Agencies focus on consumer-facing services

Chad Sheridan, CIO of the Risk Management Agency at the Department of Agriculture, knows that agencies “steal ideas” from each other to improve their operations.  After the Department of Veterans Affairs launched the website in November 2015, Sheridan said he got in touch with the U.S. Digital Service to undertake a similar effort at USDA to address the needs of farmers. is a one-stop shop for the services provided by the Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conversation Service and Risk Management Agency.  The website features program descriptions with an interactive requirements tool, easy access to USDA accounts, customer- and mobile-friendly digital forms and a customizable data dashboard. USDA expects to roll out payments capabilities through in May.

“We partnered with the U.S. Digital Service match-making program in January,” Sheridan told GCN at a March 2 AFCEA Bethesda event.  “They gave us three to five vendors who had three hours to give us feedback on how they could solve our problems. And based on that, we picked one of them and went into a sole-source contract.”

The USDA is working with MetroStar Systems on to build out a website that addresses the diverse information needs of farmers by providing access to local resources.

“We realize very clearly that our customers trust their local USDA office,” Sheridan said.  “We need to balance the ability to deliver and provide opportunities so farmers can choose [where to access USDA services]. “

USDA's own IT operations are in the midst of a massive reorganization.  At a Feb. 28 FCW event, USDA CIO Gary Washington explained how the department is moving to a shared services model and paring down its 22 current CIO jobs down to eight assistant CIO positions focused on mission areas.

“We have a three-year timeline, and we are hoping by Sept. 30 that everyone be named and be permanent,” Washington said.

A critical component of the USDA’s work is its willingness to experiment, Sheridan said.  “We can't [fail] on the mission, but our first attempt could be wrong, and we need to celebrate that we learned to figure out what we did was wrong and how to do something different.”

Like, the VA's was designed to provide veterans with access to services 24 hours a day. Scott Blackburn, executive in charge of the VA’s Office of Information and Technology, said competition from the health care industry has helped spur his agency offer a comparable online experience.

“Most veterans are a USAA member, and that is their bar for the veteran's online experience,” Blackburn said on a panel with Sheridan.  “We need to maintain a mentality of customer service as we are moving forward.”

The IRS likewise has emphasized making the tax filing process simpler with online tools such the  “Do I need to file a tax return?” interactive tax assistant, which takes its cue from capabilities found in TurboTax and H&R Block software.  

“We need to start with the customer and what they need,” IRS Product Management Director  Andrew Chiu said at the AFCEA event.  “We need to be able to determine the next viable feature or product, roll it out, iterate and stay connected.”

The IRS has also gotten feedback from customer service staff and used it to improve its internal processes.  “Those employees are so passionate [about the changes] that they mention it when they are on the phone, and it creates a lift for the citizen and taxpayer experience,” Chiu said.

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 or follow her on Twitter @SaraEFriedman.

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