2018 in review: The year of the Centers of Excellence

USDA's Jamie L. Whitten building. (Tajha Chappellet-Lanier)

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2018 was the year of the IT Modernization Centers of Excellence.

It was the year that Phase I projects kicked off at the initiative’s first agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and it was the year that new contractors were chosen to participate in Phase II. It was the year that the General Services Administration, which stewards the program, announced that the Department of Housing and Urban Development is up next. It was even the year the whole project got a snazzy-looking website.

The CoE concept, which aims to “accelerate” IT modernization across government by creating central repositories for “best practices” that can move from agency to agency, was formally introduced in the fall of 2017. “The ultimate objective of the CoEs is to build change management capacity for enterprise-level change in the federal government,” White House special assistant Matt Lira told FedScoop in a recent conversation.

GSA issued a request for information centered on four “key technology initiatives” in October 2017. In December, the White House announced that it had chosen USDA as the first host agency for the CoEs, citing “top-level commitment” from Secretary Sonny Perdue and CIO Gary Washington as the agency’s key recommendations for this honor.

But it wasn’t until 2018 that things really got off the ground. In March 2018, GSA announced the contract winners for Phase I of the project, and work began in early April.

During the exploratory Phase I at USDA, five teams formed around five different areas of modernization — cloud adoption, IT infrastructure optimization, customer experience, contact center and service delivery analytics. Each team was made up of USDA IT employees, GSA employees and contractors. All five teams worked “deeply embedded” within the office of the CIO at USDA, CoE Executive Director Bob DeLuca told FedScoop during a tour. They focused on determining the agency’s modernization status — both where the agency stands and where it needs to go.

“It helps tremendously to have somebody with an objective point of view come in and help you,” USDA CIO Gary Washington told FedScoop in June. “When you bring in a third party with an objective point of view that’s been there done that, it really helps change the thinking, you know, which helps change the culture.”

But Phase I was, ultimately, just the beginning. In October GSA announced which new contractors who will lead each of the five expertise area teams into Phase II — the operationalizing phase.

Similarly, USDA is just the genesis as well — in September the CoE team within the Technology Transformation Service at GSA said it plans to bring at least some of the five centers of excellence to HUD next, starting with a “discovery sprint” to uncover the agency’s needs.

“I’m thrilled HUD is teaming up with GSA to transform this agency into a more effective and efficient servant on behalf of the American people,” Secretary Ben Carson said in a statement at the time. “This is an important moment for HUD as we embark upon a campaign to modernize our aging technology and bring true financial integrity to everything we do.”

In August, TTS Director Joanne Collins Smee, who oversaw the creation of the CoEs from the GSA side, left government after just one year. Kelly Olson filled in briefly, and GSA finally settled on a permanent replacement in early December.

All these leadership shuffles notwithstanding, the brains behind the initiative at the White House Office of American Innovation are feeling confident in what’s been done thus far.

“Frankly [the CoE initiative] started as an experiment,” Lira said at an event in October. “Is it possible to drive enterprise-level change at the agency level? Well, I’m pleased to report that at least about a year into that project, the early signs are enormously positive.”

“Thus far the CoEs are demonstrating their ability to apply this wholesale change,” he added more recently — change and modernization on everything from back-office backend systems to user experience and design.

Moving into 2019, however, transitioning the “best practices” learned with USDA to the work at HUD will be a big test for this still-nascent concept. “We’re still sort of in that experimentation phase,” Lira said, projecting that 2019 will be all about figuring out the appropriate “playbook.”

TTS’ new director, former SunTrust Banks CIO Anil Cheriyan, has his work cut out for him.

-In this Story-

Anil Cheriyan, Centers of excellence, Department of Agriculture (USDA), Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), General Services Administration (GSA), Joanne Collins Smee, Kelly Olson, Matt Lira, Technology Transformation Service
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