Information gap sparks reform at State Department
"What we've got here is failure to communicate." That line by actor Strother Martin in the film "Cool Hand Luke" sums up the problems that foreign affairs agencies have traditionally had when it comes to sharing information. But things are set to change— internally and externally—under a pair of programs outlined recently by the State Department's top information technology officer and supported enthusiastically by the department's head, Secretary of State Colin Powell.
An internal State program, OpenNet Plus, will link thousands of State computers to the World Wide Web. "OpenNet Plus will put Internet access to 30,000 desktops that are deployed worldwide that now have intranet only," said Fernando Burbano, State's chief information officer.
Although each overseas location has at least one PC that can access the Web, most workstations cannot. OpenNet Plus will change that, giving employees access from their desktops to the Web and its resources, according to Burbano.
OpenNet Plus is designed to consolidate systems that have been installed over the years and establish a common infrastructure. State officials are frustrated by the need to keep three different desktop computers to access all the information users may need, he said.
Benefits will include a significant cost savings, according to Burbano. Per-seat costs should drop from $5,400 to less than $1,000 by reducing the number of desktops and shrinking the infrastructure. Meanwhile, a new knowledge management-oriented, Web-based system will boost—and radically change—how various government agencies working overseas communicate with each other, Burbano said. He outlined the plan at last month's TeleStrategies Inc.'s Federal Telecom Opportunities for Today and Tomorrow conference in Reston, Va.
The State-sponsored program will link all agencies with an overseas presence and create a single knowledge management and information center that could be accessed by each agency. Pilot programs at embassies in Mexico City and New Delhi are expected to begin in April 2002.
The revolution in how State will manage its communications had its origins in an Overseas Presence Advisory Panel report drafted in the wake of the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. OPAP called the inability of agencies to share information shameful.
Since that report, the panel's recommendations have been the basis of the Internet-based knowledge management platform that will serve U.S. agencies operating overseas, including the Commerce, Agriculture and Defense departments.
Today, agencies and departments communicate with each other in different ways, with some emphasizing e-mail communications and others emphasizing telephones and faxes. Also, each agency now has its own pool of data or knowledge, so even agencies with common areas of interest cannot easily access information they might need, according to Burbano.
The program will create a single information center, giving agencies access to information based on their needs and missions.
The bottom line, Burbano said, is that the system will get the right information to the right people at the right time.
Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting Inc., a firm specializing in the federal technology market, said State's challenge is not so much a technical one. "The challenge is to make it easier to get and share information, and making sure it's sufficiently secure for those [agencies]," he said.
Suss called State's plan "a matured vision of information technology. We've been through years when we purchased technology for technology's sake," he said. "I think in this we see linking technology investments very strongly to the central mission of the department."
Working to make sure the programs get off the ground is Powell, a staunch advocate of IT who has already championed the department's communications plans before Congress.
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