Tuesday, October 11, 2016

The Reports That Time Forgot

Top Producer February 2004

© 2004 John Phipps

There are no stupid questions. There are, however, several clueless people asking questions – who pretty much generate a similar product. One of them would be I.
Sample Clueless Question: Why do crop reports come out on the 10th of the month? It seems like they have been stuck on this time frame for ages. The truth is that they have – ever since Adam first asked Cain how the wheat crop was doing, presumably. In fact, I was told by a senior NASS (National Agricultural Statistics Services) official that reports were required to be out between the 8th and the 12th, but some research showed later that the former date was not binding.
Hence the answer to why crop reports come out on the 10th (approximately) is: Because They Always Have.
Crop reports are time-sensitive material. The sooner the report comes out the more accurate and hence valuable it is. Traders and producers already “fade” crop reports for crucial months based on weather between the 1st and the 10th, for example. So I asked two NASS statisticians if it was possible to process the crop reports faster. The answer, unsurprisingly, was an unequivocal “No”.
Poised on the brink of some vigorous bureaucrat-bashing, I can’t find it in my heart to jump in. First of all, the question is unfair. If your landowner asks if you could pay more cash rent, would you say yes? Any answer other than no is trouble. The reason is equally clear: not changing is better for me. Besides, crop report customers have essentially given up hope.
Brokers that I spoke to were surprised at the idea, even while agreeing that more timely reports would be terrific. The concept of any improvement in the reports seemed startlingly novel.
Regardless, the sincere NASS professionals I spoke with were convinced that their operation was at maximum output. Eerie, isn’t it, that prescient legislators were able to foretell decades ago that a 2003 crop report would take 10 days to produce?
To be fair, I reasoned, maybe the reports are not getting faster, but better – more accurate. Except they haven’t. University of Illinois researchers couldn’t find much evidence on that score
The sadly unavoidable conclusion is that NASS is as good as it can be. More inconceivably, it has always been. Somehow their output has gotten no better after several decades (or worse, to be sure). By definition, therefore, NASS has zero productivity growth. Strangely, the budget has expanded, however. Net effect: same product, higher price.
Measuring productivity in government is a radical idea. Recently the Illinois state auditors announced plans to measure the productivity of university professors. Academia was aghast. For good reason, I suspect.
Come on, improving a government service is not impossible. Consider the FSA. Farmers, profoundly concerned about how fast government funds get squirted into their accounts, call their Congressperson to share these anxieties. Not coincidentally, despite concerns about staffing and budget, the FSA continues to improve productivity.
Mostly I take exception to the attitude that government has some note from Mom excusing them from the march of progress. All over the world information system (IS) managers just as industrious as those at NASS explain to clients that current deadlines and quality are as good as they can be. And every day they are told to make it better and faster or “we’ll find someone who can”. Unsurprisingly, deadlines move up and quality increases.
Perhaps an analysis by a top-tier IS consultant like Bearing Point or IBM would illuminate ways NASS could improve at least their speed. In fact, they might just leave an outsourcing proposal on the desk. NASS is not the only number-cruncher in town. Information security concerns have been solved by the Department of Defense. If our nuclear weapons can be built by contractors, why not a crop report?
An outside review might also point out that the 1st of the month isn’t on the back of the Ten Commandments either. Timing crop reports to match crop development – like an Aug 15th bean report would be a step forward in accuracy.
NASS does an obviously acceptable job. The question is: can somebody else do better? I believe that the individuals I spoke to and their colleagues are diligent professionals. I am nonetheless concerned that the entire agency has lost contact with real world standards of IS – mainly that the output should get better, faster, and deliver more value to the customer.
Of course, it would be helpful if these customers (the grain industry) cared enough to ask clueless questions, too. 

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