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Digital Government is Changing Land Conservation

In our last post on digital innovation, we set the stage for the future of the public service agency.

We talked about the goals of the digital public agency: the ability to engage with constituents; the ability to simplify operations at all levels; and the ability to change and adapt to new circumstances.

We also talked about the drivers behind all of these goals: the citizens that we serve and the work that we do.

But what do these concepts and objectives look like in the real world? And perhaps, more importantly: what does this look like in the government?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)

The National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) is the second-largest agency within the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Its mission is to conserve land for private farmers and landowners. It works with private landowners to help them with their conservations needs, taking them through nine steps of conservation planning.

However, due to changes in the U.S. Farm Bill and other regulatory mandates a few years ago, the agency went from a $100 million to a $4 billion mission. This expansion revolved around a voluntary program to provide private financial and technical assistance to the many stakeholders involved in the conservation of privately-held land.

The problem is that the NRCS currently has around 500,000 to 750,000 engagements with its customers per year, the majority of which are phone calls or visits to USDA offices. Prior to this expansion, the agency’s field conservationists spent 75 to 85 percent of the time in the field with farmers – understanding their objectives and helping them put a plan together to help them achieve their land objectives. However, as the years have gone on, the agency has found itself entrenched in administrative mandates that have limited the amount of field time available for conservationists – forcing them to remain in the office and having stakeholders come to them. This focus on administrative tasks have limited the effectiveness of NRCS, and has demanded a new approach.

To help better understand the changes currently underway at NRCS, GovLoop spoke to NRCS Chief Technology Officer Christine Calvosa.

“What we want to do is access our landowners in different ways,” said Calvosa. “We’re trying to provide field conservationist with digital solutions that allow them to complete a percentage of steps out in the field, with the farmers and stakeholders, and then maybe just a couple of small things administratively in the office.”

[To learn more about the future of digital government, make sure to reserve a copy of our latest guide, The Future of Digital Public Service, today!]

The Approach: Business Process Reengineering and IT Modernization

The process of transforming the agency’s mission-facing operations had two interconnected components: business process reengineering and IT modernization.

Business Process Reengineering

Roughly five years ago, the business owners at the NRCS underwent a process by which they reexamined all of their citizen-facing processes to figure out where they could find improvements. “They reached out field staff and other folks to understand how they currently conduct business,” said Calvosa. “In order to better streamline processes from a business perspective, they looked at process, workflows and the policies and procedures that were in place.”

It was only after this process was complete could the business groups turn to the IT department and ask for technology solutions that would complement their new approach. “I’m a complete advocate of making sure you have understood the business process and the workflow before providing the IT solution,” said Calvosa. “An IT solution won’t always solve your problem if you can’t streamline a business process.”

The IT solution eventually crafted by Calvosa and her team was called the Conservation Delivery Streamlining Initiative (CDSI), and it contained three components:

  • Client Gateway: The client gateway allows farmers to access the NCRS and request assistance via internet portal.
  • Conservation Desktop: The conservation desktop will allow field conservationists and other internal staff to walk through the nine steps of conservation planning with farmers and stakeholders. Workflows can be triggered from telephone calls, in-person visits, and from requests made through the client gateway.
  • Mobile Planning Tool: The final piece of the puzzle was to enable field conservationists to complete their work – namely the conservation desktop – with them out into the field.

The Result: A More Streamlined, Agile, and Citizen-Centric NRCS

As of this writing, the CDSI is in the final phases of planning and will be implemented in the fall of 2014. But early tests of the system reveal a system that feels almost futuristic in execution.

This is digital innovation in its truest form. It began with a reengineering of business operations so that the agency placed the customer first. The CDSI provided the technological tools to transform the way NRCS delivered services to the public, but the true innovation took place at the organizational level.

To learn more about the USDA's approach, including its IT modernization efforts, make sure to reserve a copy of our latest guide: The Future of Digital Public Service.

You'll also learn about the following case studies:

  • The state of Maine’s innovative [digital] recycling plan
  • The U.S. Department of Education’s case-centric approach to customer service

Reserve yours today!

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