Monday, April 30, 2007

J...S.. and Federal Employee Fraud

I was going to put her name in the post, but then decided I didn't want to link her, even inadvertently, with employee fraud. J... was a longtime employee of USDA who retired before I did (although she was younger than I, her husband was older and was retiring) to play golf in Florida with her husband. She was very good. I suspect, though, she got "senioritis" on her last days, in other words she really didn't give a f... about personnel's rules and regulations. They had a long checkout list of various things that had to be done before leaving, some of which amounted to updating various databases.

To make a long story short, I don't think J...S... hit all the bases on her way out. Anyway, if you go to the USDA's website to find her, you can, because she's still in the employee telephone directory.

How does that link to fraud? Last week when I was out of action, there was some publicity given to the federal employees who were getting Metro farecards from the government (to divert them from the roads to public transit) and selling them. In at least one case, a former employee kept receiving the cards for 5-6 years after leaving--i.e., the database wasn't updated.

Getting Databases to Talk

Just talking to Dell, which has the same problems in getting systems coordinated as the Federal government. Their sales department and the outlet departments have separate databases. And this is the company that led us into the 21st century!

Slow Blogging--PC Problem

Yes, again. :-(

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Politics Works--Kansas Offices Aren't Closed

Apparently USDA does respond to pressure from the field and Congress--this article
describes the changes made in the office closure plan for Kansas.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Parry O'Brien, R.I.P.

The Times obits reports the death of another barrier breaker. Like the 4 minute mile, the 60 foot shot put and the 16 (I think) foot pole vault were athletic barriers when I was growing up. O'Brien broke the second right after Bannister broke the first, proving that the "barriers" had no more reality than the sound barrier (which Chuck Yeager had broken earlier).

Now, I guess, rather than seeing "barriers" we see statistical distributions. Such thinking doesn't allow for or create individual heroes to the extent that Bannister and O'Brien were. I'm sure it's more realistic, but I'll be an old fogey and mourn the loss of heroism for a minute.

(There, now I'm over it.)

About Time--Ronald Reagan Gets Modernized

I received a compliment, I guess, for being fair to GW, so I've got to be snarky to Reagan. This Post bit buries the news that Ronald Reagan is being modernized. One would think it would be the lead. Just another proof that the Post is liberal. (It's the carrier.)

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Pollan's Back, and Can't Count

Michael Pollan resumes his role of causing my blood pressure to go up (I've got to look at why I get so much more emotional about him than many other people who write more poorly and say more stupid things).

This time, he can't count:
"Like most processed foods, the Twinkie is basically a clever arrangement of carbohydrates and fats teased out of corn, soybeans and wheat — three of the five commodity crops that the farm bill supports, to the tune of some $25 billion a year. (Rice and cotton are the others.)"
Pollan has, I'm sure, mentally conflated "corn" and "feed grains" and "upland cotton" and "extra long staple cotton" to get his "five crops". Actually, the farm bill affects barley, grain sorghum, and oats as well as the two cottons.

Oh, one other thing. I'm talking about the "farm bill" of 1981, not the 2002 version. Currently direct and counter-cyclical payments are also made for canola, crambe, flax, mustard, rapeseed, safflower, sesame and sunflower, including oil and non-oil varieties and peanuts. See this fact sheet.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Brits and GIS

Apparently the British tried to be ahead of us in using GIS and IT to compute and issue payments. This article details some of the problems, including trying to implement a new program while downsizing the agency (sound familiar?). Specifically:

"Investigations by the National Audit Office and the House of Commons rural affairs committee found that implementation was rushed, partly for political reasons, and reforms were introduced at the same time as a £130m "change programme" involving cutting the Rural Payment Agency's staff numbers by half.

The agency's confidence was based on its appointment of a high-profile director of information systems on a salary of £225,000, and the contracting of a leading IT services firm, Accenture, to supply the claim processing system.

Sheer volume

Accenture executives told subsequent investigations that the IT worked as specified. But the system could not cope with the volume of inquiries from farmers - at least 10 times greater than expected. One reason was that, unlike in countries such as Germany, there was no minimum payout. The agency had to handle 14,000 claims for less than €100 each.

However the biggest reason for the overwhelming traffic was to do with mapping. The system set the minimum size of a parcel of land as 0.1 hectare, three times smaller than that permitted by the European Union. In all, there were 1.7m parcels of land on more than 75,000 farms. Calculating payments on these parcels required a sophisticated mapping system, involving digitised satellite images and aerial photography aligned up with conventional mapping data. The geographical data came from private sources, including the specialist firm Infoterra, as well as the state-owned Ordnance Survey."

