How USDA used the cloud to boost efficiency

Agriculture cloud sows seed of efficiency

Although government is frequently called out for squandering taxpayer dollars -- think $640 toilet seats -- it has made significant changes to modernize and streamline processes, improve efficiencies and reduce overall spending.

Like any other major organization, government agencies are slowed by inherited, legacy technology infrastructures that they must maintain in order to avoid spending taxpayer money on new systems.  That leaves them with outdated systems, which takes more time, increases workloads and backs up government employees on routine tasks, preventing them from focusing on their priorities.  As a result, some agencies spend up to three quarters of their budgets trying to maintain outdated computer systems, according to some reports. There’s a clear need for the government to take a step back and assess its back-end infrastructure from a systemwide perspective instead of trying to solve problems ad hoc.

The poster child for new and cost-effective technology

So where is the government actually doing it right? A 2016 IDC report shines a bright spot on how the government is -- slowly but surely -- leveraging innovative technology to cut costs and remain a relevant part of the digital economy. The market research firm stated that 8.5 percent of all IT spending in FY 2016 was spent on cloud initiatives, which is in line with spending across all sectors and industries. The Department of Agriculture is seeing much success from this approach, and other government bodies need to take a page from its book. 

In 2011 the USDA leadership made strategic decisions that have delivered significant savings -- over 30 percent in just the first year when the U.S. Forest Service, the USDA’s largest agency, migrated services to a new cloud-based system.   This new platform allowed the agency to better track its equipment, analyze data and streamline invoicing.  Soon all 29 agencies within the USDA migrated to this platform -- which did not require capital expenditures given its cloud service nature -- and the real savings in employee time and money continued to scale at that 30 percent rate, representing millions of taxpayer dollars annually.

The case for other government agencies to follow suit: EIS 2020

One of the forces that will drive changes at other government agencies is the realization of benefits of a streamlined infrastructure through EIS 2020.

In 2015 the General Services Administration announced that Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions were to be implemented by 2017. The initiative calls for government agencies to better secure telecommunications and IT infrastructure working with innovative technology providers to ensure that they are benefitting from best practice solutions and services. EIS eliminates the need for agencies to only work with preferred government vendors and broadens their spectrum of choices, allowing them to make the wisest and most cost-effective decisions.

The first offering -- Network Services 2020 -- encompasses the GSA’s strategy for obtaining next generation telecommunications and IT infrastructure services.  It will hit the market in 2017 and offer agencies benefits such as:

  • Streamlined contract administration.
  • Focus on solutions over technologies
  • Future-proof contracts.
  • Simplified pricing.
  • Enhanced management and operations support.

Industry service providers will see reduced entry requirements for services and geographic coverage  and the ability to leverage provider commercial systems, with fewer government-specific requirements.

The overall need for a shift to cloud and SaaS models

As IDC also reported, the shift to cloud environments and software as a service are perhaps the most crucial pieces to the puzzle when it comes to streamlining and upgrading federal technology capabilities. The USDA’s new cloud-based management platform provided it with transparency and a dashboard view into all network and telecommunications services and assets. 

The agency is now able to determine how its resources are being used in over 6,000 locations, enabling subsequent efficiencies.  This automated process eliminates human error and cuts staff time spent on menial but time-consuming tasks such as invoice processing.   That frees up federal IT workers to concentrate on their primary functions -- monitoring, controlling and analyzing  infrastructure -- so the USDA can improve its workflow and focus on actually meeting its goals.

Despite some of the negative perceptions that persist about government spending, forward-thinking agencies such as the USDA are driving efficiencies for today and planning for the future.

All government agencies and branches should learn from what’s working.   They should engage with reputable, innovative technology partners to gain visibility and insight into networks and infrastructure to ensure they are operating more efficiently and effectively across the board.  These are the kinds of efficiencies that taxpayers want to see -- and should expect from their government -- in 2017 and beyond.

About the Author

Keith Hochstin is vice president of strategic development at MetTel.

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