Thursday, September 16, 2004
Mr. Lawrence: Good morning and welcome to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence, partner in charge of The IBM Center for the Business of Government. We created the center in 1998 to encourage discussion and research into new approaches to improving government effectiveness. You can find out more about the center by visiting us on the web at businessofgovernment.org.
The Business of Government Radio Show Hour features a conversation about management with government executives who are changing the way government does business. Today we have two special guests. We begin by speaking with Jim Little. Jim is the Administrator of the Farm Service Administration. Later Steve Sanders, Associate Director, Information Technology Service Division of the FSA will join us. We begin with Jim. Good morning, Jim.
Mr. Little: Good morning,
Mr. Lawrence: And joining us in or conversation also from IBM is Mike Wasson. Good morning, Mike.
Mr. Wasson: Good morning.
Mr. Lawrence: Well, Jim, let's start by talking about the Farm Service Agency. Could you give us some information about its history and it's mission?
Mr. Little: Well, I think I'd first like to explain what our mission is. Basically our mission is to provide the nation with a safe and affordable and abundant food supply. And with that goes to say that we not only provide food for our nation's people. We provide food for people all around the world.
A little bit about the history of the Farm Service Agency, we were created back in the 1930s as a result of the Depression. The first semblance of any part that's still here today was in 1933 with the enactment of the Commodity Credit Corporation Act and then in 1935 with the establishment of the Food Security Act.
Mr. Lawrence: Let's talk about the people who work at the FSA and the unique skills they have. Can you give us a sense of the size of your team and the kind of capabilities they have?
Mr. Little: Well, we have a very large and diverse organization nationwide. We have about 17,000 people at any one time and about two-thirds of those work in our county offices throughout the country and those people at the county level work one on one with our farmers and ranchers throughout the nation. We really do require a tremendously diverse set of employment skills. We employ economists, computer programmers, computer experts, program technical experts, financial analysts, commodity to professionals, loan specialists, marketing experts, contract specialists, as well as a variety of management and administrative skills. The makeup of our staff represents just about every segment of our society and just about every college curriculum that you can think of.
Mr. Wasson: Jim, what can you tell us about your responsibility and duties as the Administrator?
Mr. Little: Well, you could compare the Farm Service Agency, believe it or not, to any major corporation in the United States. In total we have a loan portfolio that exceeds $40 billion. We could rival Citibank and just about any other major lending institution. Just this past year under our new farm bill we paid out approximately $20 billion in program payments. Some years we've paid out nearly $30 billion in payments to farmers and ranchers. We have a presence in 50 states, over 2,500 counties, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and even the South Pacific. And with employee and administrative costs we rank up there with some of the world's top Fortune 500 companies. In a nutshell you could describe my responsibilities as a CEO of any one of these Fortune 500 companies or even Fortune 100 companies. But, I'm really there in my responsibilities as the Administrator to provide the leadership to ensure that the Farm Service Agency accomplishes its mission, the Secretary's vision, and the President's agenda.
Mr. Wasson: In addition to your responsibility as the Administrator of FSA you're also the Executive Vice President of the Commodity Credit Corporation. What is the mission of that corporation?
Mr. Little: Well, the Commodity Credit Corporation, more commonly known to rank and file as the CCC, is a wholly-owned government corporation with a $30 billion line of credit with the United States Department Treasury. So at any one time we can go to the Treasury to help us fund our programs, particularly those that are entitlement programs. But my roles with FSA and the Commodity Credit Corporation are very difficult to differentiate because one complements the other.
A very little known fact is that CCC is also responsible for procuring food stuffs for the school lunch program. If you have a child in any one of our public schools throughout the country they are very likely having food at lunch time that's purchased by the Farm Service Agency and the Commodity Credit Corporation. We also purchase food for international food donations. For example, some of our wheat was the first wheat that entered Iraq after the fall. We also have food stuffs going into Afghanistan, North Korea, Sudan, and Haiti, countries that you would not ordinarily think of us having business with.
