Inside USDA's Farmer-First Approach to Digital Transformation


The department is mixing technology with human-centered design to produce a better experience for its customers.

Through, the Agriculture Department has launched a one-stop digital shop that aims to improve customer service for producers and ranchers across America—and insiders say the agency’s farmer-first attitude was critical in implementing the new tech.

“That [customer-first] approach is extremely helpful,” USDA’s Undersecretary for Farm Production and Conservation Bill Northey told Nextgov.

Over the last year, Northey has traveled to 35 states to meet with officials at some of the department’s more than 2,000 county offices, which he said are filled with folks who “really know” the farmers they are working with.

“I always hear folks refer to ‘our farmer,’ or ‘my farmer,’” Northey said. “So there is already that culture and I’d argue the secretary and others have tapped into that desire to serve our farmers [through].”

With the explicit intent of harnessing technology to better assist its customer base, the agency launched the website under Secretary Sonny Perdue in February 2018 and it’s been releasing more and more of the site’s capabilities on a rolling basis.

USDA said the website essentially serves as “a customer gateway and informational counterpart to an authenticated transactional portal” where customers can apply for programs, process technical and financial transactions and manage multiple accounts in one streamlined place.

“The great thing is it’s about technology, but it’s about technology because it’s about customer service, and so it’s a huge effort to say, ‘how do we be more friendly to our customers?’” Northey said.

He repeatedly emphasized that the digital resource was developed for farmers, by farmers. Through surveys and focus groups with producers and ranchers across America, agency officials were able to build the site directly around its customers’ needs. As a corn and soybean farmer from Iowa, the undersecretary said he may have a good idea what farmers in the midwest are looking for, but he has no insight into the needs of ranchers in California, so meeting with customers directly ahead of building the site was instrumental to the process.

“It can seem expensive and it costs time to do it, but I think some of those conversations helped us in ways that we were not really envisioning and that reminds us that we have to keep doing that,” he said.

Some of the site’s capabilities include a ‘disaster assistance discovery’ tool that matches producers with programs needed when they face natural catastrophes and a ‘my financial information’ feature where farmers can apply for programs, process transactions and manage accounts—all of which they used to have to do in person at USDA facilities.

One of the most-visited tools on the site is the H-2A Checklist, which is a custom printable checklist built around farmer’s hiring needs that provides personal insights on application requirements, fees, forms and timelines. So far, the agency said users are spending about 45% more time on the H-2A program page than on any other resources offered on the site.

Northey also noted that the department has a lot of paper and spends millions of dollars renting file cabinets and space for it all.

“And so now we are able to figure out how to store more of that electronically, which makes it all so much more accessible, and if we have it electronically it’s actually a lot cheaper to store,” he said.

The site is built on the Salesforce cloud-based platform. Casey Coleman, the company’s senior vice president of government solutions who also served as chief information officer at the General Services Administration, said USDA used to have many different programs that all served the same customers, but with different processes and tools. This created a burden on users.

“Now with, there’s a single place to go for access to all program and information and services. And it just saves time, makes it easy, delivers on USDA’s mission in a way that builds trust with the customers and it also helps employees because they are able to do their jobs better with the tools that meet their needs,” Coleman said.

In the government, many challenges—such as a complex regulatory environment, challenging procurements and investments in systems that are still doing important work but are not agile enough to respond to today’s needs—all create an environment that isn’t so suitable for digital transformation. But Coleman said top-down leadership and aggressive deadlines helped the department release the site “in record time” and the progress is improving morale and employee productivity.

“What we see at USDA, and other organizations that are really moving in this direction is their leaders have a vision. And it’s not just a technology vision, it’s a different vision with how to engage to who they serve,” she said. “It creates an environment where people are starting to think and work differently, orienting around the customer that they all share: the farmer.”

According to Northey, there is still “so much more to come” from the farmer-facing site.

He said in many conversations leading up to the launch, customers and staff identified farm loans as “a crucial area” that the department should improve on. Now, the agency is working with the Customer Experience Center of Excellence established through GSA to update information and services delivery regarding the loans. Upcoming features on the site will help producers view loan information, find the right loan programs that best fit their business goals and enable customers to submit loan documents to their service centers via the site’s portal.

But with millions of producers across the nation, Northey said the majority of farmers are not yet using the platform as much as the agency would like.

“We still have a lot of producers that go, ‘farmers dot what?’” he said.

Still, Northey and his colleagues have noticed the site’s engagement and reach continue to be on the rise, and said he’s heard “a lot of great things” from the farmers that are using it. Northey also said it’s “absolutely important” that the department continue to enhance the site even as it’s not yet widely adopted. And through upholding the department’s customer friendly approach as it releases newer capabilities, he’s confident more farmers will log on in the future.

“The challenge is that everyone wants to be online and [agencies] want to look like we are online, but we must always ask, ‘What are we really doing this for?’” Northey said. “More than anything, it needs to be productive for our producers.”

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