Helpdesk award continues USDA’s trek toward more shared services

Cheryl Cook, USDA's CIO, said the Forest Service awarded a contract to AbilityOne for tier one helpdesk services. This is one of several enterprisewide services...

The Agriculture Department sees its future in a certain amount of IT enterprisewide services.

The question is just how much and who runs them.

That’s where Cheryl Cook, USDA’s chief information officer, comes in.

She said shared services likely need to be mandatory, but with some flexibility depending on a number of factors including the office’s location and the organization’s mission needs.

Cook said one area that is ripe for shared services at USDA is around networks — mainly the virtual private variety.

“We have a shared WAN backbone for our network and 15 VPNS that intersect them. I don’t know if we will get to one, but we can get to fewer than 15,” Cook said during a recent panel during ACT-IAC’s Shared Services Forum in Washington. “That’s one of those very basic, it’s got to be mandatory types of things.”

Cook said USDA consolidated WANs about a decade ago, but couldn’t get every component to agree to reduce the number of agency-run VPNs that intersect with that wide-area network.

“What we are finding, especially these days with all the cybersecurity threats out there, to make sure the patching gets done timely, to make sure that network administration and network security is where it needs to be, and oh by the way, it would be cost effective if we could somehow consolidate to a smaller number of networks,” she said. “We’ve had a company engaged to do a long-term study for us on how we might get to a new place with a new contract coming on, the Network 2020 contract, to give us some time to move to a more optimal environment for us.”

USDA tried to consolidate VPNs before, but the push back was too strong and many components had their own IT budgets to spend on their own networks.

Cook said she expects to get the final study from the contractor shortly, and then communicate its findings throughout the agency.

Cook said USDA already decided to consolidate its tier one helpdesk services. In fact, she said the Forest Service awarded a contract in late September with AbilityOne.

“It took us almost two years to get there, but all of the component agency CIOs took part in that process, all of them had a say in which way we were going, and whether they are going day one into the new contract or slowly rolling off wherever they are at, they all literally bought to that being our shared provider for tier one helpdesk services,” she said. “The thing that is really significant about that one is that we are doing it through the Forest Service as the lead agency. We are proving you can in fact streamline and consolidate without the department per se necessarily owning everything. It’s very important to have that sense of self-governance and self-determination because those component level CIOs still bear all of the responsibility to their agency heads that I bear to the secretary.”

Cook said the helpdesk consolidation was one of 379 recommendations that came from Secretary Tom Vilsack in 2011 on how to improve agency operations and save administrative money to reinvest into citizen services.

The network consolidation is another among the 379 recommendations as was the email consolidation effort that probably was USDA’s first major shared service.

Cook said there are several other areas that are she’s looking at for shared services.

“Managed print services is another one of those things were agencies had been buying separate printers, toner cartridges, different service contractors and we’ve tried to consolidate that down to a managed services contract,” she said. “It’s working better in the larger offices in the National Capital Region, and we have fairly large regional offices where it’s working out pretty well too. We may never get to a ranger station in a national forest in northwestern Pennsylvania or something, but where we have the critical mass, it’s working pretty well.”


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