We really have a broad-based and diversified organization. We have our hands into a lot of areas that no one would ever imagine and all of these have a relationship with Commodity Credit Corporation.
Mr. Wasson: How do you balance your leadership roles in both the FSA and the Corporation? I mean, it's an enormously large task.
Mr. Little: As I mentioned, they're really very difficult to divorce one from the other. There are legal responsibilities as the Executive Vice President. We have a corporate board. The Secretary of Agriculture is the Chairperson of the Board and all of the undersecretaries within the Department of Agriculture have leadership roles on the Board as well. And then employees of the Farm Service Agency and other agencies within the department have additional roles within the corporation that complement their regular agency jobs.
Mr. Wasson: What can you tell me about your experiences previously before joining FSA?
Mr. Little: Well, first off I'd like to give a personal background. I'm a die hard hokey from Virginia Tech and after graduating I came straight to the Department of Agriculture, so I've been with the department for over 33 years.
I've spent my entire professional career, actually, as a public servant, mostly with USDA. I first started off as a GS-5 accountant with the Rural Electrification Administration and before becoming Administrator I also held several other roles in addition to the Rural Electrification Administration. I was with Federal Crop Insurance Corporation. Immediately before I took this job I was also the Associate Chief Financial Officer at the department level where I provided oversight for USDA's overall financial operations. So I've had a good bit of experience within the department. It's all been helpful to allow me to carry out my responsibilities here at FSA.
Mr. Lawrence: Is there any one experience or anything in your previous positions that you think best prepared you for your current position?
Mr. Little: Well, I probably have to say that my position as the Associate Chief Financial Officer probably provided me the most leadership responsibilities because I got into a lot of different areas within the department from a department-wide perspective so it really prepared me more for the broad picture because FSA does have so many broad implications not only within FSA but other agencies within the department and other departments in the federal government. So that job probably gave me the best insight into how to take charge of a large agency such as FSA.
Mr. Lawrence: When I think about your career I'm curious. What drew you to public service right out of college and university and what's kept you there? I'm sure from time to time you've thought about other alternatives.
Mr. Little: Well, one of my first jobs while I was still in college, I had a job with one of the very rural telephone companies and it was then that I got interested in rural America. So when I graduated I started looking for positions at the Department of Agriculture that would keep me in that arena and at that time I was able to get what I considered at that time a very good job at the Rural Electrification Administration which kept me in touch with rural America. So through the years I've been given good opportunities within the department, the department has been extremely good to me, and the federal government has been extremely good to me, and the federal government has been absolutely outstanding to work with.
Mr. Lawrence: Two years ago the Farm Bill of 2002 was signed into law. What's been its impact? We'll ask Jim Little, Administrator of the FSA, to take us through, when The Business of Government Hour continues.
Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence and this morning's conversation is with Jim Little. Jim's the Administrator of the Farm Service Agency at the US Department of Agriculture and joining us in our conversation is Mike Wasson
Mr. Wasson: Thank you, Paul. Jim, it's been two years since the Farm Bill of 2002 was signed. What has been the impact of this bill on FSA?
Mr. Little: Well, that's a really good question because I would have to say in my entire career that's been the biggest challenge in my life to be responsible for helping implement a program of that magnitude. The Farm Service Agency and the Commodity Credit Corporation probably had the biggest role to play in all of the Department of Agriculture to implement the Farm Bill.
We had multiple new programs to implement requiring tens of millions of dollars of new programming and doctoring up the program we had in place. We had to develop interfaces to our legacy systems using old COBOL programming to actually implement to the farm bill. It was a multi-faceted farm bill. It's considered the most complicated in history and we had to put it in place in a record period of time. It was passed in May of 2002; we had payments going out in earl y September and October of that year. It was an extremely good benefit for our farmers because it put money in the hands of our farmers as quickly as humanly possible basically but since the Farm Bill was put into place we've put out over $20 billion in payments.
