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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.

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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.

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 – Partially Addressed
In November 2023, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) mission noted that it had developed a framework (Called the Navigable IT Manufacturing Process Framework Model) and provided supporting documentation. The model demonstrates how the software development lifecycle processes, Agile development methodologies, and governance framework are aligned. Officials previously demonstrated how the framework was applied through a tailoring process to one program. However, officials noted that they did not produce a formal document, such as a memo, incorporating the process into the agency's lifecycle development process. We will continue to monitor FPAC's process in this area.
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
In August 2023, agency officials noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Workforce Steering Committee had updated the technical competencies for its IT workforce. Subsequently the FPAC Human Resources group used the updated competencies to develop a competency assessment process. However, agency officials stated that that the assessment process was put on hold. FPAC officials noted that in August 2023 they began the process of restarting the competency assessments. We will continue to review FPAC's progress in this area.
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
In August 2023, agency officials noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Workforce Steering Committee had updated the technical competencies for its IT workforce. Subsequently the FPAC Human Resources group used the updated competencies to develop a competency assessment process. However, agency officials stated that that the assessment process was put on hold. FPAC officials noted that in August 2023 they began the process of restarting the competency assessments. We will continue to review FPAC's progress in this area.
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
In August 2023, agency officials noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Workforce Steering Committee had updated the technical competencies for its IT workforce. Subsequently the FPAC Human Resources group used the updated competencies to develop a competency assessment process. However, agency officials stated that that the assessment process was put on hold. FPAC officials noted that in August 2023 they began the process of restarting the competency assessments. We will continue to review FPAC's progress in this area.
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
In August 2023, agency officials noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Workforce Steering Committee had updated the technical competencies for its IT workforce. Subsequently the FPAC Human Resources group used the updated competencies to develop a competency assessment process. However, agency officials stated that that the assessment process was put on hold. FPAC officials noted that in August 2023 they began the process of restarting the competency assessments. We will continue to review FPAC's progress in this area.
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
In August 2023, agency officials noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Workforce Steering Committee had updated the technical competencies for its IT workforce. Subsequently the FPAC Human Resources group used the updated competencies to develop a competency assessment process. However, agency officials stated that that the assessment process was put on hold. FPAC officials noted that in August 2023 they began the process of restarting the competency assessments. We will continue to review FPAC's progress in this area.
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
In August 2023, agency officials noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Workforce Steering Committee had updated the technical competencies for its IT workforce. Subsequently the FPAC Human Resources group used the updated competencies to develop a competency assessment process. However, agency officials stated that that the assessment process was put on hold. FPAC officials noted that in August 2023 they began the process of restarting the competency assessments. We will continue to review FPAC's progress in this area.
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
In August 2023, agency officials noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Workforce Steering Committee had updated the technical competencies for its IT workforce. Subsequently the FPAC Human Resources group used the updated competencies to develop a competency assessment process. However, agency officials stated that that the assessment process was put on hold. FPAC officials noted that in August 2023 they began the process of restarting the competency assessments. We will continue to review FPAC's progress in this area.
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
In August 2023, agency officials noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Workforce Steering Committee had updated the technical competencies for its IT workforce. Subsequently the FPAC Human Resources group used the updated competencies to develop a competency assessment process. However, agency officials stated that that the assessment process was put on hold. FPAC officials noted that in August 2023 they began the process of restarting the competency assessments. We will continue to review FPAC's progress in this area.
Department of Agriculture
Priority Rec.
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 November 2023, the department stated that FPAC's mission area IT strategic plan was still in the review and approval process. Agency officials did not provide an estimated completion date. We will continue to monitor the status of this recommendation.
Department of Agriculture
Priority Rec.
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
In August 2023, agency officials noted that they were developing metrics dependent on the FPAC IT strategic plan. However, as of November 2023, the IT strategic plan was still in the review approval process. We will continue to monitor the status of 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 baselines and measures for customer service performance, and targets and goals associated with the progress. (Recommendation 14)
Open
In August 2023, USDA officials stated that as of December 2021, the FPAC Customer Service division had gathered feedback, and completed analysis of the 2020 Producer Satisfaction Survey. They further stated that they had developed performance indicators associated with improving customer experience feedback and customer experience support. Additionally, the officials stated that they had developed several indicators associated with these improvements. However, the agency has yet to provide us with documentation for the above activities. We will continue to monitor the status of 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
In August 2023, agency officials stated that the FPAC Customer Service division had gathered feedback and completed analysis of the 2020 Producer Satisfaction Survey by December 2021. They also stated that they had developed plans for addressing customer service feedback. However, the agency has yet to provide us with the documentation. We will continue to monitor the status of this recommendation.

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FarmingHuman capital managementInformation technologyIT investmentsTechnology modernization programsWorkforce planningCustomer serviceRanchersBest practicesPolicies and procedures