USDA to Give IT Program New Roots

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Usually agencies want to speak highly of their IT operating systems, so to hear Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Steve Censky call the USDA operating model “splintered and out of date” on Dec. 14 was a bit of a shock.

Censky critiqued the USDA’s operating system as part of an announcement that USDA will partner with the Office of American Innovation (OAI) to modernize the USDA’s IT system over the next few years, consolidating the number of CIOs and data centers, improving data management tools, and creating an online portal for its customers.

“Secretary Perdue charged me to help him make USDA the most effective, most efficient, most customer-focused department in the entire Federal government,” Censky said. “One way to do that is by instituting a new operating model for IT. We have no choice but to modernize–we cannot continue to conduct business for the next 150 years based on splintered and out-of-date operating models.”

According to the USDA office, OAI will provide logistical support for the reorganization.

“The Office of American Innovation is developing the Centers of Excellence (CoE),” said USDA in a statement to MeriTalk. “They will manage centralized, function specific talent, solutions, and acquisition vehicles that USDA will utilize to help execute our IT modernization vision. The CoE teams will provide technical expertise for the development of strategy and implementation support.”

Perhaps not-so-coincidentally, many of the areas that USDA is targeting in its modernization effort align with the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) requirements. For example, USDA wants to cut down the number of CIOs that it needs from 22 to one main CIO with seven assistant CIOs.

FITARA calls for CIOs to lead IT investment decisions, but having 22 of them creates a coordination problem. The planned CIO reduction may help USDA make more progress on FITARA goals and improve its score from the C- that it received in November.

Once it consolidates data centers from 39 to one main data center and a backup, USDA will comply with the Data Center Optimization Initiative section of FITARA, where it has previously earned a D. The agency cites cost, improved troubleshooting options, and cybersecurity as reasons for the consolidation.

FITARA also mandates transparency and risk management through regular data sharing. USDA’s goal to come up with a USDA-wide dashboard for data management could help with this goal. Any help would be useful in that area, since USDA is currently earning its only F grade in that area.

While FITARA does not mandate that USDA create customer portals, this effort goes back to USDA’s goal of being the most customer-focused Federal agency.

“We are excited with our plan to harness technology that will enable informed decision making and improve the experiences customers have when interacting with USDA,” said Gary Washington, USDA’s acting CIO. “The opportunities available for IT to benefit USDA’s customers today are significant and far-reaching.”

The current operating system may be “splintered” in Censky’s words, but hopefully this reorganization will help the agency to put down firm roots and regrow a stronger, better IT system both for itself and its customers.

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