Kelly Olson, the new acting director of the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS) organization, spoke Thursday about ongoing progress with the Centers of Excellence (CoE) initiative that’s being run out of TTS, providing a glimpse into the maturation and coming expansion of the program.
TTS, a small outfit of just 275 or so employees, boasts a number of transformative government IT programs whose reach far outpaces the size of the organization, including the Presidential Innovation Fellows, 18F, the CoEs, and the Office of Products and Programs, which includes FedRAMP.
Olson took the helm at TTS at the end of August following the departure of Joanne Collins Smee, perhaps the key figure in getting the CoEs off the ground. By and large, they’ve been lauded as a huge success.
“The Centers of Excellence will deliver benefits to the American people for many years ahead,” Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor Jared Kushner said upon Smee’s departure.
With important work still to be done, Olson relayed progress for the CoE lighthouse agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and discussed what TTS has learned throughout the process.
“The way that the leadership has come together in that agency is really what’s making this right now,” Olson said of the work at USDA. “Gary Washington, the CIO, has been an incredible partner. Secretary Perdue has been a huge champion for this effort all across USDA.”
We heard from Washington earlier this week that the agency had completed Phase I of the program – the assessment and strategy phase, where the agency’s most pressing IT modernization needs were determined. As USDA enters Phase II, it will now begin to implement recommended changes.
And the activities of TTS seem to be showing strong momentum. USDA’s move to Phase II coincided with the announcement of the second agency that will benefit from the CoEs – the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Olson said Thursday that they’re refining the process based on valuable lessons gleaned at USDA.
“We did learn a few things on the ground while we were at USDA, and we are incorporating those as we move into HUD,” she said. TTS will be looking to home in on the focus of the six-month Phase I process that now begins at HUD.
“We really need to understand and have a little bit better framework and direction and definition of what it is we want to do in Phase I,” Olson said. “You can’t just dive into building strategy.”
So, another wing of TTS is going to partner on the CoE work at HUD.
“18F is going in to do a discovery sprint to really define the path that we should take,” Olson said. “They are doing a deep dive to help us frame really where the highest impact will be with HUD, and that will help ensure that the strategy that’s built in Phase I is something we can effectively move forward and execute as we move into implementation.”
It’s strong evidence of the interconnectivity at Olson’s organization and how it’s helping fuel modernization efforts. Olson called 18F’s part in the process “just one example of how all of these components in TTS are really working together to move forward this really diverse solution and skill set through the Centers of Excellence.”
The value of the CoEs are garnering growing recognition in the Federal space, and TTS is settling into a groove. The expansion of the program will likely follow the newly-established pattern, Olson said. “In terms of timing, there is going to be a cadence of moving into agencies about every six months. That means we’ll be announcing agency [number] three in the spring.”
Olson also indicated that she may not be at the top of the organization when that time comes around. While she’s stepped in to continue the work pioneered by Collins Smee, GSA is looking to fill the TTS director role full-time.
“We are looking for a permanent director, I’m acting, as I mentioned,” Olson said. “I have been with this organization for eight years. I came in on a tour of duty to serve for an original four…I’m about to complete my second four-year term.”