USDA CIO talks modernization, CX priorities

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The Agriculture Department has made strides to modernize tech systems and improve service delivery, but there’s more work to do, according to Chief Information Officer Gary Washington.

Gary Washington has led technology at the massive Department of Agriculture for the last six years, working to modernize and rationalize technology and applications at an agency with 29 departments and more than 100,000 employees across the U.S. and abroad. Information technology provides the backbone for the USDA’s mission of managing a portfolio of food and nutrition assistance programs, loans to farmers, commercial food safety efforts and programs to protect natural resources. 

During his tenure, Washington has been forward-looking in adopting new IT financing opportunities, from the Centers of Excellence program developed at the General Services Administration to the Technology Modernization Fund spun up under the Modernizing Government Technology Act.

Nextgov/FCW caught up with Washington in early July. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Courtesy: USDA

Nextgov/FCW: Let's begin with one project that's gotten some attention lately: USDA’s network consolidation. How is that going?

Washington: It’s going pretty well. Now, we had some initial challenges that we had to overcome, but I think with our strong partnership with [the General Services Administration] and our vendor, we got a cadence, and we're doing very well. The goal, obviously, is to consolidate 17 networks down to one by December 31, 2024. I think we will have at least 80% of that completed. The entire goal is not just to modernize and consolidate our network, but to provide additional and more modern services to rural America and improve our performance from rural America to the offices. 

Nextgov/FCW: USDA has been one of the Technology Modernization Fund’s first and most important customers. How is the TMF working out for you right now?

Washington: The TMF is working great. We have intentionally provided business cases to TMF that were going to help us improve our customer service and service delivery and, obviously, get a return on the investment we're doing, and to modernize where we need to. The TMF has been a great vehicle to do that. The [Office of Management and Budget] and GSA have been great — we've been very successful in our initial TMF outreach.

There’s been a lot of focus on not just getting the investment, but also paying it back. So we make sure that we're very clear across USDA about how this works and what the expectations are.

Nextgov/FCW: What would you recommend that other agencies do in selecting projects to pitch to TMF? 

Washington: I've personally recommended they have very strong business cases to submit to the board and really follow the guidance that's been expressed to the team. I think the focus is on cybersecurity and sharing services. What can we do across the government together — sharing services and those kinds of things — and what is going to improve service delivery to the American public, as well as improve customer experience? I would follow those tenets and make sure that when you submit those proposals there is a strong connection [to] the CIO and [that] the business case is supported as well. 

Nextgov/FCW: You teed this up for me perfectly: The budget deal recently carved out some funds for customer experience at USDA. Can you talk about the importance of CX and how it is evolving at the department? 

Washington: Our relationship with our office of customer experience is very close. [USDA Chief Customer Experience Officer] Simchah Suveyke-Bogin is the director of that office and we work very closely together on different parts of implementing the [Biden administration’s] customer experience executive order at USDA. We have a digital services office at USDA that's assisting our agencies with five different high-impact service providers from a technology perspective.

And as we work very closely with [Suveyke-Bogin] in her role as the director of customer experience, we're seeing some gains as a result in terms of how we're improving service delivery. 

Nextgov/FCW: It's been interesting to watch that evolution where, for example, farmers are having to do less paperwork and can do more digitally. It is so much more convenient, especially for folks in rural America. What's been your take, broadly, on the administration's executive order going back to 2021 on that subject, and how that seems to be evolving as the way government ought to do business and service delivery?

Washington: I think the executive order was a great idea. I think it's helping us tremendously. There's been a renewed focus in USDA on making sure that we double down on improving service delivery and customer experience and that's fed into how we approach developing systems. We’re focused on making it easy for the American citizen to engage USDA using technology. They should have as good or better experience with us as they do at home with technology. So we're using the customer experience executive order as a guide, if you will, in terms of how we can show business value to our customers as well. 

Nextgov/FCW: The debt ceiling deal inked recently means that there could be some budget constraints coming for some civilian agencies. How are you planning for flat or even potentially reduced budgets in the coming years, especially as relates to technology?

Washington: We’ve worked very closely with our leadership here at USDA — and obviously there are a lot of technology needs here — but we’re just like everybody else in that we’re trying to make sure that we decrease our technical debt and modernize where we can.

And so we have to prioritize what we do, understanding that we don't know where we're going to be from an IT perspective for fiscal year 2024. But we have to plan for any and all known scenarios, in terms of what may come back to us for the next fiscal year. We're under no illusions about what may happen, but we work very closely with our agencies, mission areas and our leadership on what we may want to do moving forward.

American citizens “should have as good or better experience with us as they do at home with technology.”
— USDA CIO Gary Washington

Nextgov/FCW: Let's talk a little bit about one of these scenarios: this revolution in artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Washington: AI is sexy to people now, and everybody wants to dip or get their foot into the area, if you will. But because we deliver so many services to the American public, we don't want to put ourselves in a situation where we don't provide those services in an equitable manner. So I think we have to be very cautious about how we implement AI and what those use cases are. 

Here at USDA, we're involved in a lot of working groups across the federal government and involved in some of the discussions about artificial intelligence. And there's a lot of discussions going on at the federal CIO Council about artificial intelligence as well. We have some agencies that have been proactive about dipping their toes into that area, but I just felt like we need to put some guardrails around it because that could potentially be dangerous.

We need to make sure that we cover all bases, such as privacy and delivering services in a fair and  equitable manner as we go down this journey. We will have to, as a department, determine what is the best course of action in terms of implementing these solutions. 

Nextgov/FCW: The government’s tech workforce is getting older, and it’s getting more difficult to compete for young talent in arenas like cybersecurity, data science and, to some extent, AI. How are you attempting to bring in this type of talent to a large agency like USDA?

Washington: I don't think USDA is any different from any other department in having that challenge. That's part of our strategic plan. We're taking the approach that we want to take everybody along for the journey, so you have the opportunity to upgrade or improve your skill sets. But at the same time, we are trying to recruit that next generation of the USDA IT workforce. So we're reaching out to minority-serving institutions and academia. Most people don’t think about IT when they think about USDA, so we have to go out, and we've been very aggressive about engaging folks and making them aware of all the opportunities available here. 

Nextgov/FCW: You’re going on six years of tenure for a CIO, which is quite lengthy considering that the average lifespan for a CIO position is somewhere around two years. What are you most proud of so far in your time at USDA?

Washington: Well, I'm very proud of all of the democratization that has taken place and the changes that we've been able to implement. It's not really just the technology. We've matured our governance structure here at USDA from top to bottom, and we streamlined how we make decisions in it. There was a time we had 30 CIOs [in the department], and now we only have one, and an assistant CIO for each mission area.

How we do business and our relationships with our leadership and our mission area partners has matured and improved tremendously, and it is very important in terms of when you start having those conversations about investment in technology. And you have a shared vision around providing business value and everything. So although we're very proud of the modernization efforts that have taken place and how we’ve modernized our services, I'm also proud of how we've improved our ability to govern and manage technology at USDA.