Evolutionary State

How wikis and blogs have helped the nation's oldest federal agency learn to share.

Unlike most other federal agencies, the State Department for many years took pride in its lack of technological advancement. On easing the State Department into a technological transition, career diplomat Richard Boly first asked, "Here's a group that is historically risk averse by design, and we're asking them to make a change that is diametrically opposed to what they've grown throughout their career doing. How do we go about that?"

Enter the Office of eDiplomacy. Conceived by State nine years ago to help the department move from the need-to-know protocols of its Cold War days to a post-9/11 need to share, eDiplomacy has transformed internal communications at the nation's oldest Cabinet agency by implementing cheap, open-source technology and putting it behind the firewall. "We're really not talking about pie-in-the-sky expensive futuristic stuff, but things that are readily available today-mobile technology or Web-enabled technology. Technology that is readily available, and that people know about," says Boly.

And what better way to move an agency into need-to-share protocols than to integrate technology from the world's leading authorities on need to share, namely social networking sites Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia. The cadre of tools that the Office of eDiplomacy has integrated into State Department life includes an internal wiki called Diplopedia, an online blogging community called Communities @ State, and a social networking site named Corridor. It also helps implement Sounding Board, an agencywide ideas box.

Boly became the director of eDiplomacy shortly after Secretary Hillary Clinton launched the 21st Century Statecraft initiative in the fall of 2010. The program led to a reorganization of State's IT division, more than doubling the size of the eDiplomacy office, and adding responsibility for increasing operational capacity through information sharing systems.

The problem that eDiplomacy was directed to correct-a lack of sound procedures for internal collaboration-has become almost the stuff of cliché, though it has not proved easy to solve. The eDiplomacy effort is responsible for connecting a workforce of more than 57,000 employees, only 11,000 of whom work at headquarters in Washington. The challenge lies with connecting the 9,000 State employees who are dispersed among embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions in 180 countries as digitally diverse as Egypt, where Internet access is highly controlled, and Estonia, where online services are ubiquitous. In addition, the majority of State employees are not American citizens. The department employs 37,000 foreign citizens who work hand in hand with their American counterparts. The sheer numbers of individuals, nations, languages and protocols involved, along with heightened security concerns, pose a unique information challenge.

James Holmes, who was director of eDiplomacy during the Bush administration, said during a 2003 Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development symposium that "the Department of State is an information machine. Managing knowledge is what we do every day. Yet the very mention of knowledge management leaves many of our people uncomfortable. Is it just another management fad?"

Boly refers to this discomfort as a long-standing basic paradigm of the State Department. The key mission of his office has been to change it, and to create a platform and a culture that make information sharing the default at an agency where it is counter-intuitive. "If the State Department knew what the State Department knows, we'd be three times closer to world peace," Boly often says, giving his rendition of the famous quote on knowledge management by the late Lew Platt, who was president and chief executive officer at Hewlett-Packard. According to Boly, the true power of information in an organizational context is not just in possessing it, but in getting the information to the right people at the right time.

"Knowledge management has undergone a serious shift in the past 10 years," says David Weinberger, a Franklin fellow at State, who is assisting eDiplomacy in its institutional memory challenges and is author of the upcoming book Too Big to Know: Rethinking Knowledge Now That Facts Aren't the Facts, Experts Are Everywhere, and the Smartest Person in the Room Is the Room (Basic Books, 2012). "Nowhere is it more apparent than at State and the intelligence agencies that no one can predict what will be important information. The context shifts and suddenly some obscure cable, or a jotting in a notebook, becomes crucially important."

Before eDiplomacy, State's intranet was the information dump for U.S. embassies around the globe; a jumble of sites, tools, data sets and applications with no real search mechanism and duplicities such as multiple versions of the Foreign Affairs Manual. With eDiplomacy's arrival came the Autonomy Intelligent Data Operating Layer Server and a functioning search engine. To ease the transition to agencywide use, eDiplomacy put together an informal search support service team. The office's current enterprise search function now fields on average 75,000 queries per week, and popular keywords include those related to other State Department technology, such as eForms and E2 Travel, State's travel authorization system.

