State’s new CIO defines her role

With hundreds of embassies and consulates scattered across six continents, the State Department has information technology needs that more closely resemble a multinational corporation than a Washington-based bureaucracy.

However, State’s IT challenges do not end with geography. Even as the department deploys new tools such as Diplopedia, a wiki encyclopedia for diplomats, its new IT leader said it must adapt its culture to the 21st century.

With the near-completion of several high-profile IT projects, including the long awaited State Messaging and Archive Retrieval Toolset (SMART), the department is charting a new IT course. SMART will combine e-mail, diplomatic text cables and memos into a single messaging system.

Susan Swart, who became State’s chief information officer in February, said she is eager to expand the Information Resource Management (IRM) bureau into areas beyond those of a technology infrastructure provider. FCW reporter Ben Bain recently talked to Swart about the challenges facing the department and her plans to overcome them.

Q: What was it like when you became the department’s CIO?
A: It was an advantage to have been a deputy [CIO], as opposed to having come in from something else. It’s a different sense of responsibility. It’s true for anyone that moves up. It’s a lot different being in the seat than being below the seat thinking the seat should be doing this, this and this.

Q: What are some of the challenges of leading a CIO’s office that must support people worldwide?
A: The people who are in the field don’t work for IRM. They work for the posts, which I personally think they should do because they are there to support the objectives of the ambassador, not the objectives of the central IT organization. In general, the field does a better job of following [Office of Management and Budget, and National Institute of Standards and Technology IT guidelines] than all the bureaus back here in Washington. In a way, it’s a less complicated environment [in the field]. They are not developing big corporate applications. Implementing security [mandates] across a geographically and organizationally distributed organization is difficult.

Q: Was it hard to come and work in Washington when you had been a career foreign-service officer?
A: For me, no, because I spent a lot of time in Washington. I feel well-versed in the bureaucracy and the nuances and complexities.

Q: How is IT at State going to change?
A: IRM has been an infrastructure provider and those things in general work well now and can be managed from here. I think the future for us is in [information]. What kind of technology tools can we deliver that help the diplomats do their job? And that’s Web 2.0. How do [diplomats] use their information? How do they access information?
If you look at [diplomacy] in 2012, what are the kinds of services and tools that we can provide? How do we help diplomats do their business, instead of saying, “We’re successful because we sent a million telegrams or because our network was up 99.9 percent of the time.” It’s going to be a huge cultural shift for our own organization and for the department, [which] is very traditional. It’s going to be a big shift that will happen gradually.

Q: As the Bush administration winds down, will IT initiatives fall off the radar?
A: To whatever extent it’s in the forefront now, I think it will stay there. We have two management reform initiatives that [Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice] has championed that are IT-related: a data warehouse and desktop consolidation.

The data warehouse is more in line with what we want to be doing in the future — taking a better look across all the stovepipe data [storage]. [Rice] is really behind both of those projects, and I think because they make sense they will last over the transition. They’re not something that somebody will come in and say, “Hey, this is so tied to that previous administration we shouldn’t be doing it.”

Q: How are you preparing for the transition to a new administration?
A: There is a whole transition plan and documentation, so you have the opportunity to really lay [it all] out. These are the things we’re doing, these are the things we want to do in the future. It’s a real opportunity for us — IRM — to define our future direction, what we want to continue doing, justifying it and [explaining] what kind of support we would want from [the next administration].

Q: How important is it to have the ear of the secretary directly?
A: I don’t think that’s really as important as how you are carrying out your job and how your organization is meeting the objectives of those people. If you are somebody who thinks, “If I only reported to the secretary directly, all this stuff would happen....” in our culture, that’s definitely not true. It’s not [as if we do what] they say, and everybody marches. It’s a very consensus-driven culture.

Q: How do you see your role as a CIO?
A: I [think] my role should be [in figuring out], “How does the department use technology to better manage its information, make better decisions and support the diplomat?” That’s the role I think that the CIO in the State Department should have. In actuality, my role is very much viewed as the infrastructure provider, the techie. What it should be is one thing and what it really is...we’re making progress toward the other, but it’s a slow march. We have to demonstrate that we can do it, and for so long that’s not what we’ve been viewed as. But we’re making inroads there. 

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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