USDA Releases SSN

This piece in the Times and this in the Post discuss this site which "revealed" SSN's. As I understand, some USDA agency (probably Farmers Home Administration, now mostly part of Farm Service Agency) included SSN in the loan number (makes some sense because FmHA loans were to the person, covering all operations). When the data was passed to Census for its database (which subsequently passed the data to the SSN part of the number wasn't edited. In a way, it's a tempest in a teapot--it was discovered when a farmer got bored and googled her farm's name. When the loan data came up, of course she recognized her SSN. IMO it's unlikely a casual hacker would have deduced that 9 of the 15 digits represented the SSN (presumably the others are state and county code and check digit, but maybe not.

Whatever--it's another argument for doing away with SSN's.

Friday, April 20, 2007

The Dean Isn't a Faceless Bureaucrat

I'm doing a Google Alert for "faceless bureaucrat" and ran across this (context, the Dean's wife brought their two young children to the Dean's workplace):
"For a week or two after a visit, I notice that the folks who saw me with them talk to me differently. It's like they suddenly stop seeing The Dean and start seeing an actual person. It fades quickly, and I go back to faceless-bureaucrat status, but for a brief window there's almost something like rapport."
For something which seems related to me, see John Tierney on prejudice in dating situations.

Farm Service Agency Morale Declines

The Post reports on surveys of federal agencies under the title "Best Places to Work...". Technically it's an "index score [which] measures the performance of agencies and agency subcomponents related to employee satisfaction and engagement." My old home FSA is at position 149 among 200+ subcomponent organizations, index of 59.4 down 6.5 points from 2005.

It's still a better place to work than USDA Administration, which is less than 50. It looks as if those components with broad and vague missions, like administration, tend to score lower than those with more defined missions. However, Immigration and FEMA are both low.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

More on Closing FSA Offices

Secretary of Ag Johanns and Admin. Lasseter (of Farm Service Agency) are pushing to close FSA offices before they have to implement a new farm bill:
But both Johanns and Lasseter said they are convinced those closures would ultimately result in better service for farmers and ranchers. Johanns suggested today's tech-savvy farmers are nearly as used to doing business via phone, fax and Internet as they are face-to-face.

"For them, doing stuff on the computer is as natural as the work that they would do during the day on their crops," Johanns asserted. "I just think we have to move this whole system forward, and it really is time."
They're right--if offices are to be closed, they need to get it done in 2007. But I wonder whether they've talked to the administrative people. Once you have a plan to close offices, and approval to do so, it still will take some time. I haven't seen any reference to closing National Resource Conservation service offices or Rural Development. I think FSA has had more offices than NRSC, so probably many of the closures are at sites where FSA is the only one there. But if that's not always the case, trying to get two or three agencies to agree on a move and coordinating the logistics is a hassle.

Perhaps in some of the moves, the receiving site already has office space vacant, so people can move in. Or, perhaps, there won't be any people and equipment to move--the people will have retired or resigned instead of moving.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Cash Lease/Share Lease

From the Farm News:
"An unprecedented raise in corn prices last fall brought with it gross revenue increases for Iowa farmers that in many cases were double from the year before. For landowners who cash rent their land, revenues were unchanged.

‘‘We have had a lot of calls from landowners and farmers, especially when they see prices this high for corn,’’ said William Edwards, Iowa State University Extension economist. ‘‘They want to know how they can make the cash rent scenario more equitable on both sides.’’"
The article goes on to point out that Farm Service Agency has concerns whenever a lease is changed, because it can impact eligibility for payments. A larger point is that any dramatic change in economic conditions causes people to try to adjust, which can then undermine the assumptions upon which a given piece of legislation was written.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


I'm back from my trip and catching up. (Now if I can only remember the great ideas I had while away.)

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Who Measures the Measurers?

Received an e-mail on NASCOE's support of Sen. Thune's S.944, which basically says: USDA can't close any field offices until it reviews the operations at the headquarters offices and implement changes there.

The Farm Service Agency and its predecessor have long had a system for measuring the work done in each office (mostly in terms of numbers of forms pushed) in order to allocate dollars and staff among the States and counties. (My impression, for what's it's worth, is that the system worked relatively well. This may be a slur on the old Soil Conservation service but I believe they used to lack such a system, perhaps partially because some of their funds come from local soil and water conservation districts and part from the Feds.) But it's never had a true system for measuring work at the national level. So there's always a tension: an operative in the local county office sees the instructions and systems coming into the office that were created by some faceless bureaucrats in DC. If they're defective the operative is caught between an upset farmer and obedience to instructions. Comes a proposed reduction in staffing and offices and there's the entirely reasonable suspicion that the field comes out on the short end of the stick.

It all goes back to the Bible: it's so much easier to measure the beam in the other's eye than the mote in yours (or is it vice versa).

