A view inside USDA’s tech modernization

A long-time career Agriculture Department IT manager gave a detailed, inside look at life in a modernization center of excellence. Career people may be skeptical about the Trump administration, but Scott Finke expressed enthusiasm for and confidence in the IT modernization approach now in place.

Finke is senior tech adviser in the Agricultural Research Service and spoke at the GITEC 2018 summit, which concluded Tuesday. I was glad to hear someone explain how it all works in reality.

The interplay between the President’s Management Agenda, the American Technology Council and various executive orders can be hard to sort out. It has many moving parts.

The General Services Administration is officially where the conjured-up centers of excellence originate. Because USDA is the agency on which the CoE’s work is centered, in practice the work takes place at the main USDA building downtown.

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Finke, who is assigned to the CoE, said GSA detailees arrived in January. Contractors arrived this month to help map out a technology and acquisition strategy for modernization.

Finke said the relationship between USDA and GSA is that of co-leaders. The group hopes what they learn in redoing some of USDA’s systems will be turned into templates which other agencies can adapt to their own systems update plans.

Now that made more sense.

The exact nature of what USDA delivers with its modernized systems is largely governed by the department reorganization penned by Secretary Sonny Perdue. For instance, Perdue has combined three agencies that directly touch the nation’s 2 million farmers and wants them to deliver better service: the Farm Service Agency, the Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

In that sense, the White House’s orders on finding efficiencies tie into IT modernization.

As an aside, USDA designates as a “farm” an agricultural entity generating at least $1,000 in annual revenue. So conceivably, if you grow enough organic, gluten-free, low-fat tomatoes on the roof of your NoMa apartment building, you could qualify as a farm.

Finke said his CoE concentrates on cloud computing adoption and infrastructure modernization. He added that USDA CIO Gary Washington has detailed IT talent from other areas of the department to the CoE.

Infrastructure optimization entails more than data center closure and consolidation — an effort which Finke pointed out has been a push since the Clinton administration. USDA will continue to collapse data centers, he said, but also while rationalizing applications and making network security enhancements that “pave the way for rapid on-ramps to the cloud.” The meaning: IT modernization and improved cybersecurity are intertwined by design.

For the Farm Service Agency, the Risk Management Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, the CoE also has people working on better customer experience, metrics for services delivery, and improving contact centers, Finke said. In fact, it has hired USDA’s first customer service coordinator.

Finke emphasized the importance of including diverse viewpoints and job functions in these modernizing projects. He pointed out USDA and its particular components are not the first place to modernize, nor are the current efforts the only ones these agencies themselves have ever done.

“We’re trying to maintain a co-leadership role with the mission areas,” Finke said. “Some of them tell us how they solved A, B or C.” He also praised Washington for his personal interest in the CoE. “Gary Washington checks in every day,” Finke said.

Modernization fundamentally requires the right people. “Tools and processes don’t run themselves. So a key effort in modernizing is ensuring success of the people carrying it out,” Finke said.