Next Agency to Host GSA Centers of Excellence Will Be Announced by October, Departing TTS Director Says

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Outgoing Technology Transformation Service Director Joanne Collins Smee shares the strengths of her organization, what’s next for Agriculture’s Centers of Excellence and when the effort will jump to a new agency.

After less than a year in government, Technology Transformation Service Director Joanne Collins Smee will be leaving the General Services Administration and public service on Aug. 24. Though her time was short, Collins Smee oversaw the creation of one of the most high-profile innovation pockets in government—the Centers of Excellence—and the reorganization of another—the organization she managed, TTS.

As she prepares to return to the private sector, Collins Smee joined Nextgov for an exclusive interview to talk about why she believes TTS is poised to succeed and the future of the Centers of Excellence. On the latter, Collins Smee offered insight into what will happen at the Agriculture Department after the centers leave, when we’ll know which agency is next and what new centers—like maybe blockchain—are on the horizon.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Nextgov: As you get ready to leave public service, tell us, how did you get here?

Joanne Collins Smee: I have a long, long tenure in the private sector in tech of about 30 years. I have worked in everything you can imagine in tech. I started as a developer, ran infrastructure teams, ran network teams and was embedded with clients doing large scale transformations most of my career. When I left IBM, I was leading our application and development teams around the world. So, I have a deep and varied background in tech and it's been wonderful.

My very first job in the government was this one; I joined about a year ago. I joined to set up the Centers of Excellence, which has just been a wonderful experience. Then the Centers of Excellence became part of the Technology Transformation team here at GSA and I've been lucky enough to work with that team for the last year. It's been absolutely amazing. Very, very talented tech designers, engineers, thought leaders, strategists that we have on this team.

The Technology Transformation Service has been through a lot of changes in its short life. From your time, can you tell us, where is TTS today? Where does it stand?

I think TTS is in a very strong place. When I think of it, it's just four years old, TTS, which is basically, if you think about it in the private sector, you could consider that it's a startup. But it's way more than a startup now, in my opinion.

It's full of dedicated, hard-working, passionate team members who are making a difference and really that's why they're here. They're in the government because they want to make a difference. All of these people could work in the private sector easily and they've made a choice to join the government. They are very mission-oriented. They're very user-focused. And I've just been amazed at the talent that we have here on this team.

One of the key things that I think we've been able to do over this past year with this great team is to harness their talents and focus and passion and better align that with the IT modernization priorities we have administrationwide.

It’s just been fabulous working with this team. And it's put a lot more eyes within federal agencies on what TTS has to offer and what our team can do. Really, we're in a stronger position, in my opinion, today, than we've ever been.

And it's an evolution, right? So if someone else was in this role for the last year, I think they would have brought it along as well. When you have such a talented group of individuals to work with, it's easy to evolve.

The original idea of TTS was to have it stand as its own business line. That was rolled back with the new administration. What purpose does TTS serve as a subcomponent of the Federal Acquisition Service?

In my mind, it's been a combined team that is able to have the biggest leverage. So, we have the men and women in [intra-agency consultancy] 18F. We also have the Presidential Innovation Fellows. We also have another group of great innovative acquisition professionals that do modular and agile consulting—we call it Acq Stack.

We also have the Office of Platforms and Products, which is a very large team of men and women that are servicing platforms and products, and that's through an appropriated fund. We also have another product in there called login.gov, which is a brilliant new product that now has about 7 million users on it for identity and access management.

So, there is a combination of technical services and platforms that are resident here in GSA that are combined—and of course, the Centers of Excellence—that are combined in this one TTS organization.

So, where are the Centers of Excellence today?

We started phase one at USDA in the beginning of April. So, we have a cadre of GSA employees, UDSA employees and contractors that are embedded at USDA doing the first phase. The first phase is really discovery, iteration and analytics on where they are in five key areas.

One of them was physical infrastructure, which is data centers, basically, and all of the gear. Another was cloud adoption—how to advance that. And then we have three that are very what I would call citizen/client-focused. The first is client experience: how we look at how USDA services their citizens and what that path looks like depending on whether you're a farmer or producer, rancher or child getting food stamps.

And we also have another CoE that's focused on analytics—looking at all of the services we provide for each of the mission areas at USDA. Whether it be analytics we collect today to track how we're providing services, how do we show them in a visual manner to people providing services as well as the leadership at USDA via things like dashboards.

And then the last is related to contact centers. So, looking at all those touchpoints that a citizen could access USDA and coming up with a recommendation on how we can help put the right technology underpinnings there so we can provide, again, better service to the end citizen.

Those are the five key areas. We are finishing off this first phase of this. Some of the CoEs were actually moved right into implementation because USDA had already started in some areas. So, this is cocreation. Joining forces is a better way to think about how we're working with USDA.

The very first phase will finish in the end of September. We've already gone out on the street with the [request for proposals] for the next stage, which is long-term implementation, which will commence in the beginning of October. If you think of that cloud migration, we’re plotting what are the apps that are going to move where and what timeframe. So, phase two starts the actual migration of those apps. That's an example of implementation. That next phase goes a year or two years, depending on which CoE.

When the original idea for the Centers of Excellence came about, did it look anything like it looks today?

You know, it did. But one of the big differences when I was talking about joining, the vision was three agencies [rather than just USDA] and 10 CoEs. I was like, “Ah, that won't work.” The vision was going to three agencies at the same time and I was saying, “I’m not your gal, then. I can’t do that.” I think you have to start with the right agency to start and have focus to make the right progress. So, that was a pivot off the vision.

