The Washington Post

Building shared IT services for federal agencies located overseas

There are some 40 federal agencies with offices in foreign countries that traditionally have maintained their own Internet, email and computer systems, and that have paid separately for support services and security, resulting in extra costs and needless duplication.

Claire Votaw, the director of the State Department’s Project Services Office, is heading an ambitious effort to consolidate many of these redundant operations by providing shared information technology (IT) services to federal agencies that operate alongside the diplomatic corps.

The Foreign Affairs Network (FAN) offers a cost-effective alternative for federal agencies to access and share the State Department managed IT infrastructure. The network eliminates the need to maintain separate systems overseas, creates greater economies of scale, and enables collaboration, information sharing and enhanced security.

Blair Townsend, a division chief of the State Department’s Project Services Office, said eliminating IT redundancies has huge implications not only for cost and efficiency, but for safety.

“If the chief of mission in a foreign country needed to send an urgent message to all U.S. government employees, previously the message would go only to State Department employees in the embassy,” Townsend said. “With the FAN, other agencies in the network receive these urgent messages as well.”

(Sam Kittner/kittner.com)

The FAN currently provides services and support to the Foreign Agricultural Service and is in the midst of transitioning services for the U.S. Agency for International Development in some overseas locations. Votaw also is working with the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Energy, the Foreign Commercial Service and others as they make the transition to the State Department network.

The network has top-level security, a necessity for agencies operating overseas, and a real benefit for those organizations that join. One agency that had its network hacked recently turned to the FAN for better protection.

“A lot of people don’t think about IT or IT project management because it’s more of a supporting role,” said Karen Derringer, division chief of the State Department’s Project Services Office. “But IT is consumed more and more and intertwined in our life, so we’re highly dependent on it to access secure information, even more so overseas.”

In addition to standard services, federal agencies can opt to receive video teleconferencing, hardware procurement and laptop support based on their availability at any particular overseas post.

The FAN is one of nearly two dozen projects Votaw oversees out of an office she stood up in 2010. The office centralizes IT project management for the State Department, and standardizes the manner in which projects are planned, prioritized, executed, monitored and controlled.

It has not been an easy sell to ask agencies to make wholesale changes to their IT operations, but the FAN is one of the State Department’s top priority IT goals, and Votaw’s leadership, communication and management skills are winning converts agency by agency, according to colleagues.

Derringer said Votaw rolled out the FAN in a way that provided gains to agencies while preserving their autonomy. She said because of Votaw’s approach, a number of agencies will be transitioning to the network.

“Claire knows how to pull the levers needed to get things done,” said Derringer. “She organized the project and created clear lines of communication.”

Votaw said selling the project to agencies involves addressing people’s fears.

“A lot of this is new for people and a lot of this is strange, but for 20 years I’ve managed projects that require change on people’s part,” Votaw said.

Janice Fedak, the deputy chief information officer in the Business Management and Planning Office, pointed out that the Project Services Office had to “overcome existing stovepipes, understand turf issues and work to resolve these issues without making people feel like they’re being overrun.”

“Claire was able to successfully create this new alternative from the ground up amid highly held traditions,” said Fedak.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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