Here’s How Agriculture Plans to Overhaul Its Tech

A central Illinois farmer deposits harvested corn outside a full grain elevator Virginia, Ill.

A central Illinois farmer deposits harvested corn outside a full grain elevator Virginia, Ill. Seth Perlman/AP

The department will cut data centers down from 39 to two—and that’s just the start, according to CIO Gary Washington.

The Agriculture Department will kick off the bidding process for an ambitious facelift to the agency’s IT apparatus as soon as this summer, according to Chief Information Officer Gary Washington.

The tech renovations, which include consolidating 39 data centers into two facilities, migrating legacy systems to the cloud and upgrading IT infrastructure, come as part of the Trump administration’s centers for excellence initiative.

“What we want to provide American citizens is a world-class experience from the Department of Agriculture,” and modernizing IT is essential to that goal, Washington said Wednesday at a forum hosted by FCW. The agency is scheduled to complete the entire process within the next three years, he added.

The White House picked the department to partner with the Office of American Innovation and General Services Administration on the first center for excellence in December. The program’s strategy and planning process is scheduled to wrap up around June, after which Agriculture will start going out to buy the technology and services it decides it needs.

In addition to upgrading IT infrastructure, the effort also includes introducing artificial intelligence tools to agency call centers to help people access the information they need and automating the online processes for applying for loans, getting permits and other transactions, Washington said.

Agriculture will also cut its 22 current chief information officers to eight assistant CIO positions who will all report to Washington. The agency will name officials to all eight assistant posts by Sept. 30, he said.

On Feb. 1, the agency launched Farmers.gov, an interactive site where agriculture producers will eventually be able to schedule appointments at local Agriculture offices, file forms and apply for federal programs. The site marks one of the first public-facing products created by the centers for excellence program, and Washington expects to automate all transactions on the platform by the end of the year.

USDA is also piloting an internal program that enables department employees to file human resources, security, IT and facilities requests from a single online platform. The centralized site would break down barriers between departments and increase productivity, and has already gotten positive feedback from employees, Washington said.

We want employees to “have a better experience at USDA than they do at home with technology,” he said.

The agency is also focusing on how it can use social media data to better engage with customers. Agriculture Digital Manager Bernetta Reese said her team is constantly collecting feedback on how to improve customers’ online experience and calling on other groups within the agency join the effort.

Reese told Nextgov there’s sometimes a “disconnect” with Agriculture leaders about the impact data can have on the agency’s mission, and part of the process involves helping top officials understand the ways digital information “support and justify the work we’re doing.”

Both Reese and Washington stressed the need to boost data-savviness within the department but said budget cuts are making it difficult to hire fresh talent from the outside. Washington said the agency is working with human resources groups to “refocus [Agriculture’s] workforce” and give it the necessary skills for an upgraded IT infrastructure.