Tillerson: Cloud part of State's 'redesign'

State Dept exterior 2014  Mark Van Scyoc / 

Photo credit: Mark Van Scyoc/

State Department IT is "very cumbersome," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told an audience at the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., in the Q&A period following a prepared speech.

He made the point as part of an explanation for a planned "redesign" of the department that has been roundly criticized by the U.S. diplomatic corps, many of whom are departing as the agency's mission and focus is shifting. State is engaging in a redesign on top of the required administration-ordered agency reorganization plans.

"The reason we call it a redesign is most of these [changes] have to do with work processes internally and work processes with inter-agencies that we should be able to improve the way people get their work done," Tillerson said.

"Some of it is tools and enablement, so things like -- we have a really antiquated IT system. I was shocked when I went down to spend an afternoon with the [Bureau of Administration], and I said, 'What’s the one thing I could do?' And they said, 'Get us into the cloud.' And I looked at them. I said, 'What do you mean? We're not in the cloud?' And they said, 'No, no. We’re still on all these servers.' Well, that's a big cyber risk, first. But it really made it very cumbersome for people, and when I started using my own computer I started realizing just how cumbersome it was."

This assessment is nothing new. Indeed, complaints about the "woeful state of civilian technology" emerged in communications between Anne-Marie Slaughter, currently president and CEO of the New America Foundation, and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in emails released as part of the probe into Clinton's email server.

It's not clear whether a move to the cloud is part of State's near-term plans. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told a House panel in September that the department "urgently needs to integrate IT systems and cybersecurity platforms" and update its aging legacy IT infrastructure. Sullivan indicated that a move to a cloud-based platform will happen "in the coming months."

 A State Department official told FCW via email after Sullivan's Capitol Hill testimony that based on employee input, IT modernization is a priority. However, the official declined to answer questions about a timeline for a move to the cloud.

It's not clear what impact recent personnel moves will have on the pace of the redesign in general and IT modernization in particular. Maliz Beams, the State official leading the redesign, abruptly left the department in late November, after just three months on the job. Additionally, State's top tech official Frontis Wiggins announced his resignation effective Dec. 8.

The redesign effort is thus far not winning fans on Capitol Hill, for reasons having to do more with global engagement than back-room technology. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, complained that the redesign is lagging.

"I don’t think they are anywhere close to having a plan to present relative to the reforms that they want," Corker said on Nov. 14.

Correction: This article was updated to Nov. 30 to reflect that Maliz Beams worked at the State Dept. for three months, not three weeks.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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