GSA, USDA moving ahead with Centers of Excellence despite budget uncertainty

USDA, working with GSA and the Office of American Innovation, will soon take another step towards standing up a major part of the Trump administration's IT mode...

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The Department of Agriculture, working with the General Services Administration and the Office of American Innovation, will soon take another step toward standing up a major part of the Trump administration’s IT modernization strategy.

Joanne Collins Smee, the acting director of GSA’s Technology Transformation Service and deputy commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, said the agency soon will award its first round of contracts as part of USDA’s Centers of Excellence (CoEs).

“We’re about to make the awards for the first phase of the Centers of Excellence, and that phase is basically the assessment, planning and in some cases, initial activities will begin. And then at the very end of the year, we’ll be ready to make the next set of awards for what we call phase two, which is actually the execution, or what I call the heavy lifting,” on programs like cloud migration, infrastructure optimization and customer experience, Collins Smee said Thursday at an AFCEA Bethesda event in Washington.

USDA volunteered to be the first agency to develop Centers of Excellence, a public-private partnership that the White House hopes  other agencies will replicate across the federal government.

“We are thrilled that USDA is our first client. We have started this work with USDA, we’re in the very initial stages. We are standing up those five CoEs in USDA. The model is that we start in USDA  we’ll be there for probably two years, or at least parts of the team there for two years,” Collins Smee said.

On the agency side of the equation, USDA has chosen top IT talent from its ranks to run the CoEs once they’re brought online. While GSA remains “laser-focused” on standing up these first CoEs,  Collins Smee said she expects USDA to lend a helping hand to other agencies once they’re selected to develop their own CoEs.

“They’re embedded with our CoE teams for the next two years to learn, and then they will be left as kind of the next vanguard in terms of the way we do things. And that model is to be replicated then to other agencies, other parts of the government. So right now, we are heads down, focused on USDA,” Collins Smee said.

But to get the Centers of Excellence off the ground, GSA and USDA need money from Congress. The Modernizing Technology Act, which passed last December, set up a governmentwide Technology Modernization Fund (TMF) that authorizes more than $250 million annually for fiscal 2018 and 2019. But Congress hasn’t appropriated those funds yet. The Trump administration asked for $228 million for 2018 and $210 million for 2019.

Congress appears likely to pass an omnibus spending package before the March 23 deadline to avoid a lapse in federal appropriations. If Congress does pass a spending deal, and not another continuing resolution, agencies could soon see how much much funding lawmakers give TMF.

If Congress does set aside funds for the TMF, Collins Smee said the money will “help us do some of the initial big lifting in terms of IT modernization.”

The Centers of Excellence serve as a major part of the Trump administration’s government IT modernization strategy, which seeks to bring online government services up to speed with private-sector offerings.

“You all know the current state of affairs that have today in the government. We have a series of processes and infrastructure that are not where they need to be,” Collins Smee said.

Chad Sheridan, the chief information officer of the USDA’s risk management agency, said his agency needs to reinvest in its employees in order to improve customer service.

“What would definitely resonate with our customers is showing that we are working for our employees to benefit the customer. I think the feedback we’ve gotten is often, over and over again, ‘We go into the county office and they’re not given the tools or what they need to help me. So why aren’t you fixing them?’ Now a lot of times, it’s like, ‘Give me more people to do that,’ and I say, ‘Wait a minute, that may not be the right answer.’ But if we can show tangibly through action that we are improving our employee’s ability to deliver delightful service to customers, that’s customer experience-squared,” Sheridan said Thursday.

Even though Congress has yet to approve funding for the TMF, the Office of Management and Budget just released details Feb. 27 about the board that will oversee the Technology Modernization Fund.

The TMF board will be led by Federal CIO Suzette Kent, and will have members from GSA, the departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs, the U.S. Digital Service, Social Security Administration and the Small Business Administration. The board’s first meeting will take place on March 12.

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