The Office of eDiplomacy points to the low costs and usability of its system as crucial to its success. Naysayers often see new technology as too expensive to implement. The use of open source applications such as MediaWiki and WordPress has spared State from the higher costs of an enterprise development approach. "By adapting tools many of our employees are already familiar with via their experience on the Internet, we largely avoid the substantial costs that would be associated with extensive user training," says Steve Aguzin, a spokesman at State's Bureau of Information Resource Management.

Another tactic Boly uses to convince managers to take the plunge is addressing a long-standing challenge or need. According to a study released in 2010 by Information Resource Management, Diplopedia was created to address problems with knowledge management. Employees, especially junior ones, often ask how-to questions, and there was rarely a resource managers could point them to. The fuel behind diplomacy has always been access to information, whether it is on a specific country, region or locality. New Foreign Service officers would begin their terms without access to the expertise and insights of the officers who preceded them, which posed obvious challenges to their succession.

Diplopedia has now accumulated more than 15,000 articles and averages more than 40,000 page views per week. Topics range from the practical, such as Facebook guidelines for U.S. ambassadors, to the more theoretical, such as a recent wiki on the future of tech diplomacy. Diplopedia experienced the first real surge in traffic after the Haiti earthquake. Employees stationed in other parts of the world came to rely on the Haiti wiki to learn of recent news from workers on the ground. eDiplomacy found that use of the wiki not only skyrocketed, but later did not fall back to its pre-earthquake level.

Boly is even more idealistic when it comes to Communities @ State, the internal cluster of blog-based communities with shared professional needs or interests. If State employees encounter difficulties with a project, for example, they can blog about the problem on Communities @ State. Instead of being limited to the insight of supervisors and colleagues, employees have access to advice from thousands of counterparts and colleagues all over the world. One Communities @ State user points to how the platform improved communication between Foreign Service nationals and officers. "The FSNs and the officers are blogging side by side, and you don't often find that in an embassy," says the user.

Release Valve

A collaborative platform such as Communities @ State, Boly believes, has the added benefit of giving employees an outlet to express frustrations or concerns. Critics of information sharing often will point to WikiLeaks as an example of how wider access can lead to security breaches. Boly, however, likens the environment that led to WikiLeaks to that of a pressure cooker.

"If you have a pressure valve, perhaps you'd avoid a WikiLeaks. If you have a collaborative platform, you create an environment where people can get all their uncertainty and dissatisfaction off their chest without doing something wildly illegal and stupid," he says. It also provides agency leaders a valuable lens into attitudes in the workplace.

"All public diplomacy is moving away from the idea of a single voice toward an emphasis on coalitions, especially cooperation with [nongovernmental organizations]," says Nicholas Cull, a fellow at the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California. During the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, State collaborated with Tufts University's Institute for Global Leadership to deploy their Ushahidi crisis messaging tool, which can gather and geo-code text messages sent from lost or injured victims during a natural disaster. Within seconds, the tool would gather a message, relay it to the State Department's Virtual Student Foreign Service, which would translate it from Creole, and then geo-code its location, which would be sent to rescue organizations such as the Red Cross. This collaboration led to more than 80,000 pieces of actionable information.

Even though eDiplomacy was the brainchild of post-9/11 interagency culture, the office has not expanded its network outside State. While he understands the position of Boly and others at the Office of eDiplomacy, Cull says, "The Department of State has a long way to go still. Not everyone is yet [at] 'need to share.' "

Despite the vast reach of eDiplomacy, officers at the U.S. Agency for International Development lack access to its platforms. The disconnect between two such similar and lateral counterparts- USAID and State-which in some countries have officers in the same building, poses a significant hurdle to knowledge management. Boly and his team are working to bridge this gap, though no further information has been disclosed. A 2006 Government Accountability Office report found that communication between the two agencies was generally poor. USAID officials interviewed in the report described receiving no or delayed responses after they requested clarification on contradictory guidance issued by State.

A USAID official in the field says the level of accessibility to State officials is tied to seniority. "For instance, the USAID mission director talks to the ambassador. My points of contact are much further down the chain," says the official. While vertical information systems such as the one this official describes are a serious detriment to knowledge management, changing them is easier said than done.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article had the wrong title for Nicholas Cull. He is a fellow at the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec