At the recent ServiceNow Federal Forum held in Washington D.C. the new CIO of the USDA, Gary Washington has one goal: to build a data-driven organization. While the goal in and of itself is a noble one, Washington’s motivation is grounded in a desire to serve the agency’s key stakeholders – farmers, scientists, and researchers – at the highest possible standard no matter where, or when, they need the agency’s assistance.
With so many of the USDA’s constituents needing to access services quite literally in the field and often during trying circumstances, how can Washington meet his goal of “giving these customers the same kind of IT experience” they might have in their home or in an office in downtown Washington, D.C.? For the CIO and his team, this process of delivering on the mission more effectively starts with getting rid of an IT infrastructure that has been operating in stovepipes and facilitating the seamless movement of data throughout the organization.
To reach this goal, Washington shared that his starting point is the data center. Like most federal agencies, the USDA operates multiple data centers – currently 39 in total – that each contain copies of data. For an organization that relies on accurate and timely data this presents a problem because no one can ensure that each copy of the data is being updated. Inaccurate data could lead to mission-critical problems for both USDA employees as well as constituents as they apply that data to research or vital services like crop insurance.
Moving away from traditional software and storing data on-premise fundamentally changes how services can be delivered. Once the move to the cloud is achieved and data can be accessed via cloud-based services then it’s possible to maintain and updated a single instance of data sets that can be accessed by all constituents regardless of location. Moreover, once an agency is cloud-based it can accrue savings from reducing the number of physical databases and other cloud-enabled activities, like using software licenses, to fund additional IT modernization activities.
In the case of the USDA, Washington’s goal is to move from the current tally of 39 data centers to just one primary and one back-up facility, a move that will yield significant savings for the agency. An equally savvy move for the agency is to use multiple cloud providers to ensure availability of data and services, even during crisis events.
ServiceNow CTO, Bob Osborn noted “that there are four takeaways from Washington’s talk and his vision that we should learn from. The first lesson is to get the support of senior agency leadership. The second lesson is to frame the need for investment in terms of the mission and not IT. The third lesson is to reinvest budget savings straight back into other IT modernization projects.”
But it’s the last lesson that Osborn really wants government IT leaders to focus on. “Washington has embraced an often overlooked, but important point – the future of government IT is open,” he said. “Agencies no longer need to create or purchase custom IT, be it software or products. To develop custom tools is to re-create the legacy IT environment for a new century and incur yet more digital debt. By taking advantage of open architectures, open platforms, and services that can be shared, agencies can increase their productivity and decrease the total cost of ownership in quick measure,” Osborn concluded.
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