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How the State Department Went From Technology Dinosaur to Ultra-Modern Systems

  • Getting the State Department to modernize was a grueling process paved with challenges, according to Don Bauer, Chief Technology Officer for the State Department’s Bureau of Global Talent Management.

  • Setting up cloud systems has been a massive change for the federal government, one that has brought many challenges, most significantly the cost — it’s not cheap. Nonetheless, cloud systems have “changed the face of government,” Don says.

  • COVID really jump-started or accelerated these changes as organizations moved to more remote work and thus remote-access systems. Don says it’s been a game-changer, forcing departments to embrace new systems quickly.

In 1998, Don Bauer helped put the National Park Service’s hiring system online. People there told him they didn’t think this whole internet thing was going to stick around. But he embraced it and since then has designed systems, particularly ones related to HR and hiring processes, for various U.S. federal agencies, like the National Park Service, NASA and the United States Digital Service.

“I was one of the co-founders of Quick Hire, which was one of the first commercially available staffing products for the federal government. Back in ‘99, 2000, we were doing software as a service before it was a thing,” Don says in an episode of the Government Enabled podcast.

Don now works as the Chief Technology Officer for the Bureau of Global Talent Management at the U.S. Department of State, which was one of the last federal agencies to modernize from a technology standpoint — in part because it struggled to welcome the change and in part because intelligence security resisted it.

Don has been working to change that. Since starting in the role four years ago, he’s helped staff embrace a technology mindset and implement systems like cloud servers.

“The last four years, they have made leaps and bounds, I think, out of necessity more than anything else.”

The first steps to a more modern State Department

For years, State intentionally avoided the internet.

“The word I heard was they didn’t have the internet on their desktops until Colin Powell was secretary of state, which was pretty recent,” he says.

This was mostly due to worries about security. But the department eventually realized — after a scandal involving some externally sent emails — that employees in the department couldn’t do their job with the tools they had available.

For four or five years, State was denied the additional budget necessary to make basic tech updates. So two years ago, Don took matters into his own hands. He went to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and all but demanded the money needed to modernize processes and technology.

“I said, ‘I’m sorry, but the sky is falling … You denied us money for four or five years now, we don’t have a choice.’ And we got our money, we got our budget, but you know, it had to get to an extreme,” he says.

Once he finally started implementing these changes, he made sure to instill staff with a strong security mindset. He involved security professionals at every step because, well, it was necessary, especially where cloud systems were added.

The challenges of cloud services at a federal agency

Don says that the move to cloud systems has been one of the biggest changes and challenges in technology for the federal government.

“Cloud has changed the face of government,” he adds.

In the early 2000s, agencies had to buy their own hardware and keep it in data centers. At some point, however, these data centers began to run out of power outlets, and by then things were beginning to shift to virtual servers, which many agencies adopted right away.

Eventually, they got tired of the physical servers and having to buy storage units and hire data centers, so they decided to make the move to cloud servers. This was a big step with a lot of benefits for data storage. However, it meant shifting to a consumption-based model of pricing, which is not something government budgets can easily plan for. And not only that, it’s not cheap.

“When I had to go in front of OMB and go, ‘Yes, I want to double my budget,’ they were like, ‘What do you mean double your budget?’ ‘Well, I have to keep what I have going while I start this new thing called cloud.’ And they’re like, ‘Well, you know, when are we going to save any money?’ And I was like, ‘Well, if you run the model? Year nine. And the way I’m going to do that is by reducing staff.’”

The path to a more modernized State Department has had its hurdles, but Don believes that, although they are still catching up with the times as far as technology is concerned, the department is in a much better place these days.

The COVID effect: getting on board quicker

Obviously, the COVID-19 pandemic has added additional hurdles. Don says, however, that it has been a game changer — pushing agencies to move to cloud and other remote-access services.

“COVID just put a huge shot in the behind and said, ‘Oh, you need to get going fast.’ Traditional telework at the State Department was very, very limited. We went from that to a 100% telework in six weeks,” he says.

It has also made cybersecurity a general concern because everyone is relying more on remote systems.

“I think I saw a metric one time that the State Department defends half a million attacks a day. That, similarly, is now happening to the rank-and-file businesses, and it’s typically ransomware where they get you,” Don says, noting the universality of cybersecurity concerns.

“They earn their way through your network, then say, ‘pay us or we’re going to wipe out all your data.’ And that means something to everyone; that’s not unique to the federal government.”

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