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During the NextGov and Defense One-hosted "Digging into Digital Government" webcast last week, IT leaders from the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Department of Agriculture (USDA) shared their perspectives on IT modernization and how the industry can support federal agencies with their efforts. The panelists, Harry Lee, Assistant Commissioner of the Office of Clients and Markets, Technology Transformation Services (TTS), GSA, and Gary Washington, Chief Information Officer, USDA, offered their strategies and approaches for implementing IT modernization initiatives while helping agencies meet their mission.

Focus on the business problem

A consistent theme around implementing IT modernization shared by the panelists is to look at what business problem you’re trying to solve and then apply modern technologies and practices to address it. Lee noted that it’s not about looking at the problem through an IT lens, but “what we are truly trying to solve here.” Lee also mentioned that they like to take an approach of listening first to understand the problem and then “collaborating on different paths forward.” He also suggested leveraging Agile software development and Agile procurement practices to be better able to execute the initiatives.

The CoEs are foundational

A question was asked about the impact of GSA’s Centers for Excellence (CoE) Program on IT modernization, especially with its codification into law. Lee said that it puts a “bold point” on the importance of enacting IT modernization initiatives in agencies. It emphasizes the important elements and puts additional momentum for how agencies move through the IT modernization path. Lee said the program brings a focus on “not just standing up something for the sake of standing up something, but how we can we get reuse across federal agencies.”

Marrying innovation and security

Washington pointed out that many agencies have the desire to leverage innovative new technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI). He said that his team works within USDA to investigate where there’s a practical application for AI to solve a real business need before jumping in. With ever-increasing attention on cybersecurity, especially when considering new technologies, Washington said that their approach is to bring in the security leaders upfront. He stated that “we don’t implement security as a mechanism to say 'no,' but to ensure that everything they implement is in a secure fashion.”

The path forward

In terms of what is expected going forward, Washington said that it’s largely about a renewed focus on the customer, or citizen experience. He also said that to effectively implement IT modernization, the journey must involve people, process, and technology. He highlighted that the people part ─ the ingrained culture ─ is an important piece to address. He stated, “You have to include your business partners, not just IT.” He further noted that some of the people they work with are responsible for the areas that need to be modernized, so it’s important to gain their buy-in by showing them how these new initiatives help improve what they had built.

Washington also reiterated the importance of modernizing the IT workforce’s skillset and strengthening cybersecurity, while managing their portfolio with a business-driven approach. Lastly, he summed up their underlying goal in implementing IT modernization. He said it’s about remaining focused on providing service.

To learn more about tactics for aligning business operations and IT modernization efforts incrementally, take a look at IRS expert Verlinda Paul's take.