USDA aims to build in-house tech talent, CX expertise with new digital services team

Arianne Gallagher-Welcher, executive director of the USDA's forthcoming digital services team, said she hopes to recruit a cohort of 10-20 fellows to help stand up the organization.

Arianne Gallagher-Welcher, executive director of the USDA's forthcoming digital services team, said she hopes to recruit a cohort of 10-20 fellows to help stand up the organization. Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

The department's own digital services team will be modeled after other “tour-of-duty” style models in government like the USDS. 

The Agriculture Department is building its own fellowship-style digital services team modeled after programs like the White House’s U.S. Digital Service.

The USDA Digital Service is, so far, a team of one in the agency’s Office of the Chief Information Office. Arianne Gallagher-Welcher, its executive director, is in “startup mode,” working across the department to define USDA’s needs for the program in addition to talking with other, similar government fellowships to get best practices, she told FCW recently.  

At USDA, the expectation is that the new, multi-disciplinary team can work at the intersection of policy and service delivery. 

“It's providing that point person that can really navigate and communicate back and forth between, let's say, the technical folks in the IT shops that are building the systems and procuring the systems and the folks at the program delivery who are working directly with the customers,” said Gallagher-Welcher. 

“You want to build this talent and this capability in-house so that we're really able to take those lessons learned, build institutional knowledge and help drive the culture along with the tech,” she said.

She pointed to the department’s strategic plan, IT strategic plan and commitments to modernize nutrition assistance programs and the farm loan application process in the White House’s 2021 executive order on customer experience as examples of what a forthcoming cohort of fellows will be working on within the new digital service. 

“There’s a lot of really great focus [in USDA] on modern solution delivery and a lot of modernization for systems across the department,” said Gallagher-Welcher.

The tentative goal is to stand up a website to accept applications this summer, said Gallagher-Welcher, who was appointed to this role in December 2022. The objective is that, over the next year, the team will recruit 10 to 20 fellows to work at USDA.

Government fellowships aren’t a new area of work for Gallagher-Welcher: she’s an alum of the Presidential Management Fellowship program, co-founder of the Presidential Innovation Fellowship program and most recently was the program director for PMF at the Office of Personnel Management from 2017 to 2022. 

Although the details of exactly what types of skills the department will be looking for are still in flux, the program’s director said that experts in customer experience, data and digital services with a few years of experience already will likely be on the wish list. 

They’ll need technical skills and “those key communication and interpersonal skills” that will help them navigate teams across tech and program delivery shops, said Gallagher-Welcher.

Another draw for the department to create the program is the chance to get cutting-edge service delivery and technology skills and techniques from the private sector, she said.

Future fellows will come in for an initial term of at least two, but up to four, years under the fellowship appointment the department is using, which Gallagher-Welcher said is the same authority used by other similar programs like USDS — Schedule A authority, subpart R, under Title 5. 

“The thing that I'm really trying to figure out here at USDA is how can I attract tech talent to the USDA mission and show them how much technology is a part of that,” said Gallagher-Welcher.

Many other government agencies are also trying to use the appeal of their mission and impact combined with innovative hiring practices to hire techies, she said, adding that it’s “not easy, especially in an environment where tech talent is incredibly competitive, where sometimes we may not have the best salaries that to offer to the private sector.”

Still, Gallagher-Welcher said that “time and time again,” she’s seen people join the government because of the work they can do there.

Jonathan Alboum, who was the USDA CIO from 2015 to 2017 and current federal CTO at ServiceNow, said that tech is critical for the department. 

“USDA has very important and at times complex programs that require technology to make them successful,” he told FCW. “If you’re thinking about firefighting, if you’re thinking about food safety, if you’re thinking about nutrition assistance – those things require technologists who can support the mission.”

The opportunity is for the USDA Digital Services team to help the agency quickly deliver new mission capabilities, he said, noting that “USDA deserves a lot of credit for taking this approach.”