Arianne Gallagher-Welcher, Executive Director for the USDA Digital Service, in the Office of the OCIO, on the USDA’s tech transformation and how it serves the American people across all 50 states.

When an organisation that exists to help people needs a tech overhaul, it has to be done thoughtfully and with a people-centric focus for it to succeed. USDA – The United States Department of Agriculture – is no exception. As the agency that looks after commercial farming, food safety, and more across the US, it has a responsibility to serve the nation. Correspondingly, this means ensuring technology across the organisation is fit-for-purpose and future-proof through innovation.

Driving innovation and digital delivery

“If you’d told me after I graduated law school that I was going to be working at the intersection of talent, HR, law, regulations, and technology and bringing in technologists, AI, and driving innovation and digital delivery, I’d say you were nuts,” says Arianne Gallagher-Welcher . “However, it’s been a very interesting and fulfilling journey. I’ve really enjoyed working across a lot of different cross-government agencies. USDA is the first part of my career where I’m really looking at a very specific mission-driven organisation versus cross-agency and cross-government. But I don’t think I’d be able to do that successfully without the really great cross-government experiences I’ve had.”

USDA’s IT strategy

USDA has an IT strategic plan in place which has its origins in the vision of the CIO, Gary Washington. Customer-centric IT is the first goal of the plan. Essentially, the goal of USDA is for farmers, producers, and families to find dealing with USDA as easy as using an ATM. 

“That has to be the case across all of our departments, which is no small challenge,” Gallagher-Welcher explains. “Accordingly, one thing we’re doing to really help drive that is our work with the Office of Customer Experience. That’s the secretary’s office at USDA. Myself and the Chief Customer Experience Officer have partnered very closely on USDA’s implementation of the Digital First Public Experience Memo. This was released in September 2023 by the White House Office of Management and Budget. This was as part of 21st Century Integrated Digital Experience Act (21st Century IDEA Act).

“It’s kind of a roadmap for how agencies are continuing to bring digital-first public experience to their stakeholders.” USDA is using this guidance along with other key Administration guidance to fuel and accelerate digital transformation at the Department.

Cloud infrastructure

USDA OCIO have focused primarily on a department-wide data strategy for innovation to make the changes required. This includes optimising the use of cloud through the Digital Infrastructure Services Center (DISC). “These form a really strong base for the different mission areas and for a consistent, accessible infrastructure. Having our different programs and services moving to the cloud has been a game-changer. Ultimately, folks are able to focus less on basic, outdated technology and take programs to the next level.”

Additionally, during the COVID-19 pandemic, USDA’s Client Experience Center (CEC) had been essential to enhancing USDA’s technological capability to deliver on its missions in a remote environment. It delivered the necessary hardware and software to over 100,000 employees and contractors during a challenging time. This meant that they could continue to focus on innovation and their missions. “They were able to support everybody and get them what they needed,” says Gallagher-Welcher. “Making sure everyone still had access to what they needed was an accelerant for the momentum of innovation and digital transformation.”

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