Tech-In-State Mobile Diplomacy Event

Heather Higginbottom
Deputy Secretary of State
Dean Acheson Auditorium
Washington, DC
May 29, 2014

Thank you for that kind introduction, Eric. You and your team in eDiplomacy are doing tremendous work. Thank you.

Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to Tech-In-State! It’s an honor to be with you today as part of this terrific program.

Let me start by thanking Steve Taylor, the State Department’s Chief Information Officer, and his team in IRM for arranging this event and for recognizing that mobility is a top technology priority for the Department.

And, I’d like to thank Under Secretary Pat Kennedy, Assistant Secretary Greg Starr, and IIP Coordinator Macon Phillips for their creativity and flexibility as we move away from our desktops.

Finally, I want to thank everyone in this room for your service -- past and present -- to the country and for your interest in improving the way we serve the American people. And, that is what this event is about: getting better at doing our jobs, getting better at protecting the American people and their interests around the world.

As you all know, the Secretary is pursuing a very ambitious agenda for U.S. foreign policy. From the rebalance to Asia, to climate change, to economic diplomacy, to Syria – it is clear Secretary Kerry is leading our efforts to keep America safe, to promote American prosperity, and to strengthen America’s global leadership.

But he is just as focused on driving innovation in the way we conduct diplomacy.

Secretary Kerry is the son of a Foreign Service Officer and this place, this profession – it’s in his blood. When he asked me to take this job, he told me he wants to leave behind a stronger institution – a stronger State Department. He wants to make sure that all of our people in the field have the tools and resources they need to get the job done. He wants to build a Department that is more effective, more modern, and more agile.

In this era of dwindling budgets, growing challenges, and rising powers, we must improve the way we do this business. We owe it to the American people and to our workforce to constantly, relentlessly assess and improve. This needs to be an organization that values learning and risk-taking, an organization that embraces change and delivers results.

Technology – and mobile technology, in particular – will be central to updating and modernizing the way we advance America’s global interests. In the months since I’ve been in this job, I’ve heard time and again from people who want access to better technology, like iPads and smartphones, who want to be able to collaborate across bureaus and across time-zones, and who want to be less tied to their desks as they do their jobs. There have also been suggestions to create a knowledge management system so that officers across bureaus and across posts can quickly access information about diplomatic contacts, memos, background papers and so on, so that we don’t have to re-invent the wheel every time summer transfer season comes around.

The lifeblood of our business – of diplomacy – is information – information about people, about governments, about cultures, about policies, about values. To set our people up for success, we need to let them access that information wherever they happen to be – whether in a coffee shop in Mumbai, the lobby of the Cambodian foreign ministry or a bus in DC. In the age of Twitter and Facebook and Snapchat, a modern diplomatic corps must act quickly and decisively – and that means giving our people real-time data and analysis. Mobile technology is essential.

The White House Digital Government Strategy puts the issue this way: “Mobility” is not just about embracing the newest technology, but rather reflects a fundamental change in how, when, and where our citizens and employees work and interact. Mobile technology – the devices, infrastructure, and applications required to support a mobile citizenry and workforce – is a critical enabler of mobility, but is only part of the profound environmental shift that mobility represents.

To fully realize the potential of mobile technology and enhance the impact of our work, we must become a truly mobile workforce. Laptops. Wi-Fi. Smartphones. Tablets. Collaborative workspaces.

Of course, protecting our data, our systems, and our people will be central to this effort. We must ensure that legitimate security concerns are balanced prudently against the needs of our users and the broader mission of the Department and the United States government.

Today, workers in the private sector expect – and receive – technology at work that mirrors the technology we use in our everyday lives. And across government agencies, we are seeing mobile technology being deployed more creatively. In the next year, the State Department will begin to deliver on that promise for our workers as well.

Of course, much work has already been done. Many people in this Department understand the imperative to innovate and are doing so. IRM has made sharing and collaboration at our overseas missions a top priority and that focus is making the Foreign Affairs Network (FAN) a reality, connecting our families and interagency colleagues. Lots of posts are taking the initiative to develop their own innovative apps too – just yesterday I heard about an app Embassy Warsaw developed to quickly and easily share detailed consular information with the public on a range of topics, an app that could potentially be deployed by all of our posts. Here at home, IRM has already started to roll out iPhones and iPads and additional Wi-Fi hotspots. There’s no doubt that we have pockets of energy and innovation. But, across the board, around the world, we can and will do much, much more and that’s what’s bringing us all together today.

First, we need to untether our employees from their desks. Imagine if our virtual desktops were available securely and reliably anywhere, anytime. Imagine if Wi-Fi access was the norm for all our domestic and overseas facilities. Imagine if your phone number followed your laptop from your desk to the Starbucks just around the corner to the Starbucks in Seoul.

Second, we also need to put the user – not the designer or the vendor – at the center of our technology experience. We need easy technology; technology that means faster user adaptation, increased productivity, and reduced frustration. We need systems that people want to use – that people clamor to use – not because we had a rollout strategy or an ALDAC, but because they address a real need.

Third, we need to build a workplace where we are just as close to our colleagues in Chennai as our colleagues down the hall. We need to ensure that it’s easier to book a SVTC room or a meeting space on short notice than to book a plane ticket. We need to create the infrastructure – and the atmosphere – so that employees can video chat into meetings, rather than rearrange their week. We need to supply the physical spaces and the digital tools for collaboration in-person and virtually, so that drafting and policymaking can become the sum of the inputs – instead of the least common denominator.

Finally, we need to become more transparent – internally and externally. We need to shift from a need-to-know culture to a need-to-share culture. We need to make our websites and applications mobile-responsive. We need to build a data-rich environment where our personnel are empowered to conduct trenchant analysis on pressing problems, and where our fellow citizens can access key data about our programs and hold us accountable for delivering results. And we need to guarantee that vital information isn’t unnecessarily tied up in outdated databases or unwieldy clearance processes.

That’s part of the Secretary’s vision for the State Department of the future.

So, as I sit here amongst our mobile champions - I am calling upon you all to help drive us to where we need to be.

Of course, there are going to be real challenges as we move down this path toward a modern State Department. We have to address legitimate security challenges. We have to tackle bureaucratic stove-piping, fragmentation, and even some turf battles. And, we’ll have to address real budgetary constraints.

But these are all obstacles that we can work together to overcome.

My commitment to you – to the experts, to the visionaries, to the drivers of change – is that if you think up the solutions – if you build the tools, design the systems, and write the code – then we will partner with you to overcome the inertia and the roadblocks that can so often stymie change in a large organization like this one. I pledge to you that if your idea can help us to work smarter or better or faster, then it has a place in the new way we’ll do diplomacy.

That’s the Secretary’s vision and that’s my vision. With your energy and your commitment, we can and will bring the State Department fully into the 21st century.

Let me finish where I began: thanking all of you. The work of the Department of State is absolutely vital to keeping the American people safe and prosperous. Your own efforts everyday are vital to that mission, and the efforts that you will undertake in the coming months to improve the way we use mobile technology will guarantee that all of us – from the first tour IMO to the Secretary of State – are constantly getting better at serving the American people.

So, again, thank you, and enjoy the rest of the program today.