IT Modernization: USDA Needs to Improve Oversight of Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area

GAO-21-512 Published: Sep 23, 2021. Publicly Released: Sep 23, 2021.
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Fast Facts

In 2017, USDA announced a major initiative to provide better customer service to U.S. farmers, ranchers, and foresters by modernizing its IT operations. A key IT project was the 2018 launch of Farmers.gov to provide online self-service applications, like a farm loan eligibility tool.

However, USDA has only minimally overseen the development of Farmers.gov. For example, the project has proceeded without cost and schedule estimates. Also, employees have raised issues with the usability and usefulness of Farmers.gov applications and tools.

We made 15 recommendations to USDA to help support its IT modernization and address customer service concerns.

Cornfield with barns and silos in the background

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Highlights

What GAO Found

In 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) mission area launched Farmers.gov to provide farmers, ranchers, and foresters with online self-service applications and business tools. USDA and FPAC have provided minimal oversight for Farmers.gov. Specifically, the governance boards did not conduct reviews at predefined checkpoints for Farmers.gov, as required by USDA's governance framework (see figure). This lack of oversight has allowed FPAC to proceed without developing key program documentation for Farmers.gov, such as project plans and cost and schedule estimates. Further, employee feedback on elements of Farmers.gov already deployed have raised a number of questions on the (1) usability of applications or tools that have already been deployed, and (2) risks that ongoing development efforts and software enhancements will produce deliverables that do not meet customer needs. Improving USDA oversight of Farmers.gov and developing repeatable processes that align Agile methodology to USDA's governance framework can help address these concerns and lead to enhanced service for intended customers.

Status of Required Governance Reviews and Key Documentation for the Farm Production and Conservation‘s Farmers.gov program, as of April 2021

Status of Required Governance Reviews and Key Documentation for the Farm Production and Conservation‘s Farmers.gov program, as of April 2021

FPAC had not fully implemented key leading practices supporting IT workforce planning, duplication and overlap, and customer service that are necessary to ensure success. Specifically, FPAC had not implemented seven of eight IT workforce planning activities. Until it does, FPAC will be limited in its ability to address gaps in knowledge and skills. Further, while FPAC had several IT modernization initiatives underway as of March 2021 to maximize efficiencies and reduce IT duplication and overlap, it had not developed a mission area strategic plan that included the associated performance goals and measures to monitor IT program performance against efficiency goals. Moreover, while FPAC had actions and plans to address customer service measures and associated targets and goals, it had yet to fully implement this activity. Implementation of these key IT modernization practices would provide greater assurance that FPAC is meeting the needs of farmers, ranchers, and foresters.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2017, USDA combined three of its agencies under the FPAC mission area to, among other things, improve customer service for farmers, ranchers, and foresters. For fiscal year 2020, FPAC reported obligating a total of $229 million on IT investments to support its mission.

GAO was requested to review USDA's IT modernization efforts to improve customer service for farmers and ranchers. For this report, GAO examined the extent to which (1) USDA and FPAC are effectively overseeing the development of Farmers.gov; and (2) FPAC's IT workforce planning, efforts to reduce duplication and overlap, and customer service are consistent with leading practices. To do so, GAO compared key Farmers.gov documentation to USDA's IT investment oversight policies and procedures. GAO also compared departmental documentation to leading practices for IT workforce planning, duplication and overlap, and customer service. For both objectives, GAO interviewed cognizant agency officials to obtain their views and verify the information provided.

