Farm Program Modernization:

Farm Service Agency Needs to Demonstrate the Capacity to Manage IT Initiatives

GAO-15-506: Published: Jun 18, 2015. Publicly Released: Jun 18, 2015.

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What GAO Found

The key factors that led to the decision to halt the Modernize and Innovate the Delivery of Agricultural Systems (MIDAS) program were poor program performance and uncertainty regarding future plans. 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. 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. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and FSA did not approve three different baseline proposals by the time the program was halted. By March 2015, MIDAS had overrun its baseline cost estimate by $93 million.

FSA has delivered about 20 percent of the functionality that was originally planned for MIDAS. FSA envisioned MIDAS as a single platform to host data, tools, and applications for administering farm program benefits that would be integrated with USDA financial, geospatial, and data warehouse systems. However, FSA delivered a platform that hosts data for administering farm program benefits and is integrated with USDA's geospatial system; it does not host tools and applications for administering benefits, and is not integrated with USDA's financial system or data warehouse.

Figure: Comparison of Functions Planned and Delivered

Figure: Comparison of Functions Planned and Delivered

FSA did not have key program management disciplines in place for MIDAS, and 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 implemented 2, partially implemented 7 practices, and did not implement 9 others. 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 2 years. Moving forward, FSA has begun planning how it will continue to automate, integrate, and modernize its farm program services through additional system development initiatives. However, 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. 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 and contribute little to mission-related outcomes.

Why GAO Did This Study

Since 2004, FSA has spent about $423 million to modernize IT systems through a program known as MIDAS. FSA planned for this program to replace aging hardware and software applications and to provide a single platform to manage all of the agency's farm programs. However, the agency experienced significant challenges in managing this program. In July 2014, the Secretary of Agriculture decided to halt MIDAS after the completion of a second software release.

GAO was asked to review the MIDAS program. This report (1) describes what led to the decision to halt further MIDAS development, (2) compares the functionality that MIDAS has implemented to its original plans, and (3) evaluates the adequacy of key program management disciplines in place for MIDAS and successor programs.

To do so, GAO analyzed agency policies and guidance; evaluated program management plans and related artifacts, program and contractor status reports, program milestone artifacts, and lessons learned; obtained a live demonstration of MIDAS; and interviewed agency and contractor officials.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making five recommendations to FSA, including establishing and implementing a plan for adopting recognized best practices. GAO received written comments from the FSA administrator. While the agency did not explicitly agree or disagree with the recommendations, it cited steps it has taken or plans to take to implement best practices.

For more information, contact David Powner at (202) 512-9286 or pownerd@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FSA developed a strategic IT roadmap that is to assist the agency's business and IT leadership in prioritizing technology investments. In addition, FSA has taken key steps to guide the agency in adopting recognized best practices and following agency policy, including realigning its IT investment portfolio; establishing change management policies and procedures; chartering change control boards to oversee groups of investments; and establishing a repository with references to common IT policies, procedures, templates, and other support materials. By taking these steps, FSA should be better positioned to adopt recognized best practices in technology management and in following agency policies.

    Recommendation: In order to institutionalize sound IT management practices and build FSA's IT management capacity while improving service to the Nation's farmers and ranchers, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the FSA Administrator to establish and implement an improvement plan to guide the agency in adopting recognized best practices and following agency policy.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FSA established key change and release management policies and procedures for system development that address various requirements management disciplines such as prioritization, baselines, gap analyses, and traceability. In addition, FSA re-chartered its IT investment review board and established change control boards to improve its adherence to defined requirements management processes. By taking these steps, FSA should be better positioned to ensure that its IT programs implement key requirements development and management practices, meet stakeholder needs, and contribute to mission related outcomes.

