State looks to expand content portal

Agency needs broader content management system for info sharing

With Portal X, the State Department answered calls for better information sharing among U.S. embassies and posts worldwide and the intelligence community.

But the department may have outgrown the system's capabilities, and officials have their sights set on a grander content management system.

Portal X, launched in 2003, provides a framework for U.S. embassies worldwide to post and share information. Rather than send notices on cables, each location offers the information, such as alerts and foreign officials' biographies, through a secure site.

In 2004, State linked the portal to the Defense Department's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network (SIPRNET), making the information accessible to several intelligence agencies.

"It opened up an entirely different way of communicating within the department that, for 50 years, operated on doing a cable on one issue, [finding out] who is interested and sending it to those places," said Ambassador James Holmes, former deputy chief information officer at State.

Information wasn't really shared before Portal X, said Gary Galloway, acting director of State's Office of eDiplomacy. "If you knew who had the information and you needed it, you were in luck," he said.

Despite boosting the department's presence on SIPRNET and transforming information sharing, the portal had its shortcomings, officials said. Because it was a government-developed product, built with contractor AlphaInsight, some users never felt the product was as replicable or current as a commercial product, Holmes said. Portal X couldn't keep pace with similar emerging products, and its limitations made many in the agency question whether it was a long-term solution, he said.

State officials also faced the challenge of persuading tech-resistant employees to embrace online information sharing. Knowledge management is more about culture than about technology, Galloway said, and Portal X was often a tough sell.

"It's a completely different way of doing business," he said. "It's been almost like herding sheep to convince bureaus this is something beneficial."

Still, State's needs may have already begun to reach beyond Portal X's capabilities. Although the system is used for publishing internal sensitive but unclassified information, it does not reach across all public and internal classification levels.

Instead, the department needs an enterprise content management solution to replace Portal X, Galloway said.

The plan is still in the requirements-gathering stage, Galloway said, as officials determine the best way to meet the department's diverse needs.

"The challenge at this point is to identify a business process that will facilitate Web-publishing content at all levels on which we try to share information — from the public Web site to our public diplomacy sites to intranet sites on internal systems, including our classified systems," Galloway said. "Certainly for an enterprisewide solution and one implemented worldwide, we would need something that does what Portal X does well and more."

Galloway said that a new system is needed "sooner than the next five years."

Bruce Freedman, a vice president of AlphaInsight, agreed with the assessment of Portal X's limitations, but said it served a vital purpose for the department.

The project was developed quickly and deployed broadly across the department, filling an immediate need for information sharing. It also helped start a cultural change by forcing officials to rethink their business processes for sharing information.

"If we go five years in the future, and look back and ask what the legacy was, it won't be that it was cool technology," Freedman said. "It was that it started the culture change necessary to sustain an initiative to do an enterprisewide solution."

Michael is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Portal X

What is it? The State Department's Portal X is a secure, online way for embassies and intelligence community members to share information with one another.

Who uses it? Employees at more than 160 posts worldwide submit information to Portal X.

When was it launched? State debuted the intranet portal in 2003 and connected it to the Defense Department's Secret Internet Protocol Router Network in 2004. State has been using the current version for about a year and a half, and a new version is expected in mid-December.

What's next? State officials will eventually replace Portal X with an enterprise content management system that will facilitate information sharing with other agencies' employees at all classification levels.

— Sara Michael

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