Former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack, the new U.S. Ag Secretary, is lobbying Congress for $250 million in the economic stimulus package so his agency can upgrade its aged computers.
"It was the first question I asked the transition staff when the president nominated me for this position. I was interested to know how many people actually work at the U.S. Department of Agriculture," Vilsack said. "And I was told that no one knows for sure."
According to Vilsack, U.S.D.A. officials know how many paychecks are issued. But he says the department’s computer system is so outdated they’re not sure how many full- and part-time employees are on the payroll.
"That together with a number of reports from the Inspector General’s office and the (General Accounting Office) concerning the operations and management suggested that what we have here in some aspects and areas is charitably outdated," Vilsack says.
One of Vilsack’s first moves when he became Iowa’s governor in 1999 was to appoint a "chief information officer" and create a new "Information Technology Department" in state government. Vilsack, in his new role as U.S.Ag Secretary, says there are a number of reasons the U.S.D.A. needs new computers.
"First and foremost, it is about improving the service to the people that we serve. We need, at some point in time, to have a web-based system that’s accessible to farmers and ranchers and those who depend upon the programs that U.S.D.A. administers," Vilsack says. "To date, we don’t have that kind of service in place. We ought to — in the 21st century, we ought to."
Much of the computer software used in Farm Service Agency offices debuted in 1985 and computers run so slowly that workers recently were assigned computer time in shifts, with Farm Service Agency employees in the eastern part of the country using their computers in the early half of the work day and those in the western U.S. working on the department’s computers in the last half of the day. Another complicating factor is each of the 29 divisions within the U.S.D.A. operate on different computer systems.
For example, Vilsack tried to send an e-mail to all department employees, but his message had to be reformatted and resent on each system. Vilsack made his comments Monday during his first news conference as U.S. ag secretary.