The IT ambitions of USDA

Fiscal 2017 IT budget plans detail how the Agriculture Department aims to be a powerhouse in network and financial services.

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When you think of the Agriculture Department, your first thought might be food safety. Although that's not inaccurate, the department is also planning big moves to offer services to all federal agencies -- whether as a platform-as-a-service provider or as a financial services and systems provider.

Not surprisingly then, the biggest slices of USDA’s fiscal 2017 IT budget pie are big data and analytics technology, as well as virtualization, storage and network gear.

How big a budget are we talking about? The department has asked for $3.2 billion for IT in fiscal 2017 out of an overall discretionary budget of $24.2 billion. That’s 14 percent more than its fiscal 2016 IT budget, and if approved, it would make USDA’s IT budget the sixth largest of the civilian agencies.

That increase in requested dollars appears to be part of a move by USDA to build clout among other agencies and offer services across the government by playing to its strengths.

From practical to fanciful: Loan processing, networking and drones

One of USDA’s key strengths is its financial programs. As one of the main federal providers of loaned capital to farmers, the department has considerable interest in building its loan processing and customer engagement capabilities. USDA's National Finance Center (NFC) has plans to become the largest financial services platform provider in the government, competing with the Interior Department’s Interior Business Center.

Furthermore, the Farm Service Agency accounts for 10 percent of USDA's fiscal 2017 budget request, with that money aimed at developing loan processing and customer engagement through the Consolidated Farm Loan Program.

On the hardware side, USDA is equally ambitious. The National Information Technology Center, the department’s main infrastructure group, spends a great deal of money on data center procurements. NITC has effectively become a shared-services center for infrastructure by offering platform-as-a-service to internal and external stakeholders across the government.

Fiscal 2017 IT budget plans detail how the Agriculture Department aims to be a powerhouse in network and financial services.

Then there's the outright fanciful. When the Federal Aviation Administration issued permits allowing commercial drones to be used in agriculture, USDA set plans in motion for its own implementation. To plan for resource allocation and budgeting, the department will need big-data analysis of crop imagery and related data gathered by unmanned aerial vehicles.

That is a lot of big planning. To ensure success, USDA CIO Jonathan Alboum has emphasized the absolute importance of big data and analytics, along with visualization technology, in USDA’s IT infrastructure.

Programs and activities behind the growth

And where specifically will that money go? Activities that USDA funds include Enterprise End User Shared Services, which (with its steady-state budgeting level of $231 million) supplies USDA end users with hardware and software. The Enterprise Data Center and Hosting Shared Services program is tasked with making NITC's platform-as-a-service available to outside customers.

Besides the department’s plans to acquire analytics software for its drone technology implementation, it will also use that software in the build-out of loan processing systems. The Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and Rural Development will all need tools for analyzing customer feedback and loan applications.

And with those big-data applications and platform provisioning needs, security cannot be overlooked. USDA's Security Operations Center will spend some $10 million to modernize its Security Sensor Array, continuing the evolution of a cybersecurity threat dashboard in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security.

Room for improvement, FITARA-wise

Although it's true that application development, integration and big-data technologies are driving USDA's IT procurement for fiscal 2017 programs -- and that the department is expanding its NFC and NITC customer bases -- USDA still has some work to do in managing the infrastructure.

In May's scorecard on Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act compliance, USDA received a failing grade in IT portfolio review savings and a D in data center consolidation, which dragged the agency’s overall FITARA grade down to a C. That's not bad among all agencies, but it’s not good enough if USDA really wants to pursue its goals of offering services across agencies. In response, IT leaders are trying to identify enterprisewide solutions to cut down on the use of isolated systems wherever possible.

If USDA is indeed angling for more prestige among fellow agencies by being able to offer platforms and solutions across the federal government, that’s just work that has to be done. But combined with its increased spending on IT, those efforts might make USDA an agency to watch. Clearly, there's more to USDA's plans than just food quality.

NEXT STORY: GAO to probe FedRAMP

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