GAO cites Farm Service Agency mismanagement in flop of MIDAS program

By Agri-Pulse staff

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WASHINGTON, June 18, 2015 - Poor performance and uncertainty about future plans were the key factors that led to USDA's decision to halt a long-delayed and overbudgeted Information technology program known as MIDAS, the General Accountability Office said today in a report.

From 2004 through last July, when Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack decided to halt MIDAS, USDA's Farm Service Agency spent about $423 million on the program, which was designed to replace aging hardware and software applications and provide a single platform to manage all FSA farm programs, GAO said.  Development was stopped after a second software release.

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“The Farm Service Agency (FSA) experienced significant cost overruns and schedule delays, deferred the majority of the envisioned features, skipped key tests, and deployed software in April 2013 that was slow and inaccurate,” GAO said in the 67-page report. “In addition, FSA struggled to establish a new program baseline as estimates grew from $330 million to $659 million and time frames were delayed from early 2014 to late 2016.”

GAO said USDA and FSA failed to approve three different baselines by the time MIDAS was halted. By March 2015, MIDAS had overrun its baseline cost by $93 million. MIDAS stands for Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems.

GAO found that FSA did not have “key management disciplines” in place for MIDAS, and that the agency lacks the capacity to effectively manage successor programs.

“Of 18 key practices associated with sound IT acquisition and investment management and required by USDA or FSA policy, FSA implement two, partially implemented seven practices, and did not implement nine others,” GAO said. “For example, USDA and FSA did not establish a complete set of requirements, perform key tests before deploying the system, or provide effective oversight as the program floundered for two years.”

While FSA is now planning how it will continue to automate and modernize its farm service programs, GAO said the agency has not yet established plans to improve its management capabilities.

“Until FSA establishes and implements such a plan, the agency will continue to lack the fundamental capacity to manage IT acquisitions,” GAO said. “Further, until FSA addresses shortfalls in key program management disciplines on successor programs to MIDAS, the agency will be at an increased risk of having additional projects that overrun cost and schedule estimates.”

GAO's key recommendation in the report is that FSA establish and implement a plan for adopting recognized best IT practices. In response, FSA cited steps it has already taken to so, GAO said.

The report was prepared at the request of the Republican and Democrat leaders of the Senate and House Agriculture Appropriations subcommittees.

In an e-mailed statement, USDA noted that it is continuing to work through “management and budget challenges” related to MIDAS. It also pointed that that the department's Inspector General, in a report in May, found that “MIDAS has increased functionality in the field and oversight has improved during the past two years.” In addition, the IG concluded that "USDA's decision to cease MIDAS development in July 2014 was appropriate.”

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(This story was updated at 3:45 p.m.)

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