Centers of Excellence program looks to add smaller agencies to portfolio

The USDA building in Washington, D.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

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The Centers of Excellence plan to increase work with smaller federal agencies, after concluding their three-year digital transformation partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Part of the General Services Administration‘s Technology Transformation Services, the CoE program has expanded its agency partnerships threefold since starting with USDA in early 2018 but wants to diversify its portfolio.

USDA represented a full CoE engagement where all the centers operating at the time — Cloud Adoption, Contact Center, Customer Experience, Data & Analytics, and Infrastructure Optimization — were activated, but it wasn’t just the large agency that profited.

“The smaller agencies are really the ones who benefit a lot from the work that we’ve done with large agencies because, A, they don’t have the budget to replicate that kind of work and, B, they’re looking for folks to come in with the expertise to just hit the ground running,” Jennifer Rostami, acting executive director of the CoE program, told FedScoop. “And that’s what we bring to the table.”

The CoE program doesn’t just want to work with USDA and the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center but also agencies like the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which became the eighth of 10 partners in May 2020.

CoEs created a roadmap covering the different aspects of USDA’s modernization that remain in use and publicly available to agencies large and small.

“The roadmap we created in partnership with GSA is being used successfully across the federal government,” said Gary Washington, chief information officer of USDA, in a statement. “This creates not only a new customer-focused environment but also ensures we continue to save millions of dollars in duplicative and antiquated systems each year.”

USDA saved $42.5 million by closing 31 of 37 data centers, when its goal had only been $18.7 million.

Closing data centers allowed the CoEs to set up an enterprise cloud offering, the Centralized USDA Cloud Office, allowing agencies at various stages of cloud adoption to purchase solutions within a multi-cloud environment. Infrastructure was developed in a way that allows agencies to choose different cloud providers that meet their needs.

Data duplication is a big challenge across governments, and the CoEs helped USDA mitigate the problem by standing up a centralized data repository and data lake for another $10 million in savings. CoEs ensured USDA had a secure data catalog and ingest process that allowed for more than 100 dashboards in all program areas to receive actionable information from more than 150 sources in real time.

The CoEs also created a detailee program where client agencies, in this case USDA, identify employees they want to see develop modernization and leadership skills to pick up where the program leaves off. One USDA detailee even embedded with the CoEs and received specialized training at each center — on lessons learned, working with cloud providers and applying AI to data analytics — before returning to the department. That person helps run USDA’s customer experience office now that the CoEs’ work is done.

“Our mission is to be part of a period of time for an agency but then also to exit,” Rostami said. “But in order to exit, we need to make sure there are folks on the ground who know how to do the new things that we’re doing together.”

The CoEs also helped USDA:

  • consolidate 15 online contact centers under the AskUSDA website,
  • modernize the department website,
  • increase public approval of the Farm Loan program by 3.5% in one year, and
  • train 3,000 employees to use dashboards and visualizations.

“This first-of-its-kind collaboration is already yielding significant benefits: expanding access to USDA loan programs for farmers and ranchers, making it easier for USDA customers to get the answers and information they need, while avoiding burdensome costs,” said Robin Carnahan, GSA administrator, in a statement.

The CoEs remain open to working with USDA again in the future, but they have plenty on their plate in the meantime.

An Innovation Adoption Practice was launched by the CoE program in July to facilitate change management, learning and development, and internal communication within agencies the centers are working with.

“We figured out that people are the biggest challenge within technology,” Rostami said. “And so this really gives our client agencies the opportunity to focus on people and what they need — training and all sorts of stuff to master innovation.”

-In this Story-

Centers of excellence, Cloud, data analytics, Department of Agriculture (USDA), Gary Washington, General Services Administration (GSA), IT Modernization, Jennifer Rostami, Robin Carnahan, Technology Transformation Services (TTS)
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