Under the new programs we had a new milk program to help compensate for low prices for milk, we had a peanut buyout quota program which put out about $1.2 billion, and we had direct encounter cyclical payments that had to go out under a new program. So in total we put out well over $20 billion. We also put out several billion dollars in a conservation reserve program payment. But basically since that program was put into place we've had some really good improvements the way we look at it in terms of the economy.
Farm income is now at record levels and our programs did have an impact on them. Although the competition within the world and new demands for our commodities have helped in those record levels our program payments also help to do that. In 2003 net cash farm income was $63 billion and that's an 11.5 percent increase over 2000. Farm product sales are expected to surpass a record $215 billion in 2004 and farmers equity reached a record $1.16 trillion last year, putting agriculture in the best financial health ever. So we think the farm bill really did have an impact on helping improve rural life and helping farmers.
One of the additional things that the farm bill did was to increase conservation efforts across the country. Since the Farm Bill was passed we've increased conservation funding by 80 percent. In total the 2002 Farm Bill committed $17 billion in funding for wildlife, forestry, grasslands, farm land preservation, and working lands conservation. It's just a tremendous program.
Since 1986 the conservation program, which is one of our premier conservation programs at the department the Farm Service Agency administers, we've increased the benefits for wildlife. We've seen erosion decrease by 40 percent. It's improved water quality. So, I mean, that was one of the programs that the 2002 Farm Bill provided additional emphasis on. Since the Farm Bill was passed we've also increased exports for our agricultural commodities and this is bolstering farm income which, I already mentioned, is at all time highs.
Mr. Lawrence: You talked about the different areas that the FSA is involved in. I'd like to talk more about them and in preparing for this I noticed a couple areas that you're involved in: farm loans, price supports, conservation and commodity operations. Let's pick apart a couple of these and learn more about them. Could you tell us about the types of farm loans that are available?
Mr. Little: Okay, we have four different areas of farm loans, primarily four different areas, and about $4 billion in funding each year. These are appropriated amounts and we have some specific. We provide these loans and loan guarantees to thousands of our farmers and ranchers and these ranchers come to us because they're unable to obtain private commercial credit. So we're talking about farmers who are having a tough time making it in farming. So we're really encouraging beginning farmers to come to our doors if they can't make it in commercial lending. We're encouraging our minorities and socially disadvantaged farmers to come in to our offices.
In general we've made about $700 million dollars to beginning farmers recently in any given year and we've also provided $300 million to nearly 3400 ethnic and women farmers so we really are doing as good a job as we can to reach out to those beginning farmers and the socially disadvantaged farmers who need help.
We also have special loan programs for youth loans. You probably didn't realize it but when you see kids with a sheep in 4-H Club they might have come to the Farm Service Agency to borrow money providing an incentive for kids to get into farming. So our loan programs are really unique in that they are targeted to a part of our society that is having a difficult go of it. And we're really proud of the work that we're able to do to keep people in farming, particularly in those categories that I just mentioned.
Mr. Lawrence: One thing I know that people are very interested in and I'm curious about, too, is price supports. Could you talk to us some more about what's a price support and how does it help farmers manage their business?
Mr. Little: Well, price support comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, you might say. The real cornerstone under the 2002 Farm Bill provides for direct encounter cyclical payments. The primary purpose is to help farmers maintain a sustainable income level. These direct payments, they're paid out annually in installments at the same rate basically every year. We also have what we call a counter-cyclical payment that kicks in only when the average commodity market prices for the year are lower than projected in the Farm Bill. So these counter-cyclical payments really are a supplement if the market prices are very low.
We also provide what we call marketing loans to help farmers market their products at harvest. When harvest comes they'll actually come in to us to tide them over until they're able to sell their product and then they reimburse the loan by paying us and if they don't get the price that they want they can turn the commodity over to us. So FSA would hold the collateral and we would become the owners of the commodities. It doesn't happen all that often in our mainstream commodities although it does happen with milk and it also happens with sugar on occasion. Those are different programs.