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Recommendations

GAO is making 15 recommendations to USDA to strengthen program oversight and address key IT leading practices supporting its IT modernization. USDA concurred with all recommendations and described actions it is taking to implement each of them.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the E-Board to establish and execute a regular schedule to review, approve, and recommend IT investments. (Recommendation 1)
Closed – Implemented
In April 2022, the department provided an updated E-Board charter, signed by the USDA Deputy Secretary, that requires quarterly meetings. The department also provided evidence that the board had met quarterly since July 2021 and the meetings included recommendations and approvals regarding IT investments. With continued oversight, the department can ensure timely delivery in meeting planned cost, schedule, and performance objectives.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should direct the E-Board to consider the extent to which it should review and approve decision points that have passed and the associated required documents for Farmers.gov, in accordance with the requirements of the USDA Integrated IT Governance Framework and the approved tailoring agreement. (Recommendation 2)
Closed – Implemented
In April 2022, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Executive Information Technology Resource Investment Board (E-Board) met to review, discuss, and make recommendations concerning Farmers.gov, in accordance with the requirements of the USDA Integrated IT Governance Framework. The E-Board's review resulted in the approval to combine decision gates 3 through 6 through an updated tailoring agreement, as documented in an April 2022 decision memorandum. By aligning their reviews to USDA's governance framework and conducting decision-gate reviews, the E-Board better ensured oversight and timely delivery in meeting planned cost, schedule, and performance objectives for Farmers.gov.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the FPAC Assistant Chief Information Officer to provide clearly documented guidance that supports a consistent and repeatable process for how a program office should apply Agile development methodologies in a manner that is consistent with the department's expectations for IT oversight. (Recommendation 3)
Open
As of September 2021, the department agreed that clear, documented Agile policies and guidance are necessary to mature its software development practices. The department added that it planned to develop policies and guidance for the expansion of training for multi-functional groups of business and IT professionals to better manage complex programs. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Business Center Chief Operating Officer to have the FPAC mission area implement the key IT workforce planning activity of establishing and maintaining a workforce planning process. (Recommendation 4)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that it had established an IT Workforce Standing Committee to address department-wide workforce planning initiatives, with FPAC as an active participant of the committee. The department noted that this committee plans to make progress on standardized position descriptions and IT competency models, with additional progress expected in fiscal year 2022 on the full range of issues identified in our report. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Business Center Chief Operating Officer to have the FPAC mission area implement the key IT workforce planning activity of developing competency and staffing requirements. (Recommendation 5)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that it had established an IT Workforce Standing Committee to address department-wide workforce planning initiatives, with FPAC as an active participant of the committee. The department noted that this committee plans to make progress on standardized position descriptions and IT competency models, with additional progress expected in fiscal year 2022 on the full range of issues identified in our report. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Business Center Chief Operating Officer to have the FPAC mission area implement the key IT workforce planning activity of assessing competency and staffing needs regularly. (Recommendation 6)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that it had established an IT Workforce Standing Committee to address department-wide workforce planning initiatives, with FPAC as an active participant of the committee. The department noted that this committee plans to make progress on standardized position descriptions and IT competency models, with additional progress expected in fiscal year 2022 on the full range of issues identified in our report. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Business Center Chief Operating Officer to have the FPAC mission area implement the key IT workforce planning activity of assessing gaps in competencies and staffing. (Recommendation 7)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that it had established an IT Workforce Standing Committee to address department-wide workforce planning initiatives, with FPAC as an active participant of the committee. The department noted that this committee plans to make progress on standardized position descriptions and IT competency models, with additional progress expected in fiscal year 2022 on the full range of issues identified in our report. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Business Center Chief Operating Officer to have the FPAC mission area implement the key IT workforce planning activity of developing strategies and plans to address gaps in competencies and staffing. (Recommendation 8)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that it had established an IT Workforce Standing Committee to address department-wide workforce planning initiatives, with FPAC as an active participant of the committee. The department noted that this committee plans to make progress on standardized position descriptions and IT competency models, with additional progress expected in fiscal year 2022 on the full range of issues identified in our report. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Business Center Chief Operating Officer to have the FPAC mission area implement the key IT workforce planning activity of implementing activities that address gaps in competencies and staffing. (Recommendation 9)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that it had established an IT Workforce Standing Committee to address department-wide workforce planning initiatives, with FPAC as an active participant of the committee. The department noted that this committee plans to make progress on standardized position descriptions and IT competency models, with additional progress expected in fiscal year 2022 on the full range of issues identified in our report. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Business Center Chief Operating Officer to have the FPAC mission area implement the key IT workforce planning activity of monitoring the agency's progress in addressing competency and staffing gaps. (Recommendation 10)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that it had established an IT Workforce Standing Committee to address department-wide workforce planning initiatives, with FPAC as an active participant of the committee. The department noted that this committee plans to make progress on standardized position descriptions and IT competency models, with additional progress expected in fiscal year 2022 on the full range of issues identified in our report. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Business Center Chief Operating Officer to have the FPAC mission area implement the key IT workforce planning activity of reporting to agency leadership on progress in addressing competency and staffing gaps. (Recommendation 11)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that it had established an IT Workforce Standing Committee to address department-wide workforce planning initiatives, with FPAC as an active participant of the committee. The department noted that this committee plans to make progress on standardized position descriptions and IT competency models, with additional progress expected in fiscal year 2022 on the full range of issues identified in our report. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Assistant Chief Information Officer to have the FPAC mission area develop a strategic plan, in alignment with departmental policies and procedures, to include performance goals and measures for maximizing efficiencies and reducing IT duplication and overlap. (Recommendation 12)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that FPAC is updating a draft 5-year IT plan to help reduce overlap and provide a roadmap for IT modernization. It added that the roadmap is to include methods to track progress and measure efficiencies, which is expected to enable USDA and FPAC to monitor progress toward reducing IT overlap and duplication. We will continue to monitor the status of this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture
Priority Rec.
This is a priority recommendation.
The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Assistant Chief Information Officer to have the FPAC mission area monitor IT program performance against efficiency goals and measures documented in its plan for maximizing efficiencies and reducing IT duplication and overlap. (Recommendation 13)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that FPAC is updating a draft 5-year IT plan to help reduce overlap and provide a roadmap for IT modernization. It added that the roadmap is to include methods to track progress and measure efficiencies, which is expected to enable USDA and FPAC to monitor progress toward reducing IT overlap and duplication. We will continue to monitor the status of this recommendation. PR flagged on 6/21/22 DCG (APQA)
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Director for Customer Experience to establish baselines and measures for customer service performance, and targets and goals associated with the progress. (Recommendation 14)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that the FPAC Customer Experience Division plans to use the Producer Satisfaction Survey results to establish performance indicators and baselines for measuring customer satisfaction. The department indicated that it would make survey improvements to reach underserved groups to provide a more accurate baseline. The department also stated that it planned to propose that the performance indicators be included in the USDA Strategic Plan and used within FPAC. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture The Secretary of Agriculture should ensure that the Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) directs the Director for Customer Experience to establish a timeframe for releasing the customer service survey results and plans for addressing the customer feedback to the public. (Recommendation 15)
Open
As of September 2021, the department stated that the FPAC Customer Experience Division plans to use the Producer Satisfaction Survey results to establish performance indicators and baselines for measuring customer satisfaction. The department indicated that it would make survey improvements to reach underserved groups to provide a more accurate baseline. The department also stated that it planned to propose that the performance indicators be included in the USDA Strategic Plan and used within FPAC. We will continue to monitor progress on this recommendation.

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