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American Diplomacy
Commentary and Analysis

March 2006

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American Diplomacy takes pleasure in providing for an even wider audience the following thoughtful analysis of the state of play in the Department of State at the end of the new secretary of state's initial year in office. - Ed.

Changes in institutional culture and an improved IT structure will help realize Condoleeza Rice's vision of transformational diplomacy.

The oldest of the federal agencies, the Department of State is a conservative institution with a risk-averse culture. State's steadfastness of purpose and avoidance of rapid swings in orientation are positive attributes that reflect its enduring commitment to the basic national interests of the country and its mission to create a more secure, democratic and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community.

Still, far-reaching changes in our foreign policy objectives have occurred in recent years. The Carter administration oversaw a greater emphasis on human rights; during the 1990s we paid more attention to global issues such as the environment; the Clinton and Bush administrations have made heightened efforts to combat the scourge of HIV/AIDS; and now we face the threat of global terrorism. There is little doubt that America's foreign policy challenges are greater than ever.

At the same time, both the world and the department have witnessed profound changes in computing and communications power. Yet despite the demands and opportunities posed by these developments, modifications in the work process of the department—its institutional culture—have been much slower to emerge.

The stage is set
Nonetheless, change is afoot. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell had a tremendous influence by introducing new ideas and new tools to the department. He won funding to hire over 1,200 new Foreign Service officers via the Diplomatic Readiness Initiative. And he encouraged a significant upgrade of State's information technology capabilities, including improved bandwidth and networking worldwide and access to the Internet from every department employee's desktop computer.

Drawing on his military career and personal proclivities, Powell stressed personal leadership, encouraged training (mandating mid-level management training for the first time) and urged employees to strike a better balance between official duties and their personal lives. In this connection, Powell actually forbade his top deputies to work in the department on weekends. Tellingly, however, this order forced many of them to depend on commercial services such as Yahoo and Hotmail for connectivity, because access to work-related information was not yet available to them at home via official channels.

The combination of greater legitimacy accorded to learning, a willingness on the part of top officials to at least entertain the possibility of changes in the traditional cultural mindset, and an improved IT (Information Technology) infrastructure has set the stage for the next phase in the evolution of the work of the Department of State: “Anywhere, Anytime Diplomacy.” The enhanced access and work flexibility defined by this concept will help realize Sec. Rice's vision of transformational diplomacy.

The current five-year information technology strategic plan goals paper, covering Fiscal Years 2006 through 2010, and related documents envision noting less than creating a knowledge-sharing culture at the Department of State. Specific goals include the increased availability of 24/7 remote access to unclassified information and greater attention to collaborative work, the latter encompassing improved interagency connectivity and establishment of “communities of practice”—networks of people who collaborate on common interests, tasks and needs. These communities may have a variety of means to work on them, from e-mail to online home pages. The department's strategic plan for IT also envisions the introduction of knowledge management tools such as desktop search engines, expert and expertise locator systems and knowledge databases.

I have extracted the accompanying table from the strategic plan to highlight those trends and best practices that represent potential for change in the department's work practices.

What's In, What's Out:
Key Trends and Best Practices in 2006
InOut
Enterprise-wide, governmentwide solutionsSingle bureau, single-agency approaches
Rapid technology change and adoptionReluctance to innovate
Knowledge is a department asset, proactively sharedKnowledge belongs to individual bureaus and is not shared
Outsourcing of non-core activitiesIn-house for all functions
WirelessWired
Next-generation data mining and searchFragmented data sources accisble only in restricted ways
Mobile computing and telecommuting
Voice data integration/Voice over Internet Protocol
Separate networks tethered to the desk
Voice input and speech recognitionKeyboards
Leveraging partnershipsIsolation
Automated, real-time language translation servicesLimited ability to get documents translated
Out of the box commercial off the shelf solutionsHighly customized solutions, including overly customized COTS
Web-basedClient-server
Multimedia for effective communicationRigid formats, cables
Enterprise-wide business continuity planningAd-hoc approach to critical infrastructure protection
Computing as utilityNon-standard, isolated IT environments
Adaptable networks-self configuring, dynamicHard -wired static networks
Risk managementRisk aversion

Behind the Curve
Taken together, these items are not just the sum of the individual tools or concepts listed. They represent something much more: a fundamental shift in the conceptual model of how diplomatic work should be carried out. As just one example, FSOs require access to unclassified e-mail and files outside of office hours, both at home and on the road. Working as we do in a global context, often coordinating closely with colleagues located several time zones away, restricting access to official e-mail and personal files to desktop computers during office hours at our primary duty stations represents a tremendous opportunity cost for American diplomacy.

