After delivering a keynote speech for the Tagetik User Conference 2010 in Lucca, Italy late last month, I wanted to experience first-hand the collaborative movement in the United States Department of State.
So, I visited the United States Embassy to the Holy See. With only six diplomats plus local staff, the embassy is undoubtedly one of America’s smallest. Unlike every other U.S. embassy, Embassy Vatican represents the U.S. government not just to a sovereign nation, but also to the largest single organization on Earth. That organization is the Catholic Church and its 1.2 billion Catholics globally.
With a geographically-dispersed constituency, Embassy Vatican requires more than a physical location to accomplish U.S. policy objectives. That’s where virtual or eDiplomacy plays a role. Sure, there are often reasons for U.S. diplomats to press the flesh with Church officials, but Embassy Vatican need not be physically located in the Vatican. And, in fact, it’s not. The embassy is across the Tiber River in Rome, Italy.
To reach the embassy, I made my way to Aventine Hill, an upscale neighborhood of Rome. What distinguishes the villa housing Embassy Vatican from the other mansions on the tree-lined block is the soldiers and small artillery across the street, security at the gate plus metal detectors at the entrance to the building. I waited in a converted living room decorated with portraits of former U.S. ambassadors and pictures of popes with U.S. presidents ranging from Reagan to Obama.
In time, I was shown into an elegant office with a view of the embassy’s lush garden. Julieta Valls Noyes, Deputy Chief of Mission, extended her hand. She then introduced Mark Bakermans, Embassy Vatican’s point person on collaborative tools. After brief pleasantries, Julieta was ready to embrace the informality so necessary to collaboration. “I’ve already greeted you, so I can remove my jacket,” she smiled.
Our conversation focused on the challenges of representing the United States to a global constituency. “We’re a small embassy, but what happens here has universal interest,” according to Julieta. To encourage information exchange and collaboration, Julieta had advocated building a Microsoft SharePoint portal for the embassy. However, according to Julieta, the tiny embassy lacked the necessary bandwidth. So, the State Department’s eDiplomacy team sent people to Rome. In May of 2009, a Diplopedia wiki-based internal site went live. For more on Diplopedia, see my September 14, 2010 post on “Taking Collaborative Risk at the State Department.”
Clearly, Embassy Vatican’s use of Diplopedia is raising the embassy’s profile within the State Department. On an average month, the site gets 300 to 400 visitors. But that number spikes considerably when issues involving the Catholic Church hit the news. As the Catholic Church sex scandal bubbled up to banner headlines last February, Embassy Vatican’s Diplopedia site became a State Department clearinghouse for information on the scandal and the Church’s reaction to it. Most of the staff at Embassy Vatican contributes to the Diplopedia site, but Mark noted that the challenge is getting people across the State Department to comment on posts and share knowledge. For Diplopedia to enhance collaboration, consumers of information must also become contributors to information.
I asked Julieta whether she would provide an inside view of the State Department’s internal ideation tool called Secretary Clinton’s Sounding Board, which is based on a blogging platform. For more on Secretary Clinton’s Sounding Board, see my September 14, 2010 post. Julieta invited me to sit on the edge of her desk (more informality!) as we viewed spirited debate from employees on topics ranging from recruitment of Hispanics to paying interns. Notably, one of the State Department’s most senior officials participated in the discussion and helped shape the ideas.
The State Department has used Secretary Clinton’s Sounding Board to create workplace improvements. These range from installing showers for team members who ride bicycles to installing donation boxes so that employees can deposit left-over foreign currency from trips. The State Department then uses the money to aid families of Department people such as those who were Haiti earthquake victims. Ultimately, the State Department may use the ideation tool to craft diplomacy. Julieta insists that a separate ideation tool for diplomacy hosted on the Department’s classified site makes more sense than integrating diplomacy with workplace issues.
Like so many organizations, the State Department still faces cultural issues that impede collaboration. These include rank-consciousness, unnecessary manifestations of hierarchy and silos among levels, teams and regions. Nevertheless, collaborative culture is starting to take hold—and tools like Diplopedia and Secretary Clinton’s Sounding Board are extending and enhancing that culture.