The U.S. Department of Agriculture quarters at the Jamie L. Whitten Federal Building, Washington, D.C. 

GSA, USDA Make Progress on IT Modernization via Centers of Excellence

The Agriculture Department plans to improve its contact centers and enhance its customer experience efforts this year.

The Agriculture Department’s work with the General Services Administration to upgrade its IT is starting to bear some fruit.

The GSA is working with USDA as its first “lighthouse agency,” to test the White House’s Centers of Excellence model for IT modernization.

The five CoEs are run by the GSA and based around cloud adoption, IT infrastructure optimization, customer experience, service delivery analytics and contact centers. The goal of the centers is to accelerate modernization by leveraging private-sector expertise and talent, and to provide agencies with consulting and IT engineering services to radically improve the way they design services and interact with their citizens.

Contracts for the first phase of the project were awarded in March, and USDA is currently going through a discovery and assessment phase of using the CoE model to determine how best to move forward on modernization. Over the summer, USDA will start implementing its modernization plans.

This year, USDA will build an agencywide portal to improve services to citizens. It has also begun developing dashboards to take advantage of analytics and plans to introduce artificial intelligence into its contact centers, says USDA Deputy CIO Francisco Salguero. And USDA has started to take steps to enhance its customer experience efforts

“The objective is to take the lessons learned and replicate what we’ve done throughout the other agencies, knowing that everyone is unique in their own ways,” he says.

Meanwhile, Simchah Suveyke-Bogin, head of the customer experience CoE within the Technology Transformation Service (TTS) at the GSA, says the Agriculture Department plans to enhance its customer experience.

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USDA Makes Strides to Improve Its Customer Experience

USDA and the GSA have developed an “incredible working relationship,” TTS chief Joanne Collins Smee said in April, praising the work of Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, Deputy Secretary Steve Censky and CIO Gary Washington.

Washington and his team have focused on effecting change at the “root level” of the agency, Collins Smee said. Washington’s office hit upon a “brilliant idea” the GSA will now use at other agencies, she added.

USDA ran a “top talent” contest for 10 IT leaders across the agency who will now be embedded in the CoEs for the next two years and who will report to Collins Smee. She said these employees are “leaders already recognized in IT at USDA.”

Suveyke-Bogin, speaking on a panel, “Building a Customer-Centric Organization,” at the Adobe Digital Government Symposium 2018 in Washington, D.C., on May 15, noted that earlier this year Perdue named Joe Doyle as his customer service coordinator. Perdue made it a “critical, strategic goal” for USDA to become more customer-centric, Suveyke-Bogin said.

Doyle has been looking at ways to not merely demand that USDA follow that mandate, but think through “how we can leverage who we have in the agency who are already customer-minded,” according to Suveyke-Bogin.

Doyle is bringing those people and working to stand up committees of “customer experience champions” within USDA components. Over the next few months they will conduct workshops focused on human-centered design activities, Suveyke-Bogin said. The committees will focus on how USDA currently interacts with its customers and what tools they can use to be more customer-centric.

Customer experience is not something that seems “very IT” off the bat, Suveyke-Bogin said. However, she noted that her CoE partnered with USDA’s Farm Production and Conservation mission area to launch a central website, farmers.gov, to serve as a resource for the area’s primary customers: the nation’s farmers and ranchers and other stewards of private agricultural lands and non-industrial private forest lands.

One question Suveyke-Bogin’s team asked when they came into USDA was whether agency personnel had spoken to customers to assess their needs. Agriculture Department employees had spoken to their colleagues internally and received a tremendous amount of feedback. However, she said there was a bit of a “gap” in qualitative and quantitative knowledge around the needs of farmers and ranchers.

Over the past few weeks, Suveyke-Bogin said, her team has traveled to Georgia, Oklahoma and North Dakota to USDA field service centers and farms to talk with farmers in one-on-one settings about their needs. That work will continue into next month. “We’re getting a lot of insights,” she said.

The CoE team is holding collaborative workshops to focus on customer experience solutions with the relevant USA personnel, Suveyke-Bogin said. “Folks are thinking about all of the possibilities together versus having handoff after handoff,” she said.

The work represents a “culture shift” at USDA, Suveyke-Bogin said, and “displays how you can marry the two — the IT side and the business side, customer experience side.”

Lance Cheung., U.S. Department of Agriculture/Wikimedia Commons
May 18 2018