05/29/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

eDiplomacy Ushers In a New Culture of Collaboration at State

By Kristen Coco

Richard Boly is not what you'd expect from your typical State Department diplomat. Dressed in jeans, a printed t-shirt and electric blue blazer, and armed with a bio that includes running a shrimp hatchery in coastal Ecuador, you would never guess walking down the street that he works for the oldest federal agency in the U.S. -- one long recognized for its entrenched commitment to "bureaucracy."

When asked whether he needed to change clothes before his presentation at The Morningside Post's recent Policy Making in the Digital Age conference, Boly smiled and said, "No, I'm here to challenge assumptions today." And that's exactly what he has set out to do as director of the U.S. State Department's Office of eDiplomacy.

Boly gave a frank talk about the need for change management within the State Department and provided ways that eDiplomacy is taking on the challenge. Describing State as a risk averse agency that is essentially the antithesis of entrepreneurial ("there's no room for cowboy diplomacy," as he puts it), Boly explained that this was a product of the secretive years of the Cold War, when all agency communications were approved by a top-down hierarchy using a classic command and control approach.

There has been a sea change in thought in recent years, however, about how to approach the constantly changing global landscape, and therefore how to restructure the organization itself in order to identify areas of concern and assemble the right experts before a problem presents itself. The new strategy, initiated in 2003 during Colin Powell's tenure, is to embrace openness behind the government firewall as a first step to achieving transparency with the public. In this sense, the State Department's internal culture has shifted from a need-to-know basis to need-to-share.

So the question is, how do you move from thinking in silos to thinking like Google -- which launches first, innovates, and re-launches continuously? How do you change the culture from within when many longtime career diplomats are unfamiliar with the latest technologies and not apt to embrace it ("eDiplomacy? eGads!")? And how do you leverage all the knowledge of this vast agency to increase collaboration and knowledge sharing among 19,000 employees serving in more than 250 diplomatic posts around the world?

Here are a few of the current social media tools that eDiplomacy has established to transform the internal workplace culture of the State Department:

  • Diplopedia. This wiki helps maintain institutional knowledge regarding internal functions and processes, despite rapid turnover every two years. Similarly, Deskipedia features thematic portals with articles, FAQs and other best practices to assist with training new Desk Officers. So simple, yet so practical and helpful.
  • The Sounding Board. More than just a suggestion box, this crowdsourcing community was designed to share ideas with a Bureau or the Secretary. The initiative has generated 6,000 comments on over 1,000 ideas in just one year.
  • Virtual Student Foreign Service was launched by Secretary of State Clinton at NYU last May. It established internships in which American students partner with embassies abroad to "conduct digital diplomacy that reflects the realities of the networked world."
  • Virtual Presence is State's online solution for outreach to areas with no embassy or physical U.S. diplomatic presence. This, along with Virtual Student Foreign Service, are the two efforts that are currently outward facing to the public.
  • Statebook. Sound familiar? It's next in line on State's list of social innovation initiatives.

I'm not one to readily accept that everyone at the State Department is suddenly Statebook-ing, Tweeting and Wiki-ing their way into the 21st century. Boly recognizes that it is difficult to prove to those steeped in tradition that these tools add value, but he also wisely suggests that you shouldn't "fall in love with your creation too much" and be afraid to change if it's not working. These digital technology tools are an ongoing experiment at State, as they are for the rest of us.

However, with the support of America's "first Internet President," social networking and new media are sure to shape the future of this organization and other federal agencies.

Also, while State's digital initiatives are vigorously encouraged behind the firewall, there is understandably slower momentum toward opening these tools to the public. How do you balance, for example, letting employees build their personal brands on Twitter and Facebook with the sharing of professional expertise? You have to consider the issue of cybersecurity, which eDiplomacy does by collaborating with Information Security to weigh the risks of such tools against the business initiative.

At the recent G20 Summit, State Department employees for the first time were allowed to "naked blog" without being edited, and it was seen as a success. But first things first. As Boly said, "You need to have a culture of collaboration behind the firewall. Otherwise, we'll never have it [collaboration] in front of it."