Centers of Excellence Are A 'Cultural Intervention' For USDA, Says CIO

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The department shows a renewed energy and shift in strategic thinking even in the first phase of the program, Agriculture CIO Gary Washington said.

The Agriculture Department’s IT modernization push and partnership with the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence are changing its very culture, its chief information officer said Tuesday.

Agriculture CIO Gary Washington said the department is seeing renewed energy in its modernization efforts, as well as a change in strategic thinking from the top down. During a panel at the 2018 CFO/CIO Summit hosted by the Association of Government Accountants and the Association for Federal Information Resources Management, he credited this transformation to the department’s work with the Centers of Excellence.

The department is the test agency for the first five centers, which each focus on different areas: customer experience, cloud adoption, infrastructure optimization, contact centers and service delivery analytics.

The centers are in the first phase, in which contractors assess the department’s current state in the focus areas and develop plans to strengthen the department’s posture in each. That work will take approximately six months, Washington said.

Once completed, the program will move into phase two, in which vendors—and not the ones picked to do the assessments—will bid on the implementation work to fill the gaps identified during phase one. The second phase is expected to last two to three years, Washington said.

If all goes according to plan, the lessons learned and frameworks created through the centers will assist other agencies in their modernization efforts. Washington was optimistic but noted this is a big if.

“This is a massive undertaking,” he said. “It’s not just about IT. It’s about changing the culture for us—asking people to think differently about how they receive services and how they deliver services. The Centers of Excellence have come in and started a cultural intervention at USDA.”

While the initial work on phase one is just beginning, Washington said the department is not waiting to take action. The project has infused the department with new energy, he said, and people are eager to get things done.

“The assessments are not the only thing that have gone on. We’re actually implementing things along the way,” he said, citing the Farmers.gov app, which was the result of the close working relationship between Agriculture and GSA.

Along with IT improvement, the department has also undergone some structural changes in IT leadership. For instance, the number of agency CIOs was reduced from 22 to 18 “in order to better communicate and collaborate,” Washington said.

“That’s going to be mimicked in other administrative areas, as well,” he added. “That’s forcing people to take the roles—especially in mission areas—more seriously and it’s become a more strategic discussion about how do you deliver IT services and how do you partner with the CFO and the chief acquisition officers and [chief human capital officers] at the department level.”