The state of State's IT

The State Department prides itself on being the nation's oldest agency, as evidenced by the plaque in front of its Washington, D.C., headquarters. Yet State has also carried the dubious reputation of having some of the most antiquated technology in the federal government.

But Fernando Burbano, the department's chief information officer, has been waging a campaign to move the nation's diplomats into the 21st century. "I think things have changed dramatically over the last three years and also since the beginning of this administration."

The dearth of information technology demands drastic measures, from replacing all of the department's 1980s computers, to developing networks to handle classified information, to facilitating some 40 agencies to communicate with their overseas offices.

Burbano's goals are backed up by the department's popular and tech-savvy leader, Secretary Colin Powell. The retired Army general and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is pushing for budget increases. The State Department was one of a few agencies to see an increase for its fiscal 2002 IT budget.

Ray Bjorklund, vice president of consulting services for Federal Sources Inc., a McLean, Va., consulting firm, said that when Powell came on board, "we could see a real change in the workforce being much more anxious to embrace his management style."

Then Powell began the much overdue task of modernizing State's IT infrastructure, Bjorklund said. And that is evidenced by the "significant up-tick" in State's 2002 IT budget, more than double that of 2001.

Powell has a clear understanding of the importance of technology, especially given his experience at the Pentagon and in the Persian Gulf War, where IT gave the United States a competitive advantage, Bjorklund said. "The guy has been there, done that."

The Bush administration's 2002 budget request includes $216 million for improving the department's IT infrastructure — $113.2 million more than this year's spending levels. Powell has testified that improving the department's IT infrastructure is one of his top three priorities.

"We want broad-based Internet access for all our people," Powell told lawmakers earlier this year. "I want every employee in the Department of State, no matter where they are located throughout the world, to have access to the Internet — access to the power of the information revolution — so that they can get their jobs done in a more efficient way."

Such a plan would have been impossible on the Wang VS microcomputers formerly used at the department, which have become an icon of State's woeful IT infrastructure.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington, D.C., think tank, warned in a 1999 report that State's systems were so inadequate that they threatened to make U.S. diplomacy irrelevant.

The department's lack of modern technology puts the nation's diplomatic efforts at dire risk, according to the report. "The conduct of American diplomacy," the CSIS report stated, "faces unacceptable performance gaps between outdated practices and the requirements of the new age of information.... American diplomacy must be empowered with the tools and techniques of the 21st century."

Today, those Wangs have been replaced by desktops PCs.

The turnaround at the department has not gone unnoticed. The General Accounting Office, in its annual report on major management challenges and risks, noted that State has "updated its systems infrastructure and improved system capabilities at overseas locations."

Even so, the effort to update State's systems is a daunting task. "Because of the size, complexity and importance of State's information technology program, we will continue to monitor State's progress with implementing the common platform, modernizing its information systems and improving computer security," the GAO report stated.

When he arrived at State in 1998, Burbano quickly put together a strategic plan for the agency. It included five goals:

* Creating a secure global network using commercial services and technologies.

* Improving access and applications for the international affairs activities.

* Creating an integrated messaging and document management system.

* Streamlining administrative applications to increase productivity.

* Securing a sustainable and trained IT workforce.

Burbano said the department is making progress toward implementing those goals.

The department has deployed 30,000 modern desktops to 196 countries and 260 posts — 18,000 overseas and 12,000 domestically.

And in recent years, State also has rolled out Internet e-mail capabilities, merging five e-mail systems into one Web-based system with Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange as the standard.

The project, named A Logical Modernization Approach, replaced multiple e-mail systems and replaced the proprietary Wang VS systems, he said.

Those upgrades "set the stage for our new project, OpenNet Plus," Burbano said. "That will now provide Web access to these 30,000 desktops that currently only have Internet e-mail. This will provide Internet access...worldwide."

OpenNet Plus will address most of the department's goals by providing State with the critical IT infrastructure, he said.

State recently selected three vendors to develop a prototype for OpenNet Plus, said State's deputy CIO, Anthony Muse. Those plans are due by October. State will then review those plans, selecting the best approaches from the proposals and choose a lead vendor, he said.

"We may pick and choose from among those three vendors," Muse said, referring to Accenture, Science Applications International Corp. and SRA International Inc. State officials plan to pilot the project for five months beginning in April 2002 in Mexico and India, Muse said.

To address the additional security issues that arise from using open networks for sending sensitive but unclassified messages, Burbano said State is looking at authentication systems including public-key infrastructures, smart cards and biometric authentication.

Response to Terrorism

State is also developing a classified local-area network that is already installed at 40 overseas posts and will be in 60 posts by the end of the year, Burbano said. The plan is to have the system installed in more than 250 posts within two years after Congress approves funding, which calls for $97 million in fiscal 2002.

Meanwhile, State is also working to develop a backbone network that will enable more than 40 agencies with overseas offices to communicate via the Internet.

That plan, spurred by the 1998 U.S. embassy bombing in Nairobi, Kenya, seeks to create a single network for the entire foreign affairs community, Burbano said. Traditionally, the agencies, located inside embassies, maintain separate networks.

But the biggest obstacles to the modernization efforts will be cultural, not technological, GAO officials said.

"State will have to overcome cultural obstacles," according to GAO's report. "Further, it will have to do this while defining its own technical architecture and continuing to address pervasive computer security weaknesses that could increase with greater connectivity."

About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.


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