USDA expands its IT tent in effort to consolidate systems

Friday - 9/20/2013, 2:55pm EDT

Cheryl Cook, chief information officer, USDA

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It's been at least five years since the Agriculture Department updated many key technology policies. To ensure that sort of delay doesn't happen again, USDA has changed its management of technology oversight.

Cheryl Cook, the chief information officer for the USDA, hired a new deputy CIO in charge of policy and planning, Joyce Hunter, and instituted a major review of all IT programs.

"The world is changing. We haven't had a mobile device policy since iPads were invented, for example, so we've been digging hard into mobile devices," Cook said. "We have work to do in our governance arena. We have to understand what's in our portfolio. With a new deputy on board, we were able to organize meetings with each of our 17 agencies and 10 staff offices. We've reviewed every single one of our 301 IT investments looking for synergy, looking for duplication of effort and looking for ways to better manage the portfolio. Being able to focus on that is important and a major part of what our new deputy is doing."

USDA's portfolio review found areas of duplication, specifically around geospatial software where there are 42 different investments.

Cook said it's not surprising for almost every agency in USDA has a geospatial program so the goal now is to standardize policies to make it easier to share data.

"Sometimes it's just as simple of which version of what software you're using when building these tools and can we get on the same things so we can share data," she said. "One of the things we are looking at in our reorganization is whether and where best to put a geospatial center of excellence. We will pick the best of the best from around those 42 that we already have, and then the vision for the future, and roll that into a service organization for the agency."

Cook said she'd like to have the center of excellence running within the next year.

Governance is a major priority for Cook, who has been in the CIO's chair for more than a year, but the permanent one only since March.

"Our CIO Council is very active now," she said. "They've really taken on ownership and are working very hard at helping us outline what the future looks like for USDA."

The USDA CIO's office sponsored an off-site meeting this past week where they discussed their shared priorities over the next year or so.

Cook said a discussion around Agriculture's workforce skills was a major part of the discussion.

"As we've done more consolidation of these administrative infrastructure type functions, we've done some networking. We've done some with tier one help desk. I'm afraid we are starting to leave little puddles of our talent pools stranded, people who got up every day to provide tier one help desk support and no longer will need to do that," Cook said. "We want people to feel like they still have a career opportunity at USDA and we want good employees to stay engaged and remain good employees for a long time. Even as we are shifting away from some areas that traditionally have been done agency by agency by agency, at the same time we are looking at things like mobile enabling Web pages that we are having to contract out because we don't have the skills in house. Not a perfect fit obviously, but there has to be some way to plan how to get from point A to point B and get the skills that we need to the people we have on board and be able to recruit people with those skills in the future."

And ensuring employees have new or different skills is more important as USDA moves toward a more mobile and data-centric approach to technology.

Cook said the department created a Mobile Management Council to address policy and acquisition issues one time that takes everyone's needs into account.

"We have a departmentwide mobile device management and mobile application strategy now, which I hope will bear fruit and save us money over the long run," she said.

But Cook said bring-your-own-device (BYOD) may take a while to come to the agency.

"We are just about to issue a new departmental regulation on mobile devices from a government furnished standpoint so we get some commonality of approach and can take off in this new direction as streamlined and efficiently as possible," she said.

As part of the effort around mobile, USDA is recompeting its cloud email contract. The agency awarded a contract to Dell services to move to Microsoft's Enterprise Messaging Service in May 2010. USDA was the first major agency to move more than 120,000 employees out of 21 separate email systems and onto the cloud.

Cook said the award is coming in the very near future.

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