Through CoEs, USDA starts proving what’s possible with IT modernization

Best listening experience is on Chrome, Firefox or Safari. Subscribe to Ask the CIO’s audio interviews on Apple Podcasts or PodcastOne.

The Agriculture Department is moving closer to ending the planning stage and entering the operational stage of the Trump administration’s Centers of Excellence IT modernization initiative.

USDA and the General Services Administration will host a CoE phase 2 planning session on June 27 for contractors to learn about their procurement strategies. The details from phase GSA and USDA awarded four vendors contracts to support phase 1 in March.

Gary Washington, the USDA chief information officer, said his agency as well as GSA, detailees and vendors helping on this transformation effort have to keep one very important fact in mind: This is not about technology.

Gary Washington is the USDA chief information officer.

“At the end of our engagement the ideas that we will have implemented across our department in every mission area will basically change the way the Department of Agriculture does business moving forward. But a lot of this is not really about IT, it’s really a change management effort,” Washington said at the recent ACT-IAC Igniting Innovation awards event in Washington, D.C. “We have to prepare our workforce, which we are starting to have discussions about. In addition to that, we need to be in a position to manage, operate and maintain the new environment.”

An early example of that change management came from the revamped Farmers.gov, which USDA calls an early win of the IT modernization effort.

Darren Ash, the assistant CIO for the Farm Production and Conservation Mission Area at USDA, said serving more than 2 million farmer, ranchers, producers and 22,000 employees in the mission area isn’t about the cloud or modern application development. It’s about whether they can get the information they need when they need it.

Ash said for the Farmers.gov redesign team held a series of meetings and information sessions to better understand the users’ needs to improve services and capabilities.

Advertisement
“The contract that was let to support Farmers.gov, we worked in partnership with the U.S. Digital Service. People want to see how you can do things better and faster, we got it done in three weeks, start to finish to contract award and folks are on board,” Ash said on Ask the CIO. “We just showed the first major deliverable to our political leadership — in early May 1 — and they loved it. It can be done, and I think that’s the mantra when I go out to Kansas City, Missouri, where a good chunk of my staff works. We are showing what’s possible and what can get done.”

Additionally, he surveyed USDA employees about what they see as the technology and capabilities needs. He said previous surveys showed challenges around reliability and availability of systems and applications. But he said the trend showed things were getting better.

Modernization spreads across mission areas

Washington said the initial success with the Farmers.gov portal isn’t going unnoticed across the agency. He said other mission areas are looking to take similar approaches to modernizing the technology and processes.

“In our market and regulatory program areas, APHIS will be automating their whole permitting process. They have very complex permits in APHIS. We are having conversations with the Food Safety and Inspection Service about their import-export certificates and digitizing that, and the loan process at Rural Development is a big one on the slate,” Washington said. “We are pretty good at doing the backend stuff and infrastructure, but what’s exciting is the things the customers and people in the field use and improving their experience.”

In many ways, USDA’s initial modernization efforts is developing the playbook for future CoE efforts.

Joanne Collins-Smee, the deputy commissioner in GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service and director of the Technology Transformation Service, said each CoE metric is different based on the agency’s needs. At USDA, for example, one goal is to reduce the number of data centers to two from 39 over the next two years.

But for the next agency, that goal may be different in terms of specific numbers.

“The five CoEs are very different. The two big heavy lifting infrastructure ones are much more of the six month, 12 month and 18 month planning,” Collins-Smee said. “Other work we are doing with client experience, we already are jumping in. We have a team in Fredericksburg, Virginia, with farmers and this whole idea of system changes. We are starting with user-centered design. We already are able to effect change there.”

Ash added USDA is planning on new releases in September and December for Farmers.gov.

Collins-Smee said the longer-term vision for 2019 and beyond is to support other agencies through these CoE approaches.

“We are looking at if there are other agencies that we could bring on, not to do probably all five, but maybe help them focus on client experience or cloud adoption. As we are evolving this model, the view is it doesn’t have to be all five. It could be one or two or three of the set of five,” she said. “We will be building up the teams also because when we think about USDA we need a singular focus to execute. Our vision would be to have similar tiger teams with specific skills and they would go into the next agency. It’s not like the same team would do USDA and the next agency.”

A key part of this CoE model, Collins-Smee said, is the talent search USDA did to embed into the internal tiger teams.

She said the agency chose eight people to be part of these modernization teams to bring the institutional and mission knowledge.

“One of those people is one of my employees and it’s a two-year commitment,” Ash said. “We put our people to something we believe in.”

Washington said about 29 people applied to be on the CoE teams.

“We made it very clear we wanted the best and the brightest. We have nine mission areas and we wanted a person from each mission area,” Washington said. “Quite frankly, for an IT professional this is a career opportunity to be a part of and lead our future.”