IT Modernization at the Department of Agriculture

Posted by Alexander Rossino on February 27, 2018

Capital Building

Last week the U.S. Department of Agriculture published its budget request for fiscal 2019. It contains some interesting propositions as far as information technology is concerned. By now most in government IT will have heard that Agriculture intends to partner with the General Services Administration to take advantage of GSA’s new Centers of Excellence initiative. This initiative will help the USDA modernize its IT infrastructure and services delivery. The choice of USDA to act as the GSA’s first guinea pig for the CoE approach is interesting because of all the civilian agencies Agriculture appeared to have made the most progress toward implementing many of the governance recommendations outlined in the FITARA legislation from a couple of years back. Similarly, the USDA had taken extensive steps to implement a cloud-based shared services infrastructure for its components. It’s success in doing so had even earned the department’s National IT Center a certification from the GSA’s FedRAMP program office. In short, the USDA appeared to have its IT modernization act firmly together – at least in comparison to most other federal agencies.

Why then did USDA leadership decide to go ahead with the GSA’s CoE initiative? The department’s proposed fiscal 2019 budget could tell the tale. For fiscal 2019 the USDA has requested $18.1B in base discretionary funding, a total that amounts to $7.2B less than the amount enacted in fiscal 2017. I compare the fiscal 2019 number to fiscal 2017 because the final tally for fiscal 2018 is not firm thanks to the budgetary chaos on Capitol Hill. Taking more than $7B off of your operating budget is a serious cut, so it is possible that USDA’s leadership saw the handwriting on the wall. It needed to cut wherever it could and IT is always an “easy” place to start looking.

Ironically, the proposed USDA IT budget for 2019 is $2B, only $100K less than it requested in 2017. Why is the request relatively stable? Likely it is because the USDA looks at fiscal 2019 as a transitional year when it takes concrete steps toward modernizing its IT infrastructure, steps that will allow it to make deeper cuts later on. Basically, it’s the old “invest now to save later” scenario.

What a few of those key investments and plans look like are as follows:

The fiscal 2019 request provides $15M to fund IT modernization projects, including data center and legacy network consolidation.

  • Data Centers: The number of data centers the USDA hopes to close/consolidate by the end of fiscal 2019 is 37. This will leave the department with 2 enterprise data centers to administer. Tis is the heaviest lift in the agency’s IT budget.
  • Legacy Networks: The OCIO is targeting consolidation of 25% of USDA’s legacy networks by the end of fiscal 2019. It will accomplish this goal by utilizing the GSA’s new Enterprise Infrastructure Services contract, so EIS vendors should look for this work to appear soon, if it hasn’t already.
  • Legacy System Migration: By the end of fiscal 2019, the OCIO is targeting the migration of 5 legacy systems to cloud hosts. Considering the department already makes extensive use of Microsoft’s Azure service don’t be surprised if this is the intended destination.
  • Cybersecurity: USDA intends to implement a “Security-as-a-Service” offering by leveraging the GSA’s CoE IT modernization initiative. The initiative will consolidate cybersecurity operations across the department.

Summing up, the USDA will serve as a test case for the new administration’s IT modernization approach. Other civilian agencies will be watching closely to take advantage of lessons learned that will help them further their own modernization efforts.

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