Agriculture CIO says TMF, centers of excellence sped up Farmers.gov upgrades by years

IT modernization has been a growing focus in federal government for years, but President Donald Trump’s signing of the Information Technology Modernization Centers of Excellence Program Act last month put more momentum behind it. It codified the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence into law — an initiative which the Agriculture Department had been using long before.

USDA Chief Information Officer Gary Washington said modernizing IT means better customer experience for employees and stakeholders in the field. He led the agency’s IT modernization efforts through a partnership with the General Services Administration. His team concentrated on modernizing business systems and infrastructure, automating or digitizing services provided to rural communities, forest workers, ranchers and scientists.

He shared his experience during a webinar Jan. 14 about modernization and digital government presented by Nextgov.

“When we started to modernize, obviously people want more modern technology. But it was more focused on how do you make the experience better with farmers being able to view their loans? Or how can you make the experience better when somebody submits a Christmas tree permit, or any other kind of permit that [the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service] may provide, for that matter? Farmers.gov was a cornerstone of their business focus,” he said.

The Technology Transformation Services at GSA has several consultancies to help agencies “figure out this IT modernization puzzle,” as webinar moderator Aaron Boyd said. Harry Lee, TTS assistant commissioner of the Office of Clients and Markets, said any agency taking on IT modernization typically approaches it as a business, asking themselves “What are we trying to solve, here?” This means a listening-first approach.

“We’re organized around about six key dimensions, whether it’s cloud infrastructure, artificial intelligence, data analytics, call center client experiences, customer experiences through different channels, to the constituents,” Lee said. “And our goal is to make sure we can bring subject matter experts to bear, listening first, understanding what the challenges are, and really helping to accelerate the journey that those agencies are [on], and addressing that particular business problem.”

One example was the 18F program, which helped the U.S. Forest Service break up its online permitting application into modules.

Currently there are six COEs but the GSA administrator can add more where the agency thinks it can help facilitate change, Lee said.

At USDA, the existing culture could make it hard to tackle IT modernization. Washington said at first, employees would sometimes develop things with the hope that they were what people wanted from the agency. That’s why he said he started conversations about what problems they aimed to solve, were business processes ready for modernization, and then upon partnering with GSA, educated people that they, not just the CIO office, “have a part to play.” Washington added that when employees began getting the inclusion and involvement they had asked for, they realized how much work and time went into IT modernization.

If not for access to the COEs or TMF money, modernization would have taken many years if it happened at all, Washington said. On the flip side, he said, the fact that USDA got to go first with Farmers.gov, ahead of other agency requests, brings a level of accountability to USDA to deliver what they promise in terms of improving user experience.

Frequently requested modernization projects by agencies tend to be combinations of needs. Lee said it’s hard to have artificial intelligence without data analytics, or customer experience without cloud-based processes. At USDA, Washington said cloud migration off of mainframes is in high demand, as is AI. His goal is to understand how best to apply it.

Asked how an agency can concentrate on IT modernization, even as the topic ebbs and flows in prominence or political attention, Washington said it’s crucial staff do not get caught up in that.

“Although that impacts us, we still have a job to do,” he said.

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