The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new program for aggressively modernizing IT systems across the agency will begin releasing solicitations for its second phase in July 2018, and the program’s leaders are looking for industry to tell them what kinds of products and acquisition vehicles they will need.

The Centers of Excellence program was started in December 2017 immediately after the release of the White House’s IT Modernization Report, and USDA was chosen as the lighthouse agency for the program.

At the time, the program was divided into two phases – planning and execution — and contracts for the first phase were awarded in March 2018.

The General Services Administration, which is collaborating with USDA on the program, announced at an industry event June 27 that Phase 1 had uncovered essential needs for modernization across USDA, and the program would soon be entering into Phase 2.

But instead of prescribing to contractors exactly what each of the five CoE teams — IT Infrastructure Optimization, Cloud Adoption, Customer Experience, Contact Centers and Service Delivery Analytics — needs moving forward, the program will seek industry recommendations on how best to fulfill the agency’s needs.

“Everything is still very tentative. Typically, when you go to an industry day, a lot of the requirements are very solid at that point, and they were just trying to tweak around the edges a little bit based on industry input. That’s absolutely not what we’re trying to do here,” said Al Munoz, contracting officer for GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

He explained that the first phase of the program was about “looking under the hood” of the agency to get an idea of what was wrong. And though CoE teams have an idea of what they need to solve those problems, they are open to a variety of solutions offered by vendors.

GSA and USDA have scheduled reverse industry days, where potential contractors present how they could meet the needs of the various CoE teams, through the end of June and plan to have requests for proposals out by August 2018.

The goal would then be to start work with the contractors by the end of September or early October, according to CoE Director Bob DeLuca.

Based on the tentative strategies for Phase 2 acquisition, most of the CoE teams will likely rely on GSA’s Schedule 70 acquisition vehicle, though Alliant, Professional Services Schedule and the VETS vehicles were also popular options.

According to Joanne Collins Smee, director of GSA’s Technology Transformation Service and deputy commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, the Centers of Excellence will likely stay at USDA for another 18 months.

In the meantime, the program will develop another set of teams to start Phase 1 at the next agency in line.

“It’s a flywheel effect in that if you think about a year hence or 18 months hence, the team at USDA will have left USDA, and they’ll have freed up to help more agencies,” Collins Smee said.

Munoz said that industry can post questions and feedback through the Centers of Excellence GitHub website, and will ideally receive public responses within 24 hours.