Information Technology:

Agriculture Needs to Strengthen Management Practices for Stabilizing and Modernizing Its Farm Program Delivery Systems

GAO-08-657: Published: May 16, 2008. Publicly Released: May 16, 2008.

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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.

USDA's near-term plan to stabilize the agency's farm program delivery systems focused on technical issues such as expanding telecommunication capacity and acquiring a means for disaster backup and recovery; however, it did not address key managerial issues such as the department's inconsistent tracking of users' reported problems with the system. Additionally, USDA did not have system performance goals or dedicated staff to analyze and use system performance data, and the stabilization plan did not address these issues. Moreover, the plan did not clearly define the roles and responsibilities for the organizations involved in the stabilization effort in order to ensure proper accountability. While department officials indicated that they planned to address system performance management issues in a future version of the stabilization plan, they did not yet have plans to enable USDA to consistently track users' reported problems and to clarify roles and responsibilities. As a result, USDA could not be assured that its stabilization efforts would enable the department to reliably deliver farm benefit programs to its customers. Regarding USDA's proposed long-term investment known as MIDAS--Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems--officials had plans under way to obtain the necessary information for assessing the capability of products to integrate existing systems. However, business requirements were not used as a basis for the department's life-cycle cost estimate of $455 million for the modernization initiative. Instead, the estimate was based primarily on the cost estimate for another unrelated USDA IT investment. Similarly, the department had not adequately assessed its schedule estimate. According to department officials, they committed to accelerating the implementation of MIDAS from 10 years to 2 years in order to more quickly deliver a long-term solution to problems the department is experiencing with its existing program's delivery systems. However, business requirements were not considered when developing this schedule estimate. As a result, it was uncertain whether the department would be able to deliver the modernization initiative within the cost and schedule time frames it had proposed.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: 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.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: 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.

    Recommendation: 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.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

    Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: 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.

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