Feb 27 2020

GSA Centers of Excellence Program Speeds Up the IT Modernization Process

The six agencies that have signed on so far report progress toward better technology, customer service and more.

For the past two years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has served as a lighthouse for other federal agencies, acting as a guide for other organizations attempting to pursue their own modernization initiatives.

The first agency to be designated by the General Services Administration as a Center of Excellence, USDA has reduced operational expenses by $9 million; established a one-stop website for farmers needing information and aid; and closed 90 percent of its data centers.

GSA’s IT Modernization Centers of Excellence program — which has expanded to include the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of Personnel Management, the Defense Department’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the Labor Department — provides assistance to agencies that want to modernize technology and improve customer service.

For USDA, the program has “paid off tremendously,” says CIO Gary Washington. “We’ve improved, and we’re continuing to improve, in all of the Centers of Excellence areas. Now our intention is to keep going with that work, and to sustain what we’ve implemented.”

Centers of Excellence Program Provides Strong IT Support

That the GSA’s Centers of Excellence program continues to ramp up is good news, says David Wennergren, CEO at the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council, which advances government business practices through technology. “There’s never been a time when IT modernization has been more important,” he notes.

Wennergren points to the cybersecurity vulnerabilities faced by agencies that fall behind in technological upgrades and change, as well as to the negative impact outdated systems can have on staff and customer experience.

Support through a program like the Centers of Excellence can help a department make significant progress on modernization projects it already has underway, he says, or it can serve as the catalyst required to launch a brand-new project.

“These are complex, large-scale agencies where change doesn’t happen overnight,” he says. “But if their senior leaders are committed to IT modernization, sometimes the best recipe for success is this kind of pairing up with outside experts who can help stretch the organization out of its comfort zone.”

photo of Gary Washington
It’s been a fabulous effort by the entire department to partner in modernizing our legacy environment and introduce modern practices.”

Gary Washington CIO, USDA

Once USDA became the first Center of Excellence in December 2017, GSA began to assist the agency in five areas commonly targeted for modernization: cloud adoption, IT infrastructure optimization, customer experience improvements, contact center consolidation and service delivery analytics. (DOD will also focus on artificial intelligence.)

Working closely with GSA and USDA employees including subject matter experts chosen for their expertise, the team settled in at the agency’s headquarters, first to assess its needs and goals, and then to develop plans. Implementation began in October 2018.

“It’s been a fabulous effort by the entire department to partner in modernizing our legacy environment and introducing modern practices,” says Washington.

USDA considers its comprehensive Farmers.gov website among its major accomplishments; the website contains an online Farm Loan discovery tool that farmers can use to easily apply for Farm Service Agency loans.

Washington says he’s also pleased with the development of more than 200 data analytics dashboards that staff use to make informed, data-driven decisions.

And USDA has achieved $42.5 million in cost savings through the closure of 34 of the agency’s 39 data centers so far, as USDA moves the vast majority of its applications to the cloud. USDA is still actively engaged in the areas of contact center consolidation and customer experience. The department has accomplished much of what it set out to do, he adds.

$2.5 billion

Total IT spending by USDA in fiscal year 2019, a 9 percent increase over 2018

Source: ITDashboard.gov

Most CoE Agencies Remain in the Early Phases

The other Centers of Excellence agencies are closer to the beginning of the process. The Department of Housing and Urban Development joined in September 2018 in order to update its legacy, COBOL-based technologies.

Chief among them are technologies that are the basis for financial general ledger systems, payment systems and grant management. The agency also plans to create a chief data officer position.

HUD CFO Irv Dennis says that the agency completed its Phase One assessment and is deciding which vendors to use. “We issued the RFPs, the responses have been returned, and we are now evaluating them,” he explains.

One area of focus for the agency is its need for a cloud-based electronic records management system (many HUD records are still paper-based), while others target the creation of a contact center that would make it simpler for customers to get in touch with the agency, as well as dashboards and other tools to facilitate data management.

Dennis predicts it will be several years before HUD is fully up to speed in all areas of IT modernization. Meanwhile, he says, they’re gaining ground every day. “I’m so excited about the changes we’ve made, and I’m really looking forward to what’s ahead.”

According to Dennis, the changes include the implementation of robotic process automation within the CFO office, artificial intelligence technologies that assist high-risk grantees and a prototype for Federal Housing Administration IT modernization.

In 2019, the Office of Personnel Management partnered with GSA to focus on overall infrastructure improvement, including the installation of two backup mainframes to add a layer of protection for critical data related to OPM’s background investigation programs and retirement services.

OPM has made significant progress in its Centers of Excellence–related work, including the procurement of IBM mainframes for disaster recovery.

Last fall, the GSA announced a collaboration with the Joint Artificial Intelligence Center at the Department of Defense, focusing the use of AI in humanitarian aid and disaster response.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission began work with GSA in late September. CPSC planned to develop an enterprise data strategy and implementation plan, as well as a pilot program to test artificial intelligence tools agency’s 2019 financial report. The newest partner, the Labor Department, which was named a CoE in February, will focus on robotic process automation and AI tools.

Lance Cheung/USDA