In the race to modernize government IT systems, the U.S. Department of Agriculture is pushing hard to be at the front of the pack, according to USDA Deputy Secretary Steve Censky.

“The perception is often accurate that government is behind the private sector when it comes to modernization. Secretary [Sonny] Purdue and I want to try to change that at USDA. We want to make sure that USDA is the most effective, efficient, customer-focused agency in all of the federal government,” said Censky Oct. 16 at the ACT-IAC Imagine Nation ELC 2018
conference in Philadelphia.

“In the last year we’ve put into motion a very aggressive plan to really try to transform how we do business and how we modernize our IT systems.”

USDA was originally chosen to be the lighthouse agency for the Centers of Excellence program, a collaboration between the White House Office of American Innovation and the General Services Administration to put weight and expertise behind agency modernization efforts.

USDA recently entered into the second phase of the program, which seeks to put in place solutions to problems identified in the first phase.

“We anticipate that in this phase two process, that it is 12 to 18 months with most of the work being completed in the next 12 months,” said Censky.

“That doesn’t end, as you well know, the modernization effort, that is just the start. And I think that is one of the key benefits that we really see with having the Centers of Excellence embedded at USDA, is that we’re able to sprint in these areas, develop the talent and the expertise, and then when the Centers of Excellence move on to work with other agencies, maybe your agency or department, we have that institutional knowledge to continue on with our effort.”

USDA was also awarded $10 million from the Technology Modernization Fund’s first round of awards to work on its customer experience portal, which Censky said is in the early stages and will continue to grow in the near future.

Censky chalked up USDA’s modernization success so far, which has included the centralization of agency CIOs into one lead official and the planned closure of nearly two dozen data centers, to buy in from agency leadership.

The planned IT improvements are designed to positively impact three groups that regularly interact with USDA: agency employees, agricultural producers and scientists.

“USDA is one of the largest departments in all of the federal government — we have over 100,000 people — and so shifting to a data-driven, efficient IT system really allows us and our employees to work more efficiently and most effectively and to do higher-value work,” said Censky.

Should USDA’s modernization efforts prove successful, they will likely serve as a model for modernization in other agencies, as programs like the Centers of Excellence aim to spread knowledge and best practices across the government.

Jessie Bur covers federal IT and management.

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