Innovators: The Peace Corps’ disparate global footprint can make innovation difficult


Dorine Andrews, Chief Information Officer, Peace Corps.

Dorine Andrews oversees the technological infrastructure for what may be one of the Washington region’s most geographically disparate organizations. As the chief information officer of the Peace Corps, Andrews is responsible for the technology used by more than 7,200 volunteers in 65 countries. But her obstacles are unique from that of other multinational organizations. From cities in Ukraine and Guatemala to rural villages in Thailand and Zambia, the areas where Peace Corps operates have varying stages of technological advancement. That makes innovation especially difficult, Andrews says, but not altogether impossible.

What’s your background? Why did you come to the Peace Corps?

■I was a consultant to large businesses for over 25 years doing systems design and business process re-engineering. So I am extremely familiar with what happens when you try to innovate technology in a big organization and the disruption it can cause.

I came to the Peace Corps in 2010 because their systems organization was looking for someone who understood what it meant to be a change agent as well as having some familiarity with technology. I’m not a geek. My specialty is not hardware. But it’s a perfect position for me to practice what I preached for 20-plus years.

What changes were needed?

■ The Office of the Chief Information Officer had really lost its customer focus. They said, “This is what we’re going to do,” as opposed to working with the business strategically to decide what needed to be done.

We focused on delivering customer service, whether you’re calling to get your computer fixed or you’re planning to renovate all of the technology at all of the posts. It was a major undertaking to get our reputation internally turned around.

Who is your customer?

■ One very distinctive group is our recruitment group. We have about seven or eight recruiting offices and we have field-based recruiters as well. I also have the headquarter here in Washington, which is about 750 people, and they have specific reporting needs. As a federal agency, we have a lot of rules and regulations and reporting requirements. Then I have all of the posts, which are our feet on the group. We’re responsible for the safety of those volunteers, so our core system really supports that operation more than anything else.

What’s your definition of innovation as it relates to your position at the Peace Corps?

■ I see innovation as having two aspects. Can I help the business do things more efficiently and effectively? If I can deliver something that helps them with how they work, that to me is an innovation. Another innovation is when I use a new technology.

Describe a big, innovative change you’ve overseen since taking office.

■ We changed the way we deploy technology to the posts. We used to send out parts to the field and then we would send two people from my staff out to the post to change out all of that old technology and train the staff to use that new operating system. That was very expensive and time consuming.

I had this vision that we would ship a product, not parts. We arranged with our vendor so the whole system is packaged, boxed up and shipped to the post. While that is happening, our IT specialists at each post receive instructions so they’re able to set up the local network. The infrastructure gets delivered, they hook it up, and then from headquarters over the weekend we transfer all of their data.

This has been done before in other large organizations, but it was never done here. We finished our first region, Central and South America and the Pacific Rim, in February. Within 18 months, we’ll have standard technology across the whole global footprint.

What challenges do you face working in countries with varying degrees of technological advancement?

■ I always have to build a solution that has a very 20th century feel to it at times because some of my posts out there not connected well. About 80 percent of our volunteers have cell phone access. That’s it. They may have to travel into a village to get to a cafe to get an Internet connection.

Is mobile innovation out of reach?

■ It’s not out of reach completely. There are mobile innovations coming in the next year or two. Corps members have to go out to countries and identify sites for volunteers to work and live in. They have to look at safety conditions and that kind of thing.

Until we can get them a mobile app, they basically have to take their laptop, take some notes and retype it into our volunteer information database. What we’re going to do is provide them with a mobile app that allows them to go out into the field, capture that data, take their notes, plug into our network and the data is automatically uploaded.

Do you expect innovation to pick up as technology becomes accessible?

■ Technology in international development has never been a priority because the technology couldn’t do what we needed it to do. Now that technology is more compatible with our global footprint, so we’re going that way. When all the federal agencies complain about IT budgets being cut, mine is actually stable and growing. That’s exciting because I’ve got my leadership’s support to modernize, to integrate our old independent databases and provide a really modern information architecture.

Where do you see the Peace Corps in three to five years?

■ We will continue to work to put technology in the hands of the posts and volunteers as infrastructure in these countries stabilizes and grows. When I came in, we had 22 posts that were on satellite Internet connections. Three years later, I’m down to seven, so that’s progress. I probably have another 10 that have unstable [connections], but we just have to be patient and make sure the solutions we develop help not only the posts that are well connected but the ones that aren’t. That makes it more expensive, but that has to be our commitment.

Meet “Innovators,” a biweekly series showcasing interesting ideas from people around the Washington area who work in business, technology and policy. Know someone with an idea or innovation worth sharing? Tell us about them at steven.overly@washpost.com.

The Big Idea

How does an organization innovate when it has to account for the technology that is available in remote regions across the globe? Dorine Andrews, the chief information officer at the Peace Corps, says sometimes that innovation looks “very 20th century.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries. Steven graduated from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He resides in the District.
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