Department Spotlight ~ U.S. Department of Agriculture: Harvesting Crops and Innovation

Fall visits to the farmers market take us back to simpler times when people lived off the land. Today's farmers may provide the same "output" of food, but how they manage the growth and distribution of it has changed dramatically.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) was established in 1862 and was nicknamed "The People's Department" by President Lincoln because of its mission to support the farmers that feed the nation. Today, the USDA is focused on providing "leadership on food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, nutrition, and related issues based on public policy, the best available science, and effective management."

In achieving this mission, the USDA has become a hub for innovation. It was chosen as the first host agency for a modernization Center of Excellence (CoE). Spearheaded by the General Services Administration (GSA), the CoE at USDA was established to accelerate IT modernization across government to improve the public experience and increase operational efficiency. The CoE centralizes top government tech talent and combines it with private sector experts and expertise to implement best practices to move processes and technologies ahead. The CoE is focused on five functional areas: Cloud Adoption, Contact Center, Customer Experience, Data Analytics, and Infrastructure Optimization.

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Growing Our Cloud Smarts

The move to cloud computing in government has changed from a focus on Cloud First to Cloud Smart. The initial push to cloud encouraged agencies to look at cloud options when adding or updating technology but provided no direct guidance. This "Cloud First" push provided a way to educate agencies on what cloud is and why it is a viable option for deploying applications to the government workforce. This education worked, making even the most security-conscious agencies comfortable with moving data and applications to the cloud to gain new efficiencies in time and budget.

The Cloud Smart policy, a logical evolution of Cloud First, was introduced last year and provides more guidance surrounding security, procurement, and workforce skills to foster cloud adoption and implementation. While the value cloud can provide is widely accepted, procurement of cloud remains a stumbling block to wider, easier cloud adoption. The shift in spending from capital funds to operating funds and the fluidity of the fees based on need and usage require different language and structure in contracts. Security also continues to be a focus, creating new "shared responsibility" language in cloud agreements and plans.

To help you get smarter on how to be cloud smart, we've compiled a list of upcoming events that cover the areas related to a successful cloud deployment.

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Facing the Cybersecurity Threat Head On

In October, ghosts and goblins come to life as decorations on front lawns and as candy-seeking children knocking on our doors. But stepping away from the frivolity of Halloween, October has also become a time for us to reflect on the real threats we face year-round when it comes to our data, identity privacy and online security.

National Cybersecurity Awareness Month (NCSAM), spearheaded by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), is a "collaborative effort between government and industry to raise awareness about the importance of cybersecurity and to ensure that all Americans have the resources they need to be safer and more secure online." This year's theme is Own IT. Secure IT. Protect IT. Programs around the country will address topics including citizen privacy, securing consumer devices, and eCommerce security.

More than IT professionals talking to one another, NCSAM aims to reach out to the public to emphasize personal accountability and educate people about the importance of taking proactive steps to enhance cybersecurity at home and in the workplace. The NCSAM website has some handy guides that can be shared to educate people on these actionable steps.

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FITARA 8.0 – No News is Good News

In place since 2014, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA) has aimed to provide guidance and checkpoints for agencies' modernization efforts. Over the years, the compliance status of the agencies has had its ups and downs.

The latest report card, issued in June 2019 showed fairly steady performance when it comes to meeting FITARA goals and mandates. This 8.0 report card was the first to include a cybersecurity score that focused on FISMA (Federal Information Security Modernization Act) compliance. This report also took out the score for Data Center Optimization Initiative (DCOI) as the majority of agencies are holding steady on that score and/or it is complicated by technology interdependencies.

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Department Spotlight: Department of Education

It's back to school time, so we thought it only fitting to take a look at the Department of Education (ED) to get a sense of what is on their "syllabus" for the next government fiscal year. The stated mission of the Department is to "promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access." It is a fairly new cabinet-level agency established in 1980. In addition to providing federal support and coordination to the states, the agency is responsible for administering loans and grants for higher education.

A current focus for the Department is modernization. A recent GAO report looked at the ten most critical updates needed in government. ED had one system on the list that was relying on COBOL programming language, a language that is not used or taught anymore, and those who do know it are retiring from the workforce.

Beyond this obvious and critical modernization need, the Department is looking at many other modernization initiatives, including updating the federal student loan process to streamline and simplify applications. Similarly, ED is actively investigating ways that modernized loan systems can reduce and even stop fraud involved in loan applications.

For people working with the Department of Education, there are several conferences and events in the coming months that address the education sector directly as well as guide modernization more generally.

  • Public Sector Innovation Summit (October 2, 2019; Arlington, VA) - This event brings together IT leaders from government and industry to discuss best practices, opportunities, and key trends in the government technology space. Additional focus areas include efficiently moving to the cloud, transforming IT to modernize government, innovating in a risk-averse culture, and much more.
  • EDUCAUSE Annual Conference (October 14-17, 2019; Chicago, IL) - Focused on the higher ed IT market, professionals and technology providers from around the world will come together to share ideas, grow professionally, and discover solutions to today's challenges. Topics include managing and reducing information technology risk, navigating change, transforming the student experience, and creating a culture of data-informed decision-making.
  • P3 Higher Education Summit (October 24-25, 2019; San Diego, CA) -- Public-private partnerships (P3s) are delivering essential infrastructure on campuses across the country. University representatives and industry leaders will discuss the latest modes of campus infrastructure delivery. The agenda will focus on P3 education, financing, procurement, policy, and networking.
  • Blockchain Expo North America (November 13-14; Santa Clara, CA) - This event will include a series of expert keynotes, interactive panel discussions and solution-based case studies exploring the key industries that are set to be disrupted the most by this new technology, including financial services, government, and education.

Let us know what other events could benefit people working at the federal level of education. Share your thoughts in the comments.