The farmers in lieu of taking one of these marketing loans can also gamble that prices are going to be high when they're ready to sell their product and if the prices aren't quite as high as they thought they would be or what the Farm Bill said was the target price we could give them what we call a loan deficiency payment.
But all of these payments are designed to help farmers keep a relatively stable level of income and they've been very effective.
Mr. Wasson: Farmers provide a lot of support towards the conservation of our land. What type of incentives does this FSA provide to the farmers?
Mr. Little: Well, the primary program that we have is the conservation reserve program and it's the largest conservation program on private lands in the country. Currently we have about 34.8 million acres that are in the conservation program. We have a target of about 39.2 million acres between now and the end of the Farm Bill which is in about 2008. But what these programs do is encourage farmers to take environmentally sensitive land that's currently in crop land and take them out of cropping and put them into conservation measures. Farm Service Agency and Commodity Credit Corporation will actually enter into a contract of ten to fifteen years, will help them pay through a cost share program to plant native grasses, buffer strips, trees, or other conservation measures along side crop lands mostly.
We also encourage putting in riparian strips and buffers alongside rivers and stream to help keep sediments from going into the rivers, helping improve our water supply, and it also provides a really good habitat for birds and other wildlife. The President just last week put in a really good pitch for the Farm Service Agency and these conservation reserve programs by committing an additional 250,000 acres to encourage the establishment of habitat for bobwhite quail. You might not realize that the bobwhite quail has decreased significantly over the last couple of decades and this program is going to help establish habitat in 250,000 acres in the establishment of about 750,000 new quail particularly in the southeast and the midwest areas.
He also announced an additional program that is going to encourage the re-establishment of wetlands particularly in the prairie states and what they call p--s in Texas and Oklahoma. So the President is keenly aware of this program and is keenly in tune with installing conservation throughout the country and this program is really there to help achieve those goals that we've set.
Mr. Lawrence: Let's talk about how the FSA delivers it's programs. As I understand it its somewhat unique because the delivery of the many services is done through grass root networks. Could you explain those networks and how they are used?
Mr. Little: Yes, we call them grass roots networks. What they are is we have offices in over 2300 counties throughout the country. Back in 1936 the Congress established what we call county committees in each one of these county areas. They're not really county offices per se but these are county areas where farmers nominate farmers to help run the programs within the rural areas. What they do is help administer the programs at the grass roots level so national policies are made in Washington and those policies are sent down to the states and the states in turn put the responsibility onto the counties to actually administer the programs at those labels. So these county committees help develop the manner in which those programs are going to be run.
This grass roots approach gives farmers a say in how federal actions affect their communities and their individual operations and one of the things that we're really trying to focus on especially this year is to increase the involvement in those local communities with minorities. Historically we've had very low representation on these committees with minorities and socially disadvantaged so the Secretary is reaching out to a lot of community-based organizations in an effort to get more minorities nominated on the board so they can actually be elected.
Mr. Lawrence: That's very interesting. How is e-government affecting farmers? We'll ask Jim Little, Administrator of the FSA to give us his perspective when The Business of Government Hour returns.
Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence and this morning's conversation is with Jim Little. Jim is the Administrator of the Farm Service Agency at the US Department of Agriculture, and joining us in our conversation is Mike Wasson.
Well, Jim, in the previous segments we discussed FSA's program areas. In this segment let's talk about how FSA is working toward the goals set forth in the President's Management Agenda. How are you doing in terms of the President's Management Agenda?
Mr. Little: I think we're doing very well. The President's Management Agenda includes about five management initiatives which FSA is working very hard to implement. We've been collaborating with OMB, the department, our own employees, and, probably even as important, we've been collaborating with our stakeholders so that we can appropriately address everybody's concerns as well as the initiatives.
