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Start small: How agencies drive digital transformation

Federal agencies are spurring digital innovation, even under budget pressure, said current and former federal officials explained how they found ways to move digital transformation forward.

At a recent FCW event, the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service's CIO Gary Washington explained how APHIS is upgrading its permitting process to an electronic platform. With the ePermits a web-based system, users can submit permit applications for importing or moving animals, plants and biologics between states. Users can also track applications, apply for renewals and amendments and receive copies of their permits.

“There was a decision by our leadership to tackle permits because it had the most significant impact on our operations, but it was more complex than we imagined,” Washington said.  “We wanted to get to the point that a permit was delivered in days or minutes versus months, and in some ways we have achieved that.”

One of the key components to moving to ePermits was getting APHIS senior management involved in the decision making.  While the transition was difficult for agency employees at the start, Washington said the agency set up a digital services support office to address staff concerns, and more people got onboard with the process over time.

For other agencies interested in overhauling their systems, Washington suggested creating a business case first that will drive the selection of technology providers rather than jumping into a business partnership without knowing your technological needs.

“You need to take this process in small chunks, and it has to be a participative process with your stakeholders and business folks,” Washington said.  “You are not going to swallow the whole elephant right away, so you need to pick some low-hanging fruit and allow those processes to be successful before you build on top of them.”

Casey Coleman, senior vice president of government solutions at Salesforce and a former CIO for the General Services Administration, said she found senior executives needed to be engaged in the process in order to move toward the GSA's goals of more shared services.  To make employees feel they had more control over their purchasing, she said, GSA instituted a waiver process to help managers get the tools they needed to improve their workflows.

“We created a waiver process to tell senior executives that they can sign off on any technology purchase that they deem their organization needs, but by co-signing they were asked to be mindful that through taxpayer dollars our mission is to standardize and cut costs to become more efficient,” Coleman said. 

Over her six-plus years with the agency, Coleman said, approximately 100 waivers were signed, and the process encouraged GSA officials to be active participants in the agency’s goal to become more efficient.

Over the years, GSA rolled out a customer service plan that used Salesforce to manage and monitor customer relationships across GSA along with a common knowledge database that provided answers to top questions from various federal agencies.

“We didn’t have any money in the budget, and I was able to find a way to spend $100,000 to create some targeted FAQs and a knowledge base,” Coleman said.  “It made everyone feel like real progress was being made.”

At the White House, Rusty Pickens, now managing director at 580 Strategies, described how important training can be when introducing new software.  

While the majority of the Obama White House employees in were young digital natives, Pickens found they needed additional training to ensure they fully understood how to use the new email system that was turned on in October 2013.

 “I underestimated ... in thinking that we could just hand them software as a service that is going to be pretty easy for them to use with very minimal training,” said Pickens, who served as the acting director for new media technologies at the White House for four years.  “My big take away from it was to provide twice as much training and change management as you think that you are going to need upfront.”

About the Author

Sara Friedman is a reporter/producer for GCN, covering cloud, cybersecurity and a wide range of other public-sector IT topics.

Before joining GCN, Friedman was a reporter for Gambling Compliance, where she covered state issues related to casinos, lotteries and fantasy sports. She has also written for Communications Daily and Washington Internet Daily on state telecom and cloud computing. Friedman is a graduate of Ithaca College, where she studied journalism, politics and international communications.

Friedman can be contacted at sfriedman@gcn.com or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

Click here for previous articles by Friedman.


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