WASHINGTON, Sept. 23, 2015 – One year into his job as Farm Service Agency (FSA) administrator, Val Dolcini has made great strides in addressing agency goals, but knows more work lies ahead - especially in areas like information technology (IT).
Making sure that FSA’s aging IT infrastructure operates smoothly on a daily basis is an “enormous task,” Dolcini told Agri-Pulse in an exclusive interview, particularly for the field-based agency with 2,124 offices operating in rural communities where accessing high-speed Internet can sometimes be a real challenge.
Just a couple of months before Dolcini – who previously worked as acting FSA director and as state FSA director in California – the General Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report about the department’s handling of the MIDAS (Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems) program. USDA invested about $423 million on MIDAS over from 2004-2014, before development was halted.
“The Farm Service Agency 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.
But now, Dolcini says he’s “happy to report” that FSA is working with a better IT system today than it was a year ago.
“We’ve focused a lot of executive attention on this issue. I’ve hired a new Chief Information Officer (CIO). He’s shaken up the CIO organization quite a bit by making key hires and revamping the organizational structure.”
Dolcini says he’s also reached out to the CIO at the department level to make sure they are “serving us as best they can and that we make sure we are getting what we pay for. That’s been a real improvement as well.
“I’ve learned a lot of important lessons with the MIDAS project,” Dolcini adds. “The biggest one is that we need to be thoughtful, strategic and incremental when it comes to investing in significant IT projects.” He’s working on another nationwide rollout for next year: the Acreage Crop Reporting Streamlining Initiative (ACRSI) that’s designed to give farmers and ranchers just one stop for reporting acreage numbers for both FSA and the Risk Management Agency (RMA).
The ACRSI project started as a pilot in 30 Iowa and Illinois counties and is opening up slowly to more areas of the country.
“If we take the approach that we need to be careful with our IT, provide the right resources in the field and in headquarters and have a good network of change agents and super users, then we will be able to claim more successes around our IT portfolio,” Dolcini says.
At the same time the agency is working on new projects, they’ve been heavily invested in farm bill implementation.
“We rolled out 30 different new software releases associated with the farm bill, signed up millions of farmers in ARC and PLC program and issued nearly 700,000 payments under LFP (Livestock Forage Program), all of which require an IT system that works well every day.
“So even though we’ve accomplished enormous things under our IT system, I’m certainly not going to declare victory and say it’s perfect now and we can move on because it will always require our attention.
In addition to IT, Dolcini says he’s been spending a great deal of time on personnel issues, “digging into some of the employee issues that had have not been addressed as directly by my predecessors as I probably have. I’ve spent a lot of time on employee engagement, for example, working to ensure that our employees feel honored, valued, respected.” He’s also reinstituted cash awards for a jobs well done.
“I thought it was a good way to recognize the good work that rolling out a farm bill entails. That’s been a team effort from Maine to the Pacific Basin for the last 18 months.”
Employee feedback surveys indicated that people didn’t feel like Washington was providing the tools they needed, Dolcini said, so he also worked to provide needed resources, lift the hiring freeze that had been in place for the last couple of years and allocate temporary employees - provided by the 2014 farm bill - where necessary.
But just because he’s been working hard to address issues in USDA’s South Building where his office is located on the third floor, you might not find him behind his desk very often. In the first year, he’s traveled to 32 states, over 100 county offices and countless numbers of farms and ranches “because it’s really important to visit with customers and county offices.” With a little over 15 months left for the Obama administration, he’s got another 18 states to go.
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