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State Department and the internet



As the country wages war, antiquated IT endangers the vital foreign policy mission of the U.S. State Department. Can a multimillion-dollar modernization effort make a difference?
BY SARAH D. SCALET

Those interested can read the report themselves. Here are just two key points. The low priority the US system gives to international affairs and therefore to the State Department:

"Historically, the department has never had much pull up on Capitol Hill. The State Department is held in very low esteem by almost everyone in town," according to James Lindsay, a scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. The department's focus, for the most part, is on foreign governments and not the people who count with legislators: voters".

A system called FASI will be tested: "The FASI prototype will be piloted in Washington, D.C., and at embassies and consulates in Mexico City and New Delhi in September 2002. Developing the prototype and running the pilot is expected to cost $17 million, funding that was part of the State Department's 2001 budget. Once the pilot program is complete, other agencies will pay their own way. State Department diplomat Fred Cook, minister counselor for administrative affairs stationed in Mexico City, wonders whether department bureaucrats, used to operating in a certain way, would use such a system as FASI. He's even more skeptical of whether other agencies would share information with the department. State Department Chief Information Officer Fernando Burbano counters that user training, a line item in the budget, will dissolve skepticism. State Department falters or fails in its mission."

My comment: Good luck! The need cannot be disputed. The article mentions the lack of communication between the representatives of different departments stationed in US embassies. Some times there is open hostility. I am reminded of large universities, where it is difficult to get departments to cooperate with each other willingly. Departments do not understand each other, and that is true in embassies. Decades ago, a well-known ambassador in Uruguay said that he could see the point of science attaches in embassies and dismissed his. He had no understanding of science in the modern world. I assume science attachés have survived in major capitals.

The important thing is to get one system running, avoiding the incompatibility which can be a curse when more than one system is used, and which is very hard to rectify. Since we are engaged in a long-term struggle with terrorism, communications must be improves with the countries cooperating in that struggle, and there too compatibility of systems must be ensured, just as compatibility of weapons systems is important. Since the State Department is linked to all the governments involved, there is already a basis for cooperation. Since WAIS has a special interest in Mexico, we hope that we can stay informed about progress there.

As in many things, here we have our priorities wrong. Computer cafes are opening all around the world, and I thought happily that the youths frequenting them were engaged in linking up with other youths around the world and consulting data bases. Alas, no! Most of the youths are engaged in playing violent video games. This led recently to a serious fight in one such café in Los Angeles.

Ronald Hilton - 1/24/02


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