We've spend about a year so far in developing a strategic plan framework that will tie all of the agency's mission and our goals together with the agenda. So we've come up with a comprehensive framework so far that's going to help FSA tell our story of what we want to do, what we do do, how well we're doing, and how well we are meeting our mission. And as we develop our strategic plan we're linking each of our goals to the President's Management Agenda and, more specific, to the individual initiatives.
Mr. Lawrence: One of the key areas called out in the PMA is improved financial performance. How is FSA doing towards this goal?
Mr. Little: Just about everything we're doing today under the President's Management Agenda is in some way linked to financial performance and serving our customers. Probably most importantly, we're getting ready to deploy a centralized payment module that will be the cornerstone of what I'm calling our plug and play program of the future.
The financial piece of our system in my opinion is the most critical piece of our program software of the future because it drives our whole system. Most of our programs involve a payment to a producer. So this one module needs to be the focal point of our system. So once this national payment system is completed all of our future program modules will interface with this one master tool and it will lead us to the future.
Mr. Wasson: Jim, the USDA Secretary Ann Veneman said the computer has already taken it's place next to the plow share and tractor as indispensable to farmers. What type of e-government services to farmers and ranchers is the agency working on?
Mr. Little: Well, we're doing a lot in e-government. The Secretary just this spring unveiled something that she's very proud of and that's called the USDA customer statement. This is going to enable all of our producers to view all of their program information no matter which agency they do business with, including the Farm Service Agency. E-Gov along with this USDA customer statement is going to streamline citizen to government communications and it's going to be the focal point for all of FSA's new program systems and this is important because according to the 2002 census on agriculture about 50 percent of our clientele in rural America already has a computer and 40 percent are using them for business. So, I mean, it tells us that farmers have access to computers and these systems are going to be utilized.
Now, we can't get there tomorrow because a lot of farmers don't want to do business with the government over the Internet or using computers. So we're going to have to educate our farmers very similar to what we did in 1996 when we started using electronic funds transfers. So we're going to get there. It's going some time with a little bit of education but you just have to look at the commercial sector and see where they are compared to five years ago. Come back to FSA in five years and you'll see that we're up there with the commercial sector.
Mr. Wasson: Jim, in the last segment you discuss some of the E-Government initiatives. Some of the farmers have utilized the benefits of this emergent technology; however, some of the other farmers have not. How do you reach out to those other farmers that have not yet moved to the Internet and some of the technology available to them?
Mr. Little: That's a really good point because not only do we have farmers that haven't moved to using the Internet. We have a lot of other farmers that don't have access to the Internet because they are in very rural areas. I mentioned that it's really incumbent on the Farm Service Agency to promote the use of the Internet, to promote e-government. I think we're doing a fairly credible job. I used earlier the comparison of encouraging farmers to use EFT payment process back in 1996 when the Debt Collection Improving Act required us to go there. Through education we were able to get from 2 percent in 1996 getting EFTs up to over 80 percent today. So through education I think we'll be able to get our farmers to start using the Internet .
For those areas that don't have the Internet the Farm Bill really does come into play because it makes a serious commitment to rural America and it focuses on improving the quality of life for the nation's 63 million rural residents. And one of the things the Department of Agriculture through the Rural Utility Service has been doing is providing loans for broadband facilities in many of our rural areas. So we're spending hundreds of millions of dollars to get telecommunication improvements in rural areas so that everybody has access to the Internet.
Mr. Wasson: How are some of the advances in technology helping you in your mission today?
Mr. Little: We're in the process of doing a complete re-engineering of all of our program systems. A few of the things that we've already done are this summer beginning back in April we started deploying what we're calling the Foreign Business Plan, which is a major improvement in the way we administer credit in our county offices. I mentioned the Food Security Act and the Farm Service Agency was actually born in the 1930s and the farm credit programs that we provide were probably about the same time period but what we're doing with this new Farm Business Plan is we're putting on the Internet using commercial off the shelf software to completely revamp a program that has actually been in place since the 1940s. So this is the first major change that we've put into place, the change in the way that we administer credit in our county offices, in over 50 years. That's really incredible and it's a great opportunity to use technology to do this. And when our rollout is complete later this fall we'll actually be able to provide web access to our loan-making process that's never been done before.
