The work of the Department of Agriculture reaches almost everyone in this country. The department inspects food, provides farming support, releases commodity trading data, determines nutritional guidelines for schoolchildren and runs a variety of health and welfare programs, including the food stamp program. To do all this, USDA relies heavily on technology.
But until recently, USDA’s operations were radically decentralized, and its technology was out-of-date, which not only wasted time and money, but also did not fully serve the needs of the department’s employees or customers.
Since joining USDA as chief information officer in 2017, Gary Washington has led an ambitious effort to modernize USDA’s technology capabilities and improve the efficiency, productivity and integrity of the department’s programs and services.
“Under Gary’s leadership, we’ve made tremendous progress stabilizing our infrastructure, our capacity and how we support our employees, saving dollars and making us more secure,” said Darren Ash, the assistant CIO for USDA’s Farm Service Agency. “Gary also has provided the USDA with a solid foundation and path to incorporate new technologies and new capabilities to improve how we deliver services to our customers.”
Washington oversees technology infrastructure for more than 100,000 employees, working with and managing 2,700 IT professionals across the department and managing a $2.4 billion portfolio. He handles strategy, policy, digital infrastructure and cybersecurity, as well as the current modernization effort.
One of his biggest initiatives was to bring USDA’s digital leadership under one roof. The IT operations previously had been led by 22 different CIOs running the technology for individual subagencies. Washington consolidated the operation, replacing the CIOs with nine assistant CIOs to make decision-making nimbler.
“That’s a lot of change management,” said Lynn Moaney, USDA’s deputy chief financial officer. “But Gary did this successfully by having multiple town hall meetings and communications with union representatives, HR and others.”
To harness and exploit the vast amounts of data that USDA was using, Washington created a centralized “data lake.” From there, evidence-based visualizations in the form of dashboards have been created, with easy-to-understand charts and figures that decision-makers can use to improve their work, both internally and externally.
“Gary has been very influential in organizing and making data available across the department,” said Simchah Suyveke-Bogin, USDA’s chief customer experience officer. “He is very transparent about the data and makes it available to all of the executive leadership.”
Washington also created a single help desk ticketing platform as part of ongoing infrastructure modernization and developed one unified security operations center that has added up to $8.2 million in cost-savings.
In addition, Washington’s work includes consolidating and modernizing customer service.
He launched AskUSDA, an integrated customer portal that centralizes customer inquiries using leading digital platforms. The initiative centralized 14 separate contact centers to streamline the customer and employee experience and provided analytics for insights to drive improvements.
Under Washington’s leadership, USDA also deployed Farmers.gov, a consolidated digital portal that reduced duplication and unified disjointed processes, including applications and program support. Employees can more easily distribute loans and disaster relief funds, providing aid to farmers faster and more effectively.
Mark Cerniglia, a Salesforce vice president, said Washington is “a trailblazer and a true leader,” who closely links technology modernization to USDA’s mission.
“Gary understands that his work is to serve the farmers and USDA customers,” Cerniglia said. “He’s really dialed into looking at that mission and the external stakeholders who are impacted by his work.”
In the midst of many technology changes, the COVID-19 pandemic forced government agencies to rapidly transition to telework, which had not previously been widely adopted across USDA. The department went from some 45,000 people teleworking part of the time to more than 95,000 every day across the country.
“The remarkable, seamless shift of employees to mass telework and continued delivery of secure services was largely due to Washington’s exemplary leadership and vision,” said Elaine Turville, managing director for technology delivery at Accenture Federal Services.
Throughout the modernization process, Washington said he has strived for “an inclusive process that partnered with employees across the department.” Because technology affects the entire workforce and changes can be disruptive, “we had to give people a comfort level that this was going to work, and show that there would be significant benefits,” Washington said.