Q&A: USDA CIO Discusses the Agency's IT Modernization Vision
As the cornerstone of the White House’s IT modernization program, the Agriculture Department is in the spotlight as it brings its own technology into the 21st century. Its primary customers — America’s farmers — work in an increasingly high-tech profession and are demanding more efficient service from USDA.
CIO Gary Washington, who previously worked as the CIO at three different agencies within USDA, took on his new role in February. FedTech spoke with him about the agency’s technological future.
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FEDTECH: What is USDA’s role in the White House’s IT modernization program?
WASHINGTON: For the next three years, the department will modernize in five different Centers of Excellence: infrastructure optimization, which is data centers and network modernization; cloud computing; the customer experience; contact centers; and digital services and analytics. Secretary Sonny Perdue is a big believer in IT enabling our mission, and he wants us to be very modern and have a self-service environment that’s fact-based and data-driven.
FEDTECH: In which areas have you seen the most progress?
WASHINGTON: We’ve made the most progress around the closure of data centers. We’ve closed 18 in this fiscal year. We’ve made great progress in our digital services analytics in terms of providing consistent data to executives in our administrative areas.
I think the activity that is the most citizen-reaching is the customer experience segment. We’ve been putting a lot of work into engaging farmers and asking them questions, getting their input into how they want to engage with the USDA. Farmers.gov is an example of our efforts in that area — that went up early this year. And at the end of the calendar year, we will be able to automate the process for applying for farm loans online. Farmers don’t want to make nine, 10 trips back and forth to the office. It would be great if we could help farmers and satisfy all of their business needs right there on the farm.
FEDTECH: What modernization project do you find particularly exciting?
WASHINGTON: Customer experience! You know, all of them are exciting, but that one, you’re actually helping American citizens.
FEDTECH: How does USDA approach modernization when you’re made up of agencies with a variety of responsibilities and missions?
WASHINGTON: It starts with leadership. The secretary has laid out a clear vision and goals that we are expected to accomplish. You know that we’re down from 22 CIOs to eight, and we have an executive board that makes strategic decisions based on IT investments.
FEDTECH: The USDA runs the National Information Technology Center. What is the future of that data center?
WASHINGTON: Right now, the focus is on data center consolidation and getting down from 39 data centers to two. But we also want to give USDA agencies a choice between whether they want to go to a commercial cloud provider versus using NITC. We see NITC as a cloud broker in the future.
FEDTECH: Which area of IT needs the most modernization?
WASHINGTON: We do have a lot of legacy systems. And that’s another conversation: After you implement these new solutions, you have to retire the old ones. We have yet to have that conversation. We just can’t turn off the legacy stuff right away. We want to make sure that before we introduce a solution, it works for everyone.
FEDTECH: How are you getting people excited about something new when they’re used to doing their jobs a certain way?
WASHINGTON: You need to communicate all the time. This is more of a partnership than a collaboration. You need to continue to communicate their ownership, that they’re part of a solution, and that this is going to benefit them. Obviously, I’m not naive enough to think that everybody is going to jump on board, but I would say that the vast majority of USDA employees and people outside of the USDA whom we talk to are excited about these activities we’re taking on.
FEDTECH: Are you looking to use more software-defined networking to streamline some of your processes and modernize your networks?
WASHINGTON: Yes, we are. One part of the infrastructure optimization is to get down from 17 networks to four. Included in that is a plan to have a centrally managed service and to use the most modern technology possible, part of which is software-defined networks. We’ve got some very talented people here at USDA leading that charge.
FEDTECH: How do you envision a modernized USDA? In five years, what would somebody looking at today’s version not recognize?
WASHINGTON: In five years, I would hope that someone could go anytime, anyplace, anywhere and do business with the USDA online. A farmer would not have to go to the area office to apply for technical financial assistance, a farm loan or crop insurance — they could be on a mobile device, their laptop or tablet. Most things at USDA would be totally automated, self-service portals, and you would be able to get any information that you need automatically from a contact center.
FEDTECH: Is your main goal to make most of the changes visible to the farmer while being painless for the employee?
WASHINGTON: That would be accurate. But it’s not just the farmer. It’s the farmer, the forester, the rancher, the scientist, the statistician — any USDA service that we provide to the American public.