We're also re-engineering, as I mentioned, all of our program software. We've got a major effort on what I call our safety net programs in bringing them up to current technology. We're currently using COBOL software. We've got to use web-enabled software so that we can begin to provide services to our customers. This is a major effort, probably a two or three-year effort, and we're calling it MIDAS for short but it's Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agriculture Systems project. Our users, our customers, are really excited about this and it's going to be a great improvement in the way we do business. It's going to help us deploy programs a lot more quickly. I mentioned earlier that we did a very short time-frame implementation of the Farm Bill but it could have been even shorter had we been able to use all current technology to do that.
Another program that we've already made some significant improvements on is our Conservation Reserve Program, which we put online web-enabled this past spring. Actually it was 2003 when we put that into place and eventually in the not too distant future we'll be able to enable to our farmers to actually sign up their conservation reserve contracts online.
But when we're finished we'll be able to provide a wide array of program options online from our customers' places of business. If they don't have Internet access they can go to their local library or they'll be able to go to our traditional county offices. But just one example: last fall we also implemented another major improvement and that's a sales process when we do take in commodities. We enabled people to come in and get access to our cotton inventories. That was a major improvement where we actually worked with the trade in getting that online. But we're completely revamping, it will be completely e-gov enabled, and we'll be moving forward into 21st century. Both myself and the Secretary wish we were already there but it's just going to take a little bit of time for us to get there.
Mr. Wasson: What type of changes are occurring in the farming industry today?
Mr. Little: Well, we do see the farm sector continuing what's been going on for a fairly significant period of time but we're seeing a trend of consolidation and business sophistication particularly in response to the new technologies that are available. Consumer demands are changing and we're seeing increasing global competition.
We see our farmers utilizing new technologies, precision agriculture; utilizing state of the art machinery, bio-engineered plant varieties, global positioning systems which we are working very hard to implement in our county offices, the GIS technology, more using computers, and more covering ground in less time, and we're seeing much higher yields. During the next ten years we really expect to see a demand also for product differentiation to grow and this is going to affect production and its going to affect pre-positioning. And consolidation is a continuing part of life in the farming sector and these trends, we believe, are going to grow into the future particularly as new technologies, market demands, and competitions evolve.
Mr. Wasson: Well, given these trends how do you envision FSA will respond to these changes that are occurring?
Mr. Little: Well, let me just respond by carrying out whatever law is provided to us. We are implementing the 2002 Farm Bill as it was written. I might add that the 2002 Farm Bill is still up renewal in about four years but I believe in the next couple of years we're going to see a lot of debate on how that new 2002 Farm Bill's going to be looking, particularly in response to the WTO Agreement that was reached in July. I'm sure that the debate going on now within the WTO that we will probably see some changes in the way farm programs are administered in the future but the Farm Service Agency stands ready to implement the law as it's delivered.
Mr. Wasson: As you noted in the first segment, our agricultural products are demanded worldwide so I'm curious. How does our support for farmers affect US trading relations?
Mr. Little: The United States is a staunch supporter of the World Trade Organization all the way up to the President and we're continually working on bilateral and regional trade agreements with the objective of increasing trade opportunities for United States farmers and ranchers.
The US farm sector has long realized the importance of trade and we've advocated a level playing field in the international market place and the WTO agreement that was reached a couple of weeks ago is a clear signal that the United States means business and the agreement will go a long way to equalizing the playing field for America's farmers and ranchers to get access to foreign markets.
Mr. Lawrence: Well, Jim, Mike and I are curious. You've had a long career in public service. What advice would you give to somebody interested in joining the government?