Someday I may write about the Government Performance Results Act of 1993 but today I close down blogging for the rest of the week. I'll be back Sunday or Monday.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Vue-Graphs, Powerpoint, and Progress

When I was in the Army, I took a week of "charm school" (or maybe just 3 days) on how to be an instructor. One of their things was transparencies, sometimes known as Vue-graphs. I think IBM was well known for using them, along with other graphic aids. Move the clock forward about 30 years and Powerpoint became the big deal. But move another 15-20 years and skepticism builds.
Margaret Soltan at University Diaries reports the possible death of the Powerpoint presentation. But even better is a link in the comments, showing Abraham Lincoln in modern dress.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Give George His Due

George W. has many faults, but we liberals need to recognize his occasional virtues. See this post on the comparison of Gore and Bush, house-wise.

More Opposition to Closing Offices

Observers of the political scene tend to blame interest groups for perpetuating government programs. The fuss over closing Farm Service Agency offices doesn't change that, but it can remind us that "interest groups" aren't just K-street lawyers and ex-pols, they are neighbors and fellow citizens. A proposal to close one Nebraska office roused 250 people to a meeting--here.

Interview--Marjorie Harshaw Robie

The Belfast Telegraph prints its interview with my cousin on her book.

One piece of wisdom:

"You understand very quickly there were lots of voices never heard or long since forgotten. England wasn't a single monolithic point of view any more than the Presbyterians were."

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Is E-Government Simpler?

Just had an experience which shows either: (1) my impatience as I get older, or (2) the bureaucratic limits of e-government.

Background: Ken Cook links to a report about a change in standards for organic coffee. The blog he cites includes a post asking where the old policy is. Coffee is always interesting to me, almost as much as bureaucracy, so I go off to try to find the change. From the Salon article I go to the AMS publication (required under FOIA) of the appeal decisions under the national organic program during the most recent period. It contains a (poor) Code of Federal regulations cite (poor in that it omits the "7 CFR " portion) of §205 .403(a)(1). There's no indication of a change.

Now, in researching further, I come across the "E-Regulation" site,,
which was developed as part of Bush's e-government initiative. But this is the point where bureaucracy comes in: the regulations site is only for the documents published in the Federal Register; the site for the Code of Federal Regulations is the Government Printing Office's CFR access site. I pity the poor civilian who has to follow this.

It's worthy of note that the GPO is not an executive branch agency under the President. They've had initiatives to make government documents available to the public (like depositing copies in "federal depositary libraries") for a long time. Their Access program was around in the 1990's. (What follows is speculation.) Naturally they were in no mode to cooperate with Bush's people, who were johnny-come-latelies. That's if the Bush people even thought of asking GPO to cooperate--they may not have had the knowledge. The Bush people were focused on improving the process of developing regulations and managing the floods of public comments that they very occasionally attract. They were looking at regulations as writers, not as readers.

The result is that there's two overlapping databases--the Federal Register portion of GPO and the site, and no integration between code and changes.

(What about AMS's change--I can't tell, it looks as if their regulations have always required 100 percent inspection, so the "change" may have been a change in implementation, not policy.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

John Phipps Again

John's on a good roll at his blog. I'm not sure I agree with his ending on this one. In effect, he compares farmers to beggars for taxpayer dollars, dependent on compassion. He has a point--he's commenting on a Daniel Gilbert column about a beggar who seemed disabled, but then was seen walking. People don't like mixed messages. If farmers are going to get taxpayer money, they'd damn well better be both grateful and needy. That's a reason for the rhetoric about corporate farmers, agribusiness, payments going to the rich, etc.

It's funny, I started writing this post saying I disagreed with the ending, but now I've almost changed my mind. It's terrible to get old and not be consistent.

Our Wimpy Soldiers?

The NY Times had an article on a brigade commander's reaction to casualties. He and the chaplain follow up on every death. I was struck by this:
Colonel Sutherland, 45, broke down after the 20th brigade soldier was killed earlier this year. “I went into a deep sorrow,” he said. “I was wallowing about in self-pity, worrying about the dead, worrying about those who have no worries. I was overwhelmed. At no point did I doubt our mission, but I couldn’t sleep that night.”
My early attraction to history was military--Bruce Catton's books on the Civil War were favorites. I compare this colonel to the reactions of military leaders of the past, like Grant in the absolutely brutal slogging in Northern Virginia. His colonels could lose 20 men in one day, one hour of fighting. It would be easy to mock Sutherland and the modern military, but, as an illustrious President used to say, it would be wrong. War has changed, just as people have changed.

I was waiting in the bank today to talk to an account manager, reading a magazine on Virginia business. One article was on investments in condos near college campuses, bought by parents so they can visit students and by alumni so they can really enjoy the football games. One set of parents had visited their freshman child eight times, by January! Life today seems so much more valuable, we've got so much more invested in each life, and it makes sense that the colonels reflect this as well.

But what my mind says doesn't keep me from thinking: "in my day, people weren't wimps and we walked to school uphill both ways".

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Hearing Past the Rage

Dahlia Lithwick has an interesting piece in Slate on looking past knee-jerk reactions to hear what the other person is actually saying.