    Recommendation: In order to institutionalize sound IT management practices and build FSA's IT management capacity while improving service to the Nation's farmers and ranchers, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the FSA Administrator to adhere to recognized best practices and agency policy in developing and managing system requirements before proceeding with any further system development to deliver previously envisioned MIDAS functionality. Specifically, the Administrator should ensure that requirements are complete, unambiguous, and prioritized; commitment to requirements is obtained through a formal requirements baseline; differences (or gaps) between the requirements and capabilities of the intended solution (including commercial off-the-shelf solutions) are analyzed; strategies to address any gaps are developed; and requirements are traced forward and backward among development products.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FSA has taken several key steps toward improving its capacity to plan and monitor IT projects. For example, the agency has developed training around a revised integrated baseline review process that addresses cost and schedule estimation, among other things. In addition, several IT staff have taken formal project management training. Also, FSA's change and release management policies and procedures have requirements for ensuring that updates to project plans are made through change control processes. Finally, FSA has developed guidance for utilizing earned value management in monitoring the progress of IT projects, including the work of contractors, against defined plans. By taking these steps, FSA has reduced the risk that its future projects experience cost and schedule overruns and achieve less than expected outcomes.

    Recommendation: In order to institutionalize sound IT management practices and build FSA's IT management capacity while improving service to the Nation's farmers and ranchers, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the FSA Administrator to adhere to recognized best practices and agency policy in planning and monitoring projects. Specifically, the Administrator should ensure that project plans include predefined expectations for cost, schedule, and deliverables before proceeding with any further system development; updates to the project plan are made through change control processes; and progress against the project plan, including work performed by contractors, is monitored.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FSA has improved its ability to adhere to system testing practices. Specifically, the agency has established a system testing policy, strategy, and template that identify how it intends to conduct testing for individual system components and the integration of system components. By taking these steps to institutionalize sound system testing practices, FSA has reduced its risk of delivering systems that have performance issues and do not fully meet users' expectations.

    Recommendation: In order to institutionalize sound IT management practices and build FSA's IT management capacity while improving service to the Nation's farmers and ranchers, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the FSA Administrator to adhere to recognized best practices and agency policy in system testing. Specifically, the Administrator should establish well-defined test plans before proceeding with any further system development, and ensure that testing of (a) individual system components, (b) the integration of system components, and (c) the end-to-end system are conducted.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Department of Agriculture and FSA have taken key steps towards institutionalizing sound management practices and building management capacity to improve its adherence to recognized best practices and executive-level IT governance. Since our report was issued, FSA established new policies and procedures that emphasize key practices in requirements management, project management, and system testing. FSA also obtained an independent assessment of the MIDAS technical solution, which could help inform future decisions to invest in modernization technologies. In addition, the department has implemented broader changes intended to enhance IT management and governance across FSA and related agencies. Specifically, the Secretary created a new Under Secretary for Farm Production and Conservation (FPAC) and realigned the FSA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Risk Management Agency-including these agencies' IT management functions-to report to this Under Secretary. In doing so, the department created an IT investment review board chaired by the FPAC Under Secretary that is to, among other things, make IT portfolio decisions regarding resource allocations and budgets for mission area investments; conduct regular oversight of IT investments and take action when they do not meet projected costs, schedules, and benefits; and provide direction on IT strategic plans and portfolio management. These changes were an important step towards ensuring that any future proposed solutions that are to provide former MIDAS requirements are viewed from a broader enterprise perspective and have the appropriate level of visibility and oversight from senior executives in the department. By taking these steps, the department and FSA have improved the capacity to effectively manage IT acquisitions and adhere to sound IT practices, which should reduce the risk of failure in future IT initiatives.

    Recommendation: In order to institutionalize sound IT management practices and build FSA's IT management capacity while improving service to the Nation's farmers and ranchers, the Secretary of Agriculture should direct the FSA Administrator to adhere to recognized best practices and agency policy in executive-level IT governance before proceeding with any further system development. Specifically, an executive-level governance board should (1) review and approve a comprehensive business case that includes a life cycle cost estimate, a cost-benefit analysis, and an analysis of alternatives for proposed solutions that are to provide former MIDAS requirements prior to their implementation; (2) ensure that any programs that are to accommodate former MIDAS requirements are fully implementing the IT program management disciplines and practices identified in this report; (3) conduct a post-implementation review and document lessons learned for the MIDAS investment; and (4) reassess the viability of the MIDAS technical solution before investing in further modernization technologies.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

 

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