Mr. Little: I would have to say go for it and I would strongly recommend it. It's been a great career for me. I've been a public servant since I was a library page for Fairfax County as a thirteen-year old and I first went to work for the federal government when I was fifteen as a GS-2 clerk with the Department of Defense and I think I've been rather successful and I'm proud of what I do for our nation. I wouldn't have it any other way so I would encourage any young person today to consider public service as a career choice.
Mr. Lawrence: How is FSA modernizing its systems to offer more farm services online? We'll ask Steve Sanders of the Farm Services Administration for his thoughts when The Business of Government Hour returns
Mr. Lawrence: Welcome back to The Business of Government Hour. I'm Paul Lawrence and this morning we are continuing our conversation about the Farm Services Administration. In this segment I am talking with Steve Sanders. Steve is the Associate Director, Information Technologies Services Administration, in the FSA. Good morning, Steve.
Mr. Sanders: Good morning.
Mr. Lawrence: Thanks for joining us. Earlier in our conversation Mr. Little talked about modernizing FSA systems so they would be web-enabled. He mentioned that the FSA is working on a project known as MIDAS. Could you provide us an overview of the objects of MIDAS?
Mr. Sanders: Sure. MIDAS, which is Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems, is one of a couple of initiatives we have going on to modernize the whole approach that FSA delivers its services to our customers, farmers, ranchers and business customers that relate with what we do.
Basically the objectives are consistent with the President's Management Agenda to provide an electronic government channel, business channel, delivery channel, electronic government services so that the general public can do business with the agency. So we are in the process of developing information technology systems similar to what people have seen with e-bay and Amazon to do our business processes too.
Mr. Lawrence: What were the drivers that led to the project?
Mr. Sanders: Well, for some time now the federal government has been interested in becoming more citizen-centered and its actually through those initiatives that all of the federal government and the Farm Services Agency and the Department of Agriculture have taken on providing citizens direct access to benefits and having information technology systems changed so that they can transact business with us from home and That's the whole purpose.
Mr. Lawrence: As the services become web-enabled, I mean, we like to think this will lead to some improvements. Could you describe how the web-enablement improves the process?
Mr. Sanders: Sure. What we've found because of electronic funds transfer and the ability that the Treasury Department has given us in that arena is with the web-based systems the time that our clients had traditionally logged or taken for benefits to be received dramatically gets cut. So one of the things Mr. Little talked about was the program benefits that the agency provides and our ability to provide those within 48 to 96 hours now, down from traditional business processes that sometimes took two to three weeks.
Mr. Lawrence: And how about in terms of the back offices that support the processes?
Mr. Sanders: We're going to work on that, too, because our service center employees need to have different processes to do their work also. Most of those electronic linkages, Paul, are coming with private industry partners that we do business with so there are co-ops, there are banking institutions, many different agricultural businesses all across the United States that FSA links with and the web-base systems provide those corporations, co-ops, and other business entities direct electronic linkage to connect with us and to share data in more efficient ways than they ever were able to do before.
Mr. Lawrence: Were there any management challenges working with that larger group?
Mr. Sanders: Oh, we face management challenges all of the time with that because one of the things happening with this web-based system enablement is that the client base that the information technology systems now must serve is expanding about three-fold into clients that typically the interaction has been a paper-based interaction and so the client experience of a paper-based transaction wasn't typically anything we concerned ourselves with. So now in providing these web-based systems we have a whole new client base that we're learning about and providing service to.
Mr. Lawrence: Can you give us a sense of the time frame when MIDAS will be operational and when farmers can expect to conduct more transactions online?
Mr. Sanders: Earlier this year, this particular calendar year, the Secretary of Agriculture announced a major initiative to provide USDA customer statements. Mr. Little talked about that just a little bit. For you and me we would think it's really a pretty simple thing because when I go to my private bank and look at my checking account banks already give us online access to review the transactions and checks that have cleared like that and USDA's customer statement is that same type of review only it's a review of the benefits that all of the agencies in the Department of Agriculture have paid someone. So that process came online earlier this summer.
