IT Modernization Apprenticeship Experience: Breaking Down Workforce Innovation Barriers at USDA

Culture plays a vital role in modernizing agency operations, from frontline to C-suite.

“The people, the culture, it’s what makes a transformation successful.” — USDA Apprentice

People are at the heart of successful IT transformation. The Centers of Excellence (CoE) at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) are accelerating a 21st-century government culture by helping agencies innovate from within. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) invested in a two-year IT Modernization Apprenticeship program with GSA’s CoE to bolster rising talent within their organization and support sustainable modernization.

This workforce solution, focused on the user, is engaging motivated individuals to help advance the agency’s digital transformation. An interagency Apprenticeship Experience is the next generation of learning and development: hands-on learning, on-the-job training, and networked mentorship. Reimagining a learning culture that is human-centered is the foundation of retaining and upskilling the best talent to serve the American public.

Eight smiling people, USDA Apprentices and a GSA employee, standing together in a group.

Agencies don’t change — but the people within them do. The CoE Apprenticeship Experience makes learning emerging technology attractive, accessible, and possible. An organizational shift relies on cultivating adaptive employee mindsets and habits to become everready within the organization. This means encouraging an ongoing flexibility and curiosity to engage with modern technology and practice. Incremental, risk-based culture change that is infused within the CoE Apprenticeship Experience plays a vital role in modernizing agency operations, from frontline to C-suite.

At the conclusion of the first cohort’s two-year detailee experience, we collected overarching themes from interviews and feedback, and found the following four core impact levers in the Apprenticeship Experience at USDA to accelerate a 21st Century Workforce cultural evolution.

Impact

An infographic shows how people are at the center of IT Modernization. A blue circle representing business needs and a yellow circle representing IT solutions overlap at the center in green to show that people are the focus. This relationship is the basis for a culture change. The four core impact categories for a culture of excellence include operational innovation, holistic growth, scalable knowledge, and diverse relationships.

Four impact levers—Operational Innovation, Holistic Growth, Diverse Relationships, and Scalable Knowledge—help lower the barriers to workforce innovation as outlined in our findings on closing the human-technology gap. Each theme influences the way work gets done inside government. Improving the employee experience enables the workforce to improve service outcomes for customer citizens.

For example, it typically takes from 18 to 24 months to secure an Authority to Operate (ATO), which is the permission to operate an application that would service citizen customer needs in a production environment. With a collaboration in these impact areas, Apprentices and CoE teams were able to do it in only four and a half months.

(For more CoE success stories, check out the USDA Direct Farm Loans Journey that improves customer experience and increases opportunities for America’s farmers and producers.)

Operational Innovation

“Get work done quicker” — USDA Apprentice

An intimate working session in a conference room where two USDA Apprentices (seated center, and right) are collaborating on a project with a GSA employee (seated on the left).

What is the modern workplace experience? A 21st-century workplace supports collaborative attitudes and teamwork behavior. Trusting relationships fuel a productive work environment where teams are equipped to get answers more quickly—and make confident decisions. During the CoE experience, Apprentices are exposed to operational innovation: open communication, ongoing senior leadership engagement, human-centered management, continuous improvement, and interagency collaboration. All of these factors help the right employees surface the right information or data at the right time to drive the desired outcomes of the engagement.

“If we’re all in the same space, we should be able to collaborate to develop shared answers,” was a sentiment expressed by one Apprentice. Co-location of teams, as another Apprentice suggested, helps with cross-collaboration. “When you hear things that are happening in other Centers, you start to think about the impact on your own CoE.” USDA, a visible and high-traffic co-location site, made employee engagement easier, empowered communication, and improved collaboration. One Apprentice noted that you could see and feel that “there is a transformation going on.” They noted that, “Co-experiences, rather than lecture-based experiences” made learning more enjoyable and thus more successful.

Leaders from the Centers of Excellence and USDA come together for a photo at the 2019 IT Modernization Showcase at GSA. These are the people who are the leadership stewards of operational innovation. From left to right, the four are: USDA’s CIO Chief of Staff Tonya L. Judkins; GSA’s Deputy Director, Centers of Excellence, Brian Whittaker; USDA’s CIO, Gary Washington; and USDA’s Deputy Chief Financial Officer, Lynn Moaney.

