Within the federal government, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has gone through a substantial transformation on IT, specifically in five areas—cloud adoption, optimization of IT infrastructure as well as contact centers, customer experience, and data analytics. USDA focused on all these areas for the last two years. We have also bolstered security operations consolidation and support modeling consolidation with additional IT aspects that come from the end-user enterprise. We are a large organization with over 100,000 employees, 21 agency bureaus, and several offices. What we have done within the last two years is looking to centralize commodity IT to have a better and unified approach to the different aspects when it comes to cloud adoption, end-user support as well as customer experience.
I have been working for 14 years in various roles in agencies within USDA. For the last two years, I have had phenomenal experience in handling my work as the deputy CIO in the institution alongside Gary Washington, our CIO. We have always focused on bringing an enterprise approach within the federal government. We have implemented Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) within USDA, the most significant federal IT reform in the last two decades, to drive effective business processes and decision-making to support the diverse mission of USDA’s missions.
We do not have several CIOs to increase complexities in coming up with an enterprise approach to decision-making. Instead, we only have one CIO for a more unified approach to our missions.
In the last two years, we had a unified view and approach to how we leverage our network, setting up a cloud brokerage office within USDA. We do not have multiple ‘singular networks’ into the cloud, but more of a unified approach in making sure that we are leveraging the power of a cloud for the systems that can go there. But getting back into our infrastructure and making sure we possess on-premise solutions as well, we are consolidating from over 39 independent data centers to 2 enterprise data centers. We are on track this year to get to two data centers by the end of the fiscal year. Currently, we are down to 9 from those 39 data centers that were originally identified in previous years. We put considerable effort into making sure that the mission areas can do their work properly when it comes to the infrastructure data center network as well as the end-user support area.
"It is necessary to have an enterprise approach to decision-making within the federal government in terms of technology adoption"
Current Trends Related to Technology Adoption in the Government Space
Over the last few years, we have seen the adoption of a cloud-first and now cloud smart policy within the federal government that is initially ordered by the White House. There has been a continuous evolution in cloud technology not only in the IT industry but in the government sector, as well. In the last two years, USDA has been in a partnership with GSA Office of American Innovation, Center of Excellence, heading toward successful cloud adoption services.
GSA Center of Excellence is aiding various organizations that have started to adopt these technologies, and I believe, in the next few years, these trends are on the verge of further growth.
Cloud computing is a recent term, with previous names like data center hosting.. As technology got better, the organizations were able to utilize other aspects of the data center hosting—what we today call as cloud hosting. Now, USDA can manage both the detailed infrastructure layer as well as the application layer that proves to be beneficial to the federal government. We are not necessarily in the business of infrastructure but in delivering support to our users within the federal government with effective technology and systems.
Approach to Identify the Right Partner
Within the federal government, certain rules and legal regulations as well as policies are being applied to ensure a fairer and even competition between the vendors. We also refer to the vendors as partners because it is important to select a good partner who comes up with a solution that not only suits the needs of a mission but also understands the end-user perspective in leveraging the human-centric design approach. From the business perspective, we have a proven and successful approach where the vendors must be assured of the problems they are trying to solve and extracting the layers of business to infuse into any IT project for better service delivery within the government.
We, at USDA, have launched Farmers.gov over a year and a half ago and continuously evolving it with new features that have a human-centric design approach, involving not only our employees from the program but also people from the industry and even farmers to understand the pain points and the requirements of the farmers. Mapping all these aspects together, we identify the requisite solution and accordingly deliver the service. Going through a competitive process, we obviously focus on finding the best set of partners to come in and offer a solution set. So, delivering a productive service is all about selecting the right partners and vendors as it is also about changing our mindset and the process within the government that is developing and approaching into a much more agile approach, not just for software development but for the procurement process as well.
Advice to Fellow Aspiring Professional in the Government Sphere
As a deputy CIO, I get several calls throughout the day from people looking to sell their products, for references on the federal government market. They define the products as the best of the breed in the market. However, I feel vendors planning to get into the federal government space must focus on the mission of the specific agency they want to cater to. It is an utter necessity to know the agency’s mission perspective and the service they opt to deliver. It is also necessary to create a strong partnership between the vendors and the federal government agencies to understand how a particular solution set can be fruitful for a specific mission. When an industry vendor looking to get into an agency start talking to the business aspect without involving IT, problems related to the gap between IT and business arises, which is very difficult to support because the business may not understand the full IT ramification and vice versa. So, having a dual conversation that includes both the business and the IT factors constitutes one of the essential criteria for the vendors planning to penetrate the federal government space.