Management

USDA plans to centralize CIO role

USDA CIO Gary Washington 

The Department of Agriculture is looking to consolidate internal operations and get help from outside the department to carry out its modernization plans.

As part of its reorganization efforts, USDA wants to combine the mission-support operations of the Risk Management Agency, the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service, RMA CIO Chad Sheridan said at GovExec's Citizen Digital Summit Jan. 31.

"Historically, everything in USDA has been designed from the legislation out," he said. "So we have these siloed programs, sometimes even within independent agencies."

Sheridan said that the mission support activities for these three components are being consolidating because they "share about 70 percent of customers across the country." Reorganizing them will improve digital experiences for both customers and employees.

Perhaps the starkest change in structure for USDA's tech offices, Sheridan said, is that the department will be reducing its number of CIOs from 22 to one.

In September, USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said the 22 CIOs currently supported across its 29 components and eight mission areas "creates redundancies" and leads to "inefficiencies in the mission support activities."

"There's no reason for every mission and agency to have their own CIO," Sheridan said, adding that each mission will have its own executive who reports to the single, departmentwide CIO under the forthcoming structure.

The thinking behind the move, Sheridan said, is to increase efficiency, streamline the USDA mission-support function and "to get that common look and feel" across the department

As far as a timeline for shuffling of the CIO ranks, Sheridan acknowledged the reorganization is "not a transition that happens overnight."

Currently, USDA lacks a permanent CIO; Gary Washington is serving in that role on an acting basis.

USDA is also the pilot agency for the White House's Centers of Excellence program, and it is preparing to launch its new customer service portal with the help of the General Services Administration and U.S. Digital Service.

The first iteration of the farmers.gov site, which will roll out Feb. 1, will feature three main components: an office locator, a preview of what's coming later in the year and a mechanism for visitors to offer feedback. The site is "part and parcel with what we were doing to combine our three agencies into this new mission area to focus on the customer," Sheridan said.

Simchah Suveyke-Bogin, head of the Customer Experience Center of Excellence within the Technology Transformation Service at the General Services Administration, said that in the past, the projects worked on by governmental tech shops have been "very program focused and one-offs."

"The different approach, I think, with the Centers of Excellence is that what we're piloting this year with the USDA is 'what if we were to just go into the agency, all-in' and serve as a bridge between the secretary and program levels," she said.

The benefit of teaming up with the Centers of Excellence, Sheridan said, is "to help drive the backlog of work that either becomes a digital experience, or could change how we organize our offices, how we develop our programs, or perhaps we give feedback to the Congress" about legislative or regulatory changes. 

The ambitious reorganization and tech initiative come as USDA faces a pretty steep budget cut -- the White House's proposed fiscal year 2018 budget proposed a 21 percent reduction.

Sheridan said that over time, the changes will produce efficiencies and that interim budget pressure "drives out bad work."

"We're going to stop doing things that aren't valuable," he said, adding, "if you've got something valuable, it's probably going to be funded."

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a staff writer covering civilian agencies, workforce issues, health IT, open data and innovation.

Prior to joining FCW, Gunter reported for the C-Ville Weekly in Charlottesville, Va., and served as a college sports beat writer for the South Boston (Va.) News and Record. He started at FCW as an editorial fellow before joining the team full-time as a reporter.

Gunter is a graduate of the University of Virginia, where his emphases were English, history and media studies.

Click here for previous articles by Gunter, or connect with him on Twitter: @WChaseGunter

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