In terms of remote access, we are behind the curve with respect to our colleagues in other national security agencies, not to mention foreign governments and the private sector. In the Government Accountability Office, all 3,500 employees have remote access to their work. In contrast, at a recent WTO negotiating session in Geneva, only the State representative lacked remote access within the U.S. government negotiating team.

Use of an encrypted means to log on to the Internet, OpenNet Everywhere, has only just begun to catch on at State. Currently available only in Washington, ONE has been undergoing proof-of-concept testing at selected posts overseas, and initial reports are positive. At present, some 2,000 employees in Washington, 10 percent of our global workforce, have access. The goal is for this figure to rise to 5,000 ONE accounts, 25 percent of the total, by the end of the current fiscal year, including some overseas users. While the department pays for remote access for teleworkers, the relatively high annual cost for non-teleworkers must be paid by individual bureaus, which could impede rapid adoption of the technology.

Another area where change is needed in order to increase our diplomatic effectiveness around the world is collaborative work and knowledge-sharing. At present, drafting and knowledge-sharing are largely stovepiped along the lines laid out by the formal organizational hierarchy, the connected boxes with which we are all too familiar. Incumbents with specific functional or geographic portfolios work in largely isolated fashion. Reporting officers are frequently unaware of, or unable to easily access, relevant expertise near at hand within the department itself or at other posts, much less outside the agency.

That having been said, there are already good examples within the department today of what can be accomplished.

The Bureau of Consular Affairs is a leader in collaborative technology, using specialized software to link several hundred officers around the world in its Fraud Prevention Program.

Another example is provided by the Bureau of Intelligence and Research's Humanitarian Information Unit. Setting up a collaborative Web-based workspace the day after the Asian tsunami hit, the HIU played a leadership role for other agencies as well as private-sector NGOs by providing an information clearing house and knowledge repository.

The Bureau of Human Resources' Employee Profile Plus database has been used to identify officers with work and language skills in emergency situations such as the Asian tsunami and Hurrican Katrina. This innovation was recently recognized with a President's Quality Award, the top management honor for executive branch agencies.

Successful Adaptation is Urgent
Foreign Service officers are expected to be instant experts in our domestic or foreign positions, and we have an institutional/work culture that resists seeking advice or knowledge from others in the department. Those who do possess critical and hard-won knowledge find it difficult to share their expertise once they depart one pigeonholed position for another. Their successors do not routinely look to them for guidance and advice, nor do they automatically think to give it.

At present, communities of practice or communities of interest are in their infancy at State. Collaborative work tools are not well known, and data mining and knowledge database applications are in only limited use.

If we are truly to realize the promise of technology to transform the practice of American diplomacy, we must aim at nothing less than leveraging our collective knowledge and experience on a global basis. As Sec. Powell put it, “The success of U.S. diplomacy in this new century depends in no small measure on whether we exploit the promise of the technology revolution.” People are beginning to talk about these possibilities and some experimentation is taking place in Washington and around the world.

The notion of modifying the “traditional” way of working-much less bringing about a more fundamental shift in State's work culture-meets with stiff resistance from many who are not comfortable with new ways of communicating and networking. This issue is frequently cited as troubling by more junior employees, who came to the department in recent years from more progressive information environments in the military, academia or the private sector.

A concerted effort is needed to make the Foreign Service managers and their Civil Service colleagues aware of the possibilities and the potential for advancing the nation's interests via these new tools, and to convince them to take the first steps toward 21st century diplomacy. We are not yet at critical mass, the “Tipping Point” of Malcolm Gladwell's book by the same name, but the forces of change are gathering strength.

State's handling of knowledge and information lags behind that of the private sector. We are indeed making progress and anticipate more, but it is vital that we not be left behind. Too much rides on our successful adaptation to the new technological and communication realities and the potential they represent to leverage information into strategic knowledge that can benefit the American people. 

Note: Text and table epublished from the Foreign Service Journal, January 2006, by permission of the Journal and the author.


Peter Gadzinski is an economic-cone Foreign Service officer who served in six overseas posts before returning to Washington in 2000. After serving in the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs, he was a Pearson Fellow with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before heading State's liaison office on the Hill. Presently, he is with the Information Resource Management Bureau's Office of eDiplomacy, where he seeks to represent the customer point of view in IT and knowledge management issues. The views expressed in this article are the author's and not necessarily those of the Department of State.

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