Information Technology: Agriculture Needs to Strengthen Management Practices for Stabilizing and Modernizing Its Farm Program Delivery Systems
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has experienced significant problems with its information technology systems that support the delivery of benefits programs to farmers. In October 2006, these systems began experiencing considerable delays while attempting to process a large number of transactions, and by January 2007, the systems became inoperable for 1 month. In response to these issues, USDA developed a near-term stabilization plan and long-term plans to modernize its delivery of these programs. GAO was asked to determine (1) the extent to which USDA's stabilization plan addresses key management issues, including consistently tracking reported problems, establishing performance metrics and goals, and defining roles and responsibilities and (2) the adequacy of USDA's assessment of existing product capabilities, as well as cost and schedule estimates for its new, long-term modernization investment. To address these objectives, GAO, among other things, compared USDA's plans with industry best practices. On March 25, 2008, GAO briefed the requesters' staff on the results of this review.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Agriculture||The Secretary of USDA should direct the department's Chief Information Officer to work with FSA's Chief Information Officer to develop specific plans for consistently tracking users' reported problems and clearly defining roles and responsibilities for Information Technology Services and the Farm Service Agency.||
The Farm Service Agency (FSA) implemented this recommendation through two actions. With respect to user problem tracking, FSA developed an incident management plan for information technology services, including farm program delivery systems, that describes the agency's approach to tracking user-reported problems. The plan, issued in September 2008, describes the people, processes, and software to track and resolve such problems. Moreover, FSA provided evidence of a web site and brochure in July and September 2009, respectively, intended to encourage and support farm program system users in reporting problems--a key aspect of consistent problem tracking. Regarding clear definition of roles and responsibilities, FSA transferred the web farm Stabilization project from the department's Information Technology Services to FSA in 2009, and documented this transfer in a transition management plan which identified roles and responsibilities for each organization. The Stabilization project was reported complete in fiscal year 2010.
|Department of Agriculture||The Secretary of USDA should direct the department's chief information officer to work with FSA's chief information officer to fully assess USDA's investment in MIDAS, including establishing effective and reliable cost estimates using industry best practices, including using key information such as business requirements to develop the estimates.||
Since we issued our 2008 report, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) has adopted plans to develop and deploy MIDAS incrementally (GAO-11-586, July 2011). In September 2012, FSA officials reported that MIDAS increments would consist of multiple releases, with requirements defined by release rather than with a single requirements analysis, and that system requirements and functional reviews for the first release were completed in January 2012. They also stated that the September 2012 cost estimate they provided reflected requirements and had been independently reviewed. However, we could not verify that the cost estimates reflected complete requirements for the first release--and therefore that they were reliable--because FSA did not (a)confirm that it had completed its definition of business and technical requirements or revised deployment costs for the first release, as required by the executive decision to proceed with that release; and (b)reflect the full set of functions for the first release in its September 2012 schedule, as they were defined and approved in January 2012. Finally, in its September 2012 program cost overview, FSA noted that the implementation cost estimate for MIDAS remains unchanged, however, this is misleading because that cost no longer includes significant functions (36 farm programs, financial integration capabilities, and producer/farmer interface) that we reported in 2011 as within the scope of the MIDAS program. When viewed together, these conditions indicate that FSA has not yet gathered or applied key information needed to reliably estimate costs for its increments or for the program as a whole. We will continue to monitor FSA's efforts to address a comparable recommendation from our 2011 report to ensure that cost estimates are timely and reflect complete requirements for each release, changes to program activities and milestones, and the complete program life cycle.
|Department of Agriculture||The Secretary of USDA should direct the department's chief information officer to work with FSA's chief information officer to fully assess USDA's investment in MIDAS, including establishing a realistic and reliable implementation schedule for MIDAS that is based on complete business requirements.||
Since we issued our 2008 report, the Farm Service Agency (FSA) has adopted plans to develop and deploy MIDAS incrementally (GAO-11-586, July 2011). In September 2012, FSA officials reported that MIDAS increments will consist of multiple releases, with requirements developed by release rather than in a single analysis. FSA officials reported that the program had completed system requirements and functional reviews for the first release in January 2012 and provided a high-level schedule dated September 2012. However we could not verify that the schedule realistically and reliably reflected business requirements for two reasons. First, the executive decision to proceed with development for the first release recognized unresolved requirements and schedule issues by stipulating that the program must complete development of business process, technical, and reporting requirements, and revise its integrated schedule. Moreover, the decision noted that unresolved integration issues might require modifications to MIDAS requirements (blueprint) and the overall deployment plan. However, FSA officials did not provide evidence that these requirements and schedule issues were addressed in the September 2012 schedule. Second, requirements that had been generated for the first release were not comprehensively reflected in the updated MIDAS schedule of September 2012. Specifically, only three of seven foundational components defined for the scope of the first release were listed with the schedule. Consequently, FSA has not demonstrated that it has completed the definition of its business requirements for the first release of MIDAS, or that its schedule takes into account a complete set of business requirements necessary to that release. We will continue to monitor FSA's efforts to address a comparable recommendation from our 2011 report to ensure that program schedules are sufficiently detailed and complete to reflect the requirements baselines of each release.