Holistic Growth

“I’ve had opportunities to do things I’d never have had a chance to do before.” — USDA Apprentice

Six USDA Apprentices walk through the GSA atrium.

Holistic growth begins with enabling holistic collaboration that is grounded in an overall view of an organization’s current state, and future vision. Collapsing boundaries between employees who had previously held separate work routines is the future of more integrated operations and leadership. This drives successful technology adoption outcomes. When an agency like USDA fosters inclusive workforce engagement, it ensures that employees have access to the right learning experiences and tools at the right time. New ideas are paramount to an employee’s aspirations of self-improvement and career advancement. Hands-on learning, on-the-job training, and networked mentorship builds momentum and is the key to holistic transformation. As one Apprentice put it, “I understand how everything works together — I have an overview of everything.”

Small, coordinated steps between diverse employees can drive big change. Such transformation takes time and ongoing collaboration. How might the federal workforce learn new competencies while accelerating positive organizational changes? There is often a myriad of structure and routines that individuals must follow day-to-day because the government is largely designed to regulate. Structure can be necessary to ensure productivity and safeguard against misuse of taxpayer dollars. However, operational structure that limits the ways that people work together across silos can hinder holistic growth. It is important to have updated policies and to be flexible with routines where possible.

Diverse Relationships

“We’ve learned a lot from this experience and it helped my career in areas that I had given up on.” — USDA Apprentice

Photo of a large group of diverse USDA stakeholders and customers are seated around many small, connected tables that form a rectangle in a conference room. At the far end of the room, a large, ceiling-mounted screen displays a presentation. The meeting, run by a GSA employee and USDA Apprentices, represents an opportunity to collapse boundaries between different stakeholders to foster diverse relationships.

The Apprentice Experience is an opportunity to build diverse relationships at all levels of the organization. This pipeline enables cross-agency learning so that people can be effective at both micro and macro levels. As stated by one Apprentice, “The relationships that I’ve been able to build with people have helped me get ahead.” Another Apprentice said, “[before CoE] I was totally heads down at my agency. CoE has broadened my horizons. It was a great experience for me.”

Before their assignments to the CoE, the USDA Apprentices had limited relationships outside of their USDA mission areas. Reduced access to department leadership impacted the Apprentices’ ability to problem solve at an enterprise-wide level. When employees do not have visibility across an organization, it is also believed to stunt career growth. The CoE engagement demonstrated that the Apprentices have the ability to lead, no matter where they were previously in an organizational chart. Their leadership mirrors trends in the next generation of management — coaching — which includes listening, guiding, giving meaningful feedback, and empathy to help navigate hurdles within an organization’s culture. Alongside new ways to practice human-centered leadership, they also expanded technical skill sets around the CoE focus areas.

Scalable Knowledge

“Eye-opening moments: get the right people in the room and hear their perspectives.” — USDA Apprentice

A photo of a USDA Apprentice leading a human-centered design workshop. Three people are working at a table on an activity, and one person is standing in front of a customer journey map and a tall, dark board with colorful sticky notes of ideas from a brainstorming session.

What kind of power can be unlocked when you have the right people in the right room at the right time? All USDA Apprentices had critical institutional knowledge and access to relationships that were needed to advance sustained transformation. When the CoE touched down at USDA, the Apprentices were the institutional experts. They helped the new CoE teams quickly get up to speed, navigate organizational complexity, and facilitate the development of prototype solution possibilities. One Apprentice underscored that, because there are no tools that seamlessly connect people and data through the enterprise, “a lot of what we do at USDA is through personal networks,” and having the Apprentice as navigator of these networks is fundamental to IT Modernization success.

Before the CoE was established, those who would eventually become Apprentices were working on viable technology solutions in their mission areas, and were positioned to help parlay insights and solutions into the IT Modernization acceleration of the agency. CoE advance solutions more rapidly with a surge of talent. One USDA Apprentice commented that it is a rare opportunity to work with industry experts who are “willing to share their knowledge” and this is a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”

An intimate working session in an office where one USDA Apprentice is collaborating on a project with three GSA employees.

Let’s imagine a future where the federal government invests in the continuous development of its people, alongside emerging technology. Help shape the future of the federal government as the employer of choice for generations to come! Reach out to the Centers of Excellence at connectcoe@gsa.gov to learn more about how you might bring the IT Modernization Apprenticeship Experience to your agency.

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