by Peter Gadzinski
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
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.
Behind the Curve
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.
Successful Adaptation is Urgent
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.