Work kicks off at USDA IT Modernization Centers of Excellence

The "first phase" of the project has been in action since April 2.
Joanne Collins-Smee speaks April 5, 2018, at the IT Modernization Summit presented by FedScoop. (FedScoop)

The IT Modernization Centers of Excellence team at the U.S. Department of Agriculture kicked off work this week, according to the program’s lead.

Joanne Collins Smee, executive director of the CoE effort led by the General Services Administration in partnership with the White House, told attendees Thursday at FedScoop’s IT Modernization Summit that the “first phase” of the project launched April 2.

Collins Smee said there is a team of 10 USDA IT personnel who report to her office that is embedded in the Centers of Excellence for the next two years. Those experts will pair up with the five industry vendors awarded contracts in March to bring private sector best practices to the department’s modernization efforts in five areas: cloud adoption, IT infrastructure optimization, customer experience, contact-center performance and service delivery analytics.

These aren’t just any 10 USDA technologists. The department had “a brilliant idea that we are now going to use across the rest of the government,” Collins Smee said. “They ran a top-talent contest for their IT team and selected 10 people that are now embedded in the CoEs for two years.”


She called the CoE detailees “leaders already recognized in IT at USDA.”

“They will continue to have the DNA and really effect that cultural change within the organization,” Collins Smee said. “Never mind the other stroke of brilliance is they know where everything is buried with the organization, right? They’re top talent across USDA. It was a brilliant idea, and we were noodling on this thing about culture change and how do we effect the best culture change.”

Over the next two years, Collins Smee’s office, the team of 10 at USDA and the five vendors will focus on some of the “big rocks” challenging IT modernization efforts, she said. Initially, the work will be done at the department-level at USDA, but then they’re “bringing those practices to other agencies.”

Chris Liddell, who leads IT modernization efforts for the White House Office of American Innovation and has championed the idea for IT CoEs since he joined the Trump administration, said the effort develops a needed institutional capacity for federal IT modernization.

“This will not be fixed in one year, it won’t be fixed in two years, it may not even be fixed in one or two administrations,” said Liddell, who was named recently as one of President Donald Trump’s deputy chiefs of staff. “This is a multi-year journey that we are all going on. So creating institutional capacity to effect change is critical, and that’s where the Center of Excellence fit in. They’re a central source, as the name suggests, of expertise that can help firstly one agency but thereafter the whole sets of agencies in their individual modernization approach. So it’s a critical part of an overall strategy toward IT modernization across the government.”


The IT modernization the U.S. federal government faces is unprecedented, and “orders of magnitude bigger than” the private sector transformations the New Zealand native and former Microsoft CFO has dealt with in his career.

“The journey we’re going on is probably the biggest IT modernization of all time,” Liddell said. “We’re talking about two million employees, roughly, non-military inside the government, a budget of $100 billion, thereabouts, 330 million customers, and we’re somewhere between five and 20 years out of date in terms of a lot of the systems we’re trying to modernize.”

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