GSA will announce 2nd Centers of Excellence agency with ‘next two weeks’

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Almost a year into its efforts to transform the way the Agriculture Department does business by standing up five Centers of Excellence (CoEs), the General Services Administration says it’s gearing up to start the process all over again at a second agency.

But which agency will get the CoE treatment next? Kelly Olson, acting director of GSA’s Technology Transformation Service said Thursday that the agency will make the announcement within “the next two weeks.”

For months, GSA and the White House Office of American Innovation have billed USDA as the “lighthouse agency” that will serve as a model example for other agencies to emulate.

Olson said GSA has already laid the groundwork for standing up the Centers of Excellence at the unnamed second agency, starting with an in-house talent search for agency employees looking to work full-time on the CoE effort — something GSA identified as a best practice from USDA.

“That’s really where they tapped into the folks that had that passion to change things internally, that wanted to be part of this modernization initiative, and be involved in these Centers of Excellence. That’s actually key to do from the start, because you need that buy-in and engagement from the people on the ground actually doing a lot of the work,” Olson said at AFCEA Bethesda’s IT modernization breakfast. “In terms of lessons learned, that partnership has been critical. We’re already starting to do that in Agency Two, and I think that’s a great way to generate excitement, and focus more on the opportunity of change and not the fear of change.”

On the other side of the equation, USDA Deputy Chief Information Officer Francisco Salguero said he also applauded the move to have agency employees work full-time on standing up the CoEs.

“They’re actually really now detailed to GSA, back to USDA. That forced it to where agencies couldn’t go, ‘Well, they’re going to be detailed there, but I still need some of their time,'” Salguero said. “What I didn’t expect is that did give enthusiasm to not just those detailees, but other folks that said, ‘I want to join too. I want to be part of the team.'”

As GSA prepares to help pass the torch from USDA to another agency, it’s also getting ready to award the vendor contracts for phase two of USDA’s CoE project, which will focus on the implementation across the five mission areas.

“USDA has been an incredible partner,” Olson said. “We are just finishing up phase one, which was really sort of the discovery and strategy piece of the work.”

IT modernization initiatives ‘coming together’

Alongside this effort, GSA has also worked closely with the Technology Modernization Fund’s board, headed by Federal Chief Information Officer Suzette Kent, to review more than two dozen applications for a five-year IT modernization loan.

“We have a very close partnership with the Technology Modernization Fund Board and program internally. That’s another great way for modernization, so some agencies that are not looking for that full holistic suite of all five of those areas are applying for TMF funds,” Olson said.

In June, the TMF Board awarded $45 million to the Energy Department, the Department of Housing and Urban Affairs, and USDA.

“Something that we’ve learned at USDA, and will be the same for everywhere we go, is you cannot go in somewhere and just drop technology down and move on to the next. There’s been a focus on reskilling the workforce, change management, managing through culture and expectations. All of that needs to be woven through all five of these mission areas, and all of the new technology and business processes that are put into place through the CoEs,” Olson said. “As we move into the next agency, we are going to be taking a lot of these best practices and lessons learned and applying it. We’re pivoting in some areas. We’ll announce that as part of the broader announcement, but we do have some new plans as we move into agency two, to really ensure that we’re keeping that culture change.”

On the other side of the equation, Deputy USDA CIO Francisco Salguero described how the agency’s employees have responded to the new CoE workplace culture.

A few weeks ago, USDA held an all-staff IT meeting, which Salguero described as the first of its kind.

“That means all 2210s within USDA,” he said, referring to the job series number for IT specialists on “We had an all-hands meeting. Didn’t matter the agency, didn’t matter if one was a programmer or somebody else was a project manager. If you’re a 2210 IT person, come to our all-hands meeting. To hear the questions and enthusiasm folks had was actually quite invigorating. I’d say that was a good surprise.”

But the Centers of Excellence initiative only represents one of many concurrent initiatives to modernize government IT. Agencies also face a 2020 deadline to move to the governmentwide Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS) telecommunications contract.

While GSA has entertained the idea of extending the EIS deadline, USDA has looked at the contract transition another way to jumpstart its workforce of IT modernization.

“It’s not new, but it’s reinvigorating those things that we need to do, we have to do, from an IT side of things, and no longer sitting back and saying, ‘Well, you know what, let’s cut IT, because that’s an easy place to cut,'” Salguero said. “But looking at it, you have to invest in IT, because we don’t want to be sitting here 10 years from now, saying I wish and had some such-and-such, because I can’t go to the cloud, because I’m not modernized enough to get there. That’s one of the things we have to understand. Some of the agencies, they really want to get to the cloud, but they can’t, because they’re worried about a 22-year-old system still in COBOL that’s not going to be conducive to the cloud.”

From GSA’s point of view, Olson said the number of ongoing IT modernization efforts suggest that the issue has finally gotten the attention it deserves.

“We’re finally at a point where all of these initiatives are coming together,” she said. “It’s really a very diverse portfolio in terms of offering those broad, at-scale modernization services, a lot of the digital transformation services, a lot of the digital transformation efforts through 18F the [Presidential Innovation Fellows] program, and a lot of those wonderful, high-value, good-for-government platforms and services and solutions that we offer.”

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