIO).

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Initially, USDA did not agree with this recommendation and said it did not intend to take action to implement it. Rather, USDA said that it was continuing to implement this initiative under its current approach of assigning leadership to a committee of agency heads. However, USDA changed its position at the end of March 2000 and strengthened management of Service Center Information Technology Modernization by assigning the CIO more responsibility for developing and coordinating the effort.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should hold the CIO accountable, and provide her requisite authority and responsibility for managing and implementing the service center IT modernization.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA's Deputy Secretary provides regular information to the Secretary regarding the progress of the initiative, including significant barriers or weaknesses. However, this action is not fully responsive because the Secretary is not being informed on the status to implement each of GAO's recommendations.

    Recommendation: The Deputy Secretary should report on a regular basis to the Secretary of Agriculture on the progress the department is making to implement each of these recommendations, and notify the Secretary when all of the identified weaknesses have been fully addressed and resolved.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA developed the Service Center Modernization Plan of the USDA County-Based Agencies, which is an integrated plan of nine major projects that identifies activities and outcomes as well as risks and actions along with mitigation strategies. This was further supplemented by the development of an integrated project plan, which USDA is using to evaluate and monitor progress.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the CIO to identify, assess, and document the risks, costs, benefits, and performance measures for each service center IT project before providing additional funding to ongoing projects and approving any new projects, and then use this information to review, control, and evaluate these projects at specific milestones of the projects' lifecycles.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to the recommendation, USDA issued a December 2000 blueprint plan for the Service Center Initiative modernization that documents critical milestones, links major segments and shows dependancies, and provides resource requirements for achieving results. This plan has been further supplemented by the development of an integrated project plan that is being used to monitor and evaluate proress.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the CIO to develop a comprehensive plan for the service center IT modernization that documents and tracks all critical milestones, dependencies among major segments, and resources needed to complete them, taking into account the resources that will be needed to make the service center agencies' systems Year 2000 compliant.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA's Service Center Modernization Initiative-Project Management Office (SCMI-PMO) is responsible for managing the Service Center Modernization Initiative and the integrated project plans, dependancies, and milestones. In addition, by using existing governmentwide contracts to procure individual technology components, the SCMI-PMO's acquisition strategy focuses on buying technology in management increments where costs and benefits have been defined.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the CIO to develop an acquisition strategy that focuses on buying technology in manageable increments, where cost justification and performance measures are developed and documented for each increment.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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