Diplopedia: The diplomat’s Wikipedia

State Department officials have encouraged sharing of know-how outside usual channels


In a departure from the State Department’s historical command and control approach to information, officials are saying the use of informal and collaborative Web tools, such as wikis and blogs, is crucial to the agency’s future.

State employees worldwide contribute to the agency’s online internal encyclopedia — known as Diplopedia — and blog with their colleagues at State and other agencies in online communities of interest.

Officials in the Office of eDiplomacy, the group leading the Web 2.0 efforts, have said they hope the growing interest in collaborative online applications represents the beginning of a radical change for a bureaucracy famously obsessed with centralizing information control and resisting new information technology tools.

Thomas Niblock, the office’s director, said institutional opposition to new communication tools dates back to the time of telegrams. However, he said, enemies of the United States  successfully use IT tools to share information, and the agency must adapt if it expects to effectively compete.

“The Department of State historically is a very conservative organization,” Niblock said. “We were slow to adopt communications technology at every juncture.” However, by using online tools, “we can connect people wherever they are who have something to contribute to a dialogue, to document preparation, to creating a repository of information.”

State observers trace the beginnings of the change in the department to former Secretary Colin Powell, who made IT a priority by replacing the agency’s antiquated computer systems. But observers said the department still must convince its old guard that high-tech does not necessarily mean high-risk.

“There’s a generational problem — the people who come in to State [now] are used to using IT more intensively, and the older State folks are still in the yellow legal pads era,” said James Lewis, director of the technology and public policy program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a former Foreign Service officer.
In the past, when an officer left a foreign post after spending a few years on assignment, much of the information the officer amassed was lost rather than stored as institutional memory, Lewis said. But that culture is changing.
State officials said they hope the rapid growth of the Diplopedia program, which has gained 255 editors and more than 1,400 entries in six months, is evidence that officers are using IT to chronicle their experiences.

The American Foreign Service Association, the union and professional organization that represents Foreign Service officers, favors the eDiplomacy initiatives, said John Naland, the union’s president and an active Foreign Service officer.

Meanwhile, senior officials in the Office of eDiplomacy said they want to do more than promote uses of new technology. They want to change how the agency views itself. 

State’s blogging and wiki activities, named the Communities @ State program, are important because they represent a new way of quantifying the agency’s institutional knowledge, Niblock said. Employees should think of institutional knowledge as their collective experiences and share that knowledge, he said.
Communities @ State features about 30 active blogs on subjects from weapons of mass destruction to terrorism to the Turkish economy. The blogs are open to federal employees worldwide to share interests or expertise.

“There’s a sense that we can’t afford to lose control, and I think that we can’t afford not to,” Niblock said. “We can’t afford not to open up the system a great deal more than it’s open right now because that’s the way the world functions. If we err too much on the side of security and control, we will become irrelevant.”
State blogging catches onThe State Department has encouraged employees to create blogs to share their know-how with other federal employees inside and outside the department. Here are some examples of blogs they have created on various government intranets as part of the Communities @ State program.

Deskipedia: Tips and best practices for State desk officers.

Human Rights Underground: Information sharing among human rights officers who seek to improve State’s annual Human Rights Report.

WMD Terrorism: Unclassified analysis of threats related to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, maintained by the Office of WMD Terrorism.

SYS Blog: Discussion of State’s information technology issues.

— Ben Bain

About the Author

Ben Bain is a reporter for Federal Computer Week.

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