The State Department using Collaboration and Social for Operational Effectiveness

Richard Boly, Director of the Office of eDiplomacy at the U.S. Department of State, and I spent time chatting about the way the State Department is leveraging social strategies and tools to better manage and train State Department employees. Richard began his career in Silicon Valley where he gained a core belief in the power of openness and collaboration, and has brought that belief, that passion, to his multi-decade role as a Foreign Service Officer at the State Department.

The eDiplomacy Office, for those that do not know, was setup by Colin Powell in the wake of the 9-11 and East African bombing attacks. The belief that the State Department needed to move from a “Need to know” mentality to a “Need to share” mentality drove the creation of the office and remains the its primary goal.

The ability to maintain institutional knowledge has always been a challenge for State. Staff is rotated from assignment to assignment on a regular basis (every two years), often resulting in expertise and institutional knowledge ending up in the wrong place, or at least in locations where it was hidden from those who could benefit from it. In order to become more operationally effective the State Department had to find ways of breaking through the command and control, top-down, mentality that had led to the information silos, it had to quickly become a more open, more internally transparent, organization. An internal Wiki was born.

While a Wiki may not seem cutting-edge, the cultural shift that a Wiki enabled, the cultural shift that it required, was major. Instead of centrally controlled information, the Wiki provided a method for anyone within State to share information, safely behind their firewalls, with anyone else at State. Information was no longer locked into organizational reporting structures, it was available to anyone. The wiki has recently passed the 10,000 article milestone and has become a core part of how information is shared.

This cultural shift has led to the creation of knowledge centers, such as Deskipedia, which is focused on streamlining the training of new Desk Officers. Due to the regular rotation schedules it was not uncommon for a new Desk Officer to begin at a post with almost no hand-off, no formal training, occurring. Deskipedia houses FAQs, Knowledge articles, Best practices, that literally save new Desk Officers hundreds of hours of training and reduce the likelihood of political gaffes occurring in the field.

Success comes at a price, however, and the eDiplomacy team is working on methods to crowdsource support, shifting some of this burden away from their team to the end-users that are living on these various communities and portals. The private sector is dealign with the same challenges, companies HP, Comcast, and BestBuy are seeing the power of crowdsourced communities.

The State Department has done an excellent job with their Secretary Sounding Board project, an Ideation Platform like that being used by GSA for their Better Buy Project. The platform has seen more than 1000 ideas entered with thousands of comments by others in the organization. The ideas have enabled those water cooler conversation of the past, those that rarely were heard of by others, and almost never discussed beyond the water cooler, to come to fruition. For example, as part of ongoing efforts to green government, people suggested the addition of loaner bicycles to go to meetings across town instead of having to ride cabs or use their own cars. These bikes, which are now a reality, will make a difference in effectiveness, and are but one small example of the power of employee collaboration.

It’s great seeing social tools being used to save all of us money while making key Federal organizations more efficient, and safer, in the process. Keep up the great work.


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Austin Wheelock

John – couple of questions…is the internal wiki with 10K commits Diplopedia or Deskipedia? Has there been any consideration of measuring how well Diplopedia and Deskipedia is working? It would be useful to understand how many people use it out of total possible users, quality of content creation, updates to individual pages vice new pages. Does usage follow the 90-9-1 principle?
Thanks -Austin

John Moore

The main diplomatic wiki is the one with the 10K pieces of content. In terms of the other questions, Austin, great questions.

As of today the tools used at State are primarily free, open source, with lower amounts of functionality. As successes like these become more visible they’ll be better able to get the additional funding to get more robust technologies (some stuff potentially happening on this front sooner than later).

In terms of measuring overall quality and if it follows the 90/9/1 rule I would say… Not sure. The community is self-editing, self improving, but I am not 100% of the amount of planned cleanup and maintenance that takes place.


Austin Wheelock

It would be interesting to read additional insights from other DoS staff….I know we have a good DoS community on GovLoop! Any takers?

Andrew Krzmarzick

Great interview, John. State Department has been one of the leading agencies in using these tools effectively…two of my first blogs on social media and government (way back in Oct 2008 🙂 covered State Department: here and here.

Good suggestion, Austin…I just sent a message to the ~200 State Department group members, inviting them to respond to this post.

Austin Wheelock

Andrew – liked your blog posts on the external gov2.0 initiatives at state. Might be time for a follow-up particularly in light of Haiti and SecState’s internet freedom initiative.

I personally like to focus on internal information sharing efforts leveraging socmedia. State has been evolving these efforts over the last few years but my sense (without having talked to many folks recently) is that it has a long way to go before you see something similar to what some companies have accomplished with their internal info sharing efforts. The wiki implementations I have seen elsewhere were successful in large part because of persistent grass-roots activism that emphasized “over the shoulder” coaching and a focus on how it benefited employees at both a personal and professional level. While the grass roots drive has to continue as long as the wiki is around, CIO sponsorship is a must to help find funds and message the wiki benefits to the entire enterprise.