This is one in a series of profiles on the 2012 Samuel J. Heyman Service to America Medal finalists. The awards, presented by the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, recognize outstanding federal employees whose important, behind-the-scenes work is advancing the health, safety and well-being of Americans and are among the most prestigious honors given to civil servants. This profile features a finalist for the National Security and International Affairs medal Richard Boly, director of the Office of eDiplomacy at the Department of State in Washington, D.C.
The State Department is making innovative use of social media and online platforms to change the way employees communicate, share information and reach outside their own boundaries.
Leading this ambitious effort is Richard Boly, head of the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy. Boly and his team have created a wide range of interactive web platforms, linking up State Department employees internally and separately connecting them with diverse groups around the world to advance our nation’s foreign policy objectives and empower them to achieve social change.
“Richard and his team are game changers,” said Janice Fedak, the State Department’s deputy CIO for business management and planning. “He is getting us out of our stovepipes, altering the way we send and share information, and use technology to do more with the grassroots.”
One innovative example is eDiplomacy’s creation of TechCamps, a series of two-day conferences during which civil society organizations and technology experts identify and apply low-cost, easy-to-implement technologies to shared problems that have helped make these organization more resilient and expand their reach to meet pressing societal needs.
At a State Department Tech Camp in Lithuania, activists from nations with repressive governments learned how to keep their groups safe online when they use social media to organize protests. A Tech Camp in Chile led to the widespread application of open source software that is being used by nongovernmental organizations around the world for collaborative disaster management, election monitoring and information sharing. While attending the gathering in Lithuania, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that eDiplomacy’s TechCamps “are truly a global movement.”
Boly’s team also created the Virtual Student Foreign Service that so far has allowed 349 college students to engage with State Department domestic offices and diplomatic posts overseas. Boly said the interns have worked with local college students in Beijing concerning perceptions of American culture, and assisted the U.S. Embassy in Timor-Leste to teach poor Timorese youth civil engagement via free, web-based applications.
Susan Swart, the State Department’s CIO, said Boly has provided “a vision and direction” for new and effective ways for employees to communicate and connect with activists overseas.
“We are very conservative and slow to change,” said Swart. “Richard and his team have demonstrated that there are innovative ways that the State Department can execute its diplomatic mission.”
Since mid-2009, Boly’s team has created a number of other employee platforms that have promoted better communication and knowledge sharing among the thousands of State Department employees scattered throughout the world. These include:
• Sounding Board, an online site where employees have contributed nearly 2,500 ideas for making the department more effective; and
• Corridor, a professional networking platform like LinkedIn that has allowed nearly 10,000 users to form groups, share what they are working on, and locate State Department subject matter, country and language experts.
Moreover, Boly and his team have expanded two existing online initiatives begun during the Bush administration. One is Diplopedia, the wiki-based online encyclopedia of foreign affairs information that has 15,000 articles written by 5,000 State Department employees and averages 40,000 page views per week. The site informs Foreign Service Officers about what happened in the past and keeps them up-to-date on current issues. Recently, officials used Diplopedia to compile an important, large-scale report on the status of religious freedom around the world, collecting nearly 200 responses through internal State Department site.
He also expanded Communities@State, a group of 80 internal multi-author blogs designed to promote dialogue, information and region-specific “content with conversation” for State Department employees.
“Richard Boly’s team in eDiplomacy is transforming how government accomplishes its mission,” said Craig Newmark, the founder of craigslist. “I often steer other government agencies to eDiplomacy to learn innovative solutions to old challenges.”
Boly, a long-time member of the Foreign Service, said his efforts are not just a matter of compiling a large storehouse of information in a central repository, but using different social media and web outlets “to make information readily available and easily discoverable.” The audience, he said, includes employees in Washington, at 250 diplomatic posts around the world, and in diverse communities abroad.
Boly said he has drawn inspiration from a former HP CEO who once said, “If HP only knew what HP knows, we’d be three times more productive.” With a twist, he says, “If the State Department only knew what the State Department knew, we’d be closer to world peace.”
“Our goal is to make sure diplomats have access to information whenever and wherever they need it,” said Boly. “I passionately believe that the tools we have developed will help us achieve our foreign policy objectives.”