Another pivot off the vision was the number of CoEs. Some people had the view we should have 10 Centers of Excellence. So, we whittled that down because we had to narrow this and have focus on a smaller number of things to be able to make the required impact.

I have one other thought. This was something that USDA thought of that is a brilliant plot when you're putting in every Center of Excellence implementation going further. They did a talent search for people to join, top talent from their IT teams to join the CoE. They actually are detailed to us—to me and GSA—and they are embedded in the CoEs. They will then stay in USDA when we leave and they'll be future leaders of these areas. That was a brilliant idea because that helped us get up to speed on players, on people, on technical issues. And they also are learning from us in terms of process, methodology, tactics, etc. So, that's been great.

Those were the three pivot areas that we had that I think made this work better for us

What's next for the centers beyond phase two? How do you expand this beyond Agriculture to other agencies?

With USDA, when we finish phase two, we are going to leave. We will have done a lot of change management and training. We're embedded with them now, we work shoulder to shoulder with them every day at the Whitten Center at USDA and their various buildings. So, we will leave, but we will leave a team that is then able to continue ongoing management of these projects. We're for another year or two years, depending on which project. So, that's USDA.

When we think of that expanding through the rest of the government, we're meeting with those next agencies right now and are pretty near to the selection of which is the next agency that we're going to start it in. That should be announced by the beginning of October, for sure.

The reasons why the CoEs have worked so far is the leadership and support that I've gotten and our team has had has been incredible. In my life in the private sector, when you have a client that you know leadership is with you, as well as all the ground troops, then you're going to have success. Here, I have Administrator [Emily] Murphy who runs GSA and Alan Thomas, who's my boss at [the Federal Acquisition Service], who are completely supportive of the work we're doing. And then we have the support and leadership of the [White House] Office of American Innovation. And within USDA, Secretary [Sonny] Perdue, Deputy Secretary [Stephen] Censky, [Chief Information Officer] Gary Washington—all of those people are completely focused on the success of this effort. We meet with them very, very regularly and, as I said, we're over there in the hallway with Gary Washington and his team. So, we have those kind of minute by minute conversations but we also have formal, organized reviews with the rest of the leadership at USDA.

I did not realize when I joined that I would have that level of support. That was another good surprise for me. That was a really happy surprise because in the government things can be a little bit harder than in the private sector. So, that has made our progress easier, when we have that level of support and help.

Based on your experience, what do you think is the next big innovation push the government needs? Can you be a futurist for us and tell us what the next Centers of Excellence is going to be?

One of the things I think we have to do is to run this play related to the Centers of Excellence. I think that the model works. I think the way we're going into agencies works. And the things we're focused on are important. But every agency is going to have different needs. So, the other agencies that we're talking to for our next stage—to see where we're going to embed and build up new teams—they are interested in some other things that USDA wasn't necessarily interested in. There's a level of process re-engineering that one of the agencies is interested in that, if we go with that agency, will be bringing in additional talent and focused on, specifically, process re-engineering.

So, I think when we look at me being a futurist, I want to make sure that we run this play on TTS and the Centers of Excellence because I think that so much good work was done before I came and we've just been building on it, on what's needed. I'm hoping that this play continues.

And, as I said, when we go into each agency, their needs differ. Some of the major foundational stuff are the same, but I see us doing deeper work. Maybe the next agency won’t have such a need for physical infrastructure assistance. They want a lot more for cloud migration. So, we double down on that. Or blockchain: Everyone is interested; are we actually going to set up a CoE where we would bring in the right expertise and start looking at actually piloting that in the government? That's a possibility. I think it really depends on what our clients are asking for.

These programs, particularly the centers, are really hitting their stride right now. Why are you leaving?

I’m very sad. I commute from New York. My family is not down here, so I’ve been by myself. I was originally like, “Yes, I can do this for several years,” but I have some personal things going on back home that I really do need to get home. It’s been a very difficult decision for me. But I am going to have to head back.

But I feel that the TTS team is in such incredibly great hands. We have a really great leadership team here in TTS. The men and women, all of the talents, are just so passionate about what they do. It's an exemplary team that we have. So, I'm just happy to have gotten to work here for a period of time and to help bring them to the next step. But this team is just amazing.

Who is going to be taking over for you at TTS and the centers? What general advice do you have for them?

It has not been announced yet who's taking over for me. That's going to be announced before I leave—at least the acting person.

But for my successor, I think one of the first things is trust the team, the TTS team. I think they're incredibly intelligent and passionate and really care about their work and the mission.

The other thing is the idea that we have this leadership support. We want to continue to make sure we make progress so that we’ll continue to enjoy that support, right? But the way the team is positioned right now, I think they're going to keep having success upon success. In this environment, there's such a great focus on the need for IT modernization and improving the citizen experience with the government through technology—this is an incredibly great time to be working in the government in tech. Everyone wants to do this work. We have talented people and the leadership support. So, I think this is the best job in the government.

Why did you join public service? Do you ever think you'll come back?

I chose public service because I felt I could make an impact because of my background in tech and I was at a point in my career—my life—where I wanted to do some level of giving back. I did not know it was going to be nearly as much fun, to be frank, as it's been. I definitely have been bit by the civic tech bug and I hope I get to come back. I really, really would love to work for the government again.