Why USDA’s IT modernization effort is different this time

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For the Agriculture Department, everything about its IT modernization effort is different this time.

Over the course of the last 15 years, USDA has tried to reduce, consolidate and upgrade its networks, its web services and other facets of its technology infrastructure. But agency chief information officers have found only limited success.

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Gary Washington, the chief information officer at the Agriculture Department said he has so much faith in the Centers of Excellence approach to IT modernization that this time has to be different.

“There is an extraordinary amount of support and commitment. The employees see that. The team here at [General Services Administration] sees that. The team here USDA sees that,” Washington said in an interview with Federal News Network. “I think probably in the past we’ve talked a lot about modernization, but I think there is a very strong commitment to modernization. Whether it is the technology itself, the policy or funding, the relationship between GSA and OMB has been phenomenal for USDA. At every level you can actually see there is a team effort to make it successful.”

It’s also more than just a commitment to change. If you look back at what previous USDA CIOs have said, whether it was Jonathan Alboum or Cheryl Cook or Chris Smith, the pledge to move to better technology and services has been a traditional talking point. In fact in 2011, then Secretary Tom Vilsack approved a report detailing 379 recommendations for improving agency operations and saving administrative money to reinvest into citizen services.

And each CIO made some progress. Smith took USDA’s email to the cloud becoming an early adopter in 2010.

Cook consolidated tier one help desk services in 2014.

During his tenure, Alboum developed a cloud strategy and reduced duplicative software by reworking its email archiving contract and consolidating the contract for the agency’s emergency notification system subscription service and saved or avoided spending $9 million.

58 percent of USDA’s IT projects on schedule

Despite all of these efforts, USDA continued to struggle with modernization efforts. The Federal IT Dashboard says only 58 percent of all agency projects are on schedule, while 70 percent are on  budget. The IT Dashboard in 2017 reported USDA is spending about 80 percent of its IT budget on legacy IT and the remaining 20 percent on either development, modernization or enhancement, or provisioned services. Data for 2018 is not yet available.

Washington said USDA, OMB and other agencies know what the challenges are so it’s time to find a solution.

“This is modernization on a massive scale. It’s challenging, it’s hard, but it’s fun and I think, we as a government, will benefit from this,” he said.

While fun may not be the word most CIOs would use for an IT modernization initiative, Washington clearly understands all eyes are on USDA.

That started with the Phase 1 of the Centers of Excellence initiative, which focused on developing an updated view of the current state of USDA, a transition plan to the new technology infrastructure and services and a cost-benefit analysis.

And recently, GSA and USDA recently made contract awards under Phase 2 of the CoE effort that will implement the recommendations made under Phase 1.

USDA picked 12 companies across all five CoEs, including 10 firms to provide cloud adoption and infrastructure optimization services. Additionally, USDA awarded a contract to run its Business Modernization Office Support Services contract.

“Over the next 12-to-18 months we be implementing modern solutions in those five CoEs,” Washington said. “Some of the activities we have already started implementing. Some of the quick wins will be the closure of our data centers. We were slotted to close 39 and we’ve closed 21 of the 39 already. In the data analytics CoE, we’ve rolled out a dashboard on our administrative areas across the department. In the next fiscal year, we will be focusing on program data and putting program data in the dashboard so executives and managers can make informed decisions on the same data. We will continue to improve on Farmers.gov to make the customer experience better for our farmers in the field, and we have some other functional areas we plan to address as well.”

Washington said he expects the new vendor partners to hit the ground running as they begin arriving in the agency anywhere between Oct. 11 and Oct. 18 —unless there is a bid protest on the awards, which wouldn’t at all be surprising.

“We don’t have a lot of time and this is an aggressive schedule. We already have defined goals in mind that have been laid out in an approach,” he said. “The vendors have already been made aware that they have to come in here and it’s going to be an intense pace.”

CoEs to rely on agile development

That pace and the expectations of the vendors and CoE teams making change quickly is another big difference. Unlike many federal IT programs, the pace tends to be slower and there is more discovery over the initial 30 days.

“This pace makes people focus on why we are here to conduct business properly,” he said. “In this environment, in Phase 1 and Phase 2, the goal posts has been set and you have to meet your marks. People are really focused on making sure we implement these solutions, they work and they provide value to our customers and citizens, and to the USDA employees. There is not a lot of wiggle room to sit down and analyze things forever. It makes you think about what you are doing very quickly and rolling things out in an expedient manner.”

Washington said Agriculture is leaning on the agile or iterative methodology particularly through the customer experience CoE, to roll out functionality in short time frames.

“We measure success on a monthly basis, however, we meet weekly to discuss where we are. We have defined metrics going into this. We know what we want to achieve, and we manage toward those goals and performance metrics,” he said. “We already know what we want to look like and where we want to go, now it’s just about getting there and take the steps to realize those goals.”

Another way this IT modernization effort is different than previous attempts is the oversight and attention senior leadership at the agency and in the White House is paying to the CoE initiative. This is especially true considering the centers of excellence is a Trump administration invention.

“I have a weekly meeting with the CoE management team. I meet with my deputy secretary on a biweekly basis. I meet with the secretary once a month,” Washington said. “We meet with the Office of American Innovation and we brief them monthly on where we are on the milestones, what we are implementing and does it bring value. We have a steering committee.”

40 percent of USDA’s apps ready for the cloud

Even with the oversight, Washington knows quite well that any IT modernization effort is really all about change management.

He said getting the mission and program offices to understand and accept the new ways of doing business, which includes moving applications and systems to the cloud.

“We have identified systems and applications that we are going to move, and have partnered with our business folks. Beyond that, we have to be in lock-steps with any larger migrations because there is a capacity part of this too. I don’t see cloud being a problem. We have a plan moving forward.”

Washington said about 40 percent of all systems and applications are ready to move the cloud today, while for the remaining 60 percent, USDA needs to decide if they are duplicative, necessary or what would it take to modernize them.

Washington said the ultimate goal is for USDA to deliver digital services that is driven by data and rides on a modern infrastructure that includes commercial cloud and internal cloud providers.

It seems USDA has all the internal and external pieces in place to finally make major changes to the direction of its technology systems and services. There are a lot of eyes in other agencies, across the administration, in industry and on Capitol Hill watching closely making the pressure to succeed even higher. Let’s hope Washington and the team of CoEs are up to it.

Read more of the Reporter’s Notebook