In September we started another initiative which is associated with our price support activities and loan deficiency payments where farmers have direct access to request loan deficiency payments now online provided they have the appropriate credentials and they've gone to their local service centers and indicated their interest in conducting electronic business. So there are a couple steps but once that's done they have that ability now, too.
The major parts of the MIDAS program are scheduled to be online the latter part of calendar year '05 and the beginning of calendar year 2006. Most of the MIDAS initiative is timed in our support of the new farm bill legislation that Mr. Little referenced to. So the real push is for us to have web-based systems available to our clients when the next farm legislation gets passed by Congress.
Mr. Lawrence: Could the approach you've used to MIDAS be used to modernize systems and services and other agencies and departments?
Mr. Sanders: I would say absolutely because we've made a real conscious, Paul, to focus on best business practices for business process re-engineering. We have done our best to leverage some of the Office of Management and Budget guidance on federal enterprise architecture approaches and have had a whole attention on holistic business process redesign which has been very cross-cutting to the agency and certainly a whole new way of looking at our business processes that before this modernization project began we like many other federal organizations were very stove-piped and very constrained in our thinking and didn't necessarily take our customer's point of view into account. So absolutely the approach we're taking is applicable to many, many other areas of federal and state government work.
Mr. Lawrence: The way you described it makes it almost sound easy but it actually was very hard so I'm curious. What advice would you give to someone who is undertaking a project like that?
Mr. Sanders: Well, one thing that's very important is that the business need get defined because you always have to keep people engaged and excited and interested in the future. It's actually the future vision that keeps people motivated to continue to work because there is a point where it's just really focused intense re-thinking and work that has to be done and if people lose sight of where you're going the efforts die away so we've done a lot of work on defining the vision, defining the charter for the project, keeping everyone focused on what the end goal is so that they'll work and go forward, very important to a project like this.
The other part of it is when it comes to the business best practices our vendor partners have absolutely been critical in moving that forward because they've brought skill sets in that our own employees and our own agency haven't had so leveraging the private sector and using those business practices have been one of the keys.
Mr. Lawrence: There's a lot of interest in government and technology so I'm curious, Steve. What advice would you give a person interested in doing technical work with the federal government?
Mr. Sanders: Well, there's a couple of things. Certainly working in the public sector, you do have a direct experience of making a difference for people in the United States and having that motivation to keep going and to improve things for the citizenry really is what it's about. That's one thing. So that motivation is there.
The other thing I would say is that communication, leadership, having an understanding of change management is important. I actually brought one of my most favorite books with me today, one that's called Paradigms, the Business of Discovering the Future. It's a reference that I've used many times throughout the MIDAS project to keep me focused on how business approaches keeping their eye on the future state that they want to cause. There is this transition that occurs from the way business was done to the way business needs to be done in the future and it is a very unique skill set to manage in between those organizational cultures, really, because one of the things we're finding with this web-based enablement to our business processes is that people have to approach things from a whole different point of view. Just like when Amazon.com and e-bay came online folks didn't think anyone would sell books over the web and now millions and millions of books and business transactions are being done as people get more and more comfortable with it so knowing about change, knowing about paradigms, knowing about how to lead people through those transitions, being willing to look at new technologies, doing a little bit of research on your own, all those things contribute to the skill set that technical professionals now in the federal government are needing to bring.
Mr. Lawrence: That will have to be our last question. Thanks you, Steve for joining us this morning.
Mr. Sanders: You're welcome.
Mr. Lawrence: This has been The Business of Government Hour featuring a conversation with Jim Little, Administrator, and Steve Sanders, Associate Director, Information Technology Services Division, both of the Farm Service Administration. Be sure to visit us on the web at businesssofgovernment.org. There you can learn more about our programs and research and get a transcript of today's conversation. Once again, that's businesssofgovernment.org. This is Paul Lawrence. Thank you for listening.