State creates E-Diplomacy Office to coordinate user needs with IT

Pinstripe-wearing diplomats will work side-by-side with khaki-clad techies in the State Department’s E-Diplomacy Office.

The new office’s goal is to “make sure the technological resources are responsive to user needs and core business practices,” E-Diplomacy director James H. “Jim” Holmes said. “For the past decade, the technology has been responsive to the administrative function.”

The office will include foreign policy and systems specialists to bring diplomats into the mainstream of technology development at State.

Holmes, a 35-year State veteran, said his assignment as office director was the first time he had held anything other than a “substantive political job” in the department and that his role would be “to represent the user community.”

Holmes said he had expressed puzzlement about the job in a meeting with undersecretary of State for management Grant Green. He said he had no experience with technology, other than a full decade of complaining about how poorly systems meet the interests and needs of State users.

“Undersecretary Green said that qualifies me,” Holmes said. “That is the itch he has asked us to scratch.”

Holmes reports to Green, as does State’s CIO, Fernando Burbano. Holmes said Burbano “has a very large and largely resourced operation.”

But the E-Diplomacy Office represents a different community, that of the department’s core business functions such as the political, economic, consular and public diplomacy groups, Holmes said.

“Fernando Burbano and I have found that we can cooperate,” Holmes said.

Reaching out

The E-Diplomacy Office’s must “engage in a very aggressive outreach campaign,” he said. “We have to make ourselves known as a trustworthy partner as far as becoming a messenger for user needs.”

As a first task, the office has formed a working group to take a fresh look at the department’s messaging system and determine if diplomats should change the way they communicate, Holmes said.

The department still bases many of its procedures for internal communications around the format of diplomatic telegrams, Holmes said. “But my guess is that 75 percent of communication is e-mail-based rather than cable-based.”

The office also has created working groups to study change management, technology innovation and how other foreign policy agencies use technology. “We are trying to be less insular,” he said.

Holmes said he also wants the office to address shortcomings in the department’s filing systems. Before the computer era, he said, department secretaries maintained well-organized paper files. “Now it is tough to find anything that is six months or a year old because we don’t have the same kind of search capability and file system,” he said.

The problem is made more acute by the department’s policy of rotating staff through assignments every two to four years, he said. “It’s a problem when you are asking for files that don’t exist.”

Just begun

The E-Diplomacy Office is still being set up and does not yet have a Web site. But it already has participated in a policy change: a decision to link State systems to the intelligence community’s Open Source Information System, which provides connectivity for the transmission of sensitive but unclassified data.

“This is a recognition of the need for more comprehensive collaboration” within the government among agencies that collect intelligence data, Holmes said.
State networks will link to intelligence community systems within the next 100 days, Holmes said.

The OSIS link “will enable people at the Pentagon to dramatically improve their collaboration” with State, he said.

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