By Todd C.E. Cheng and Lisa Kurtz
On receiving his first telegram in the early 1860s, British Prime Minister Henry John Temple, Viscount Palmerston, is reported to have exclaimed, “My God, this is the end of diplomacy.”
The Department of State, however, wisely began blending technology with diplomacy in 1867 by adopting the use of the telegraph. In the 1920s, Department leaders helped Congress understand that the use of “wireless”—high frequency radio—signals would not render diplomatic missions overseas unnecessary. With each technological leap forward—from telegraph to radio, to satellite, to cloud computing, and from office-based work to flexible workplaces—the technical support guild, as diplomats, remain critical to every mission.
Today, the Bureau of Information Resource Management’s (IRM) Office of Consolidated Customer Support (CCS) leads IT support services and advances diplomatic efforts with innovative problem-solving, empathy, and resilience. Staff analyze how new technology tools are serving users, by providing them with domestic endpoint support, account and security management, and the IT Service Center (ITSC) helpdesk—its most public-facing entity. Then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice established the ITSC charter in 2006, when she tasked IRM, the Bureau of Budget and Planning, the Bureau of Administration (A), and the Office of Management and Strategy Solutions (M/SS) to create a shared service center that centralized domestic IT support, improved the quality of service, and adopted industry best practices. This helped CCS’ customer-focused teams support technology advancements in diplomacy in ways that Lord Palmerston could never have imagined.
Every week, the domestic ITSC team responds to 6,000 customer support requests across all but two bureaus, deploys 250 endpoint devices (i.e., desktops, printers, and laptops), and tackles customer demands. ITSC serves 111 domestic sites (although, due to the pandemic, the ‘sites’ were expanded to include 40,000 off-premise locations and users’ homes). Given its extensive portfolio, ITSC, in 2019, sought to adopt and update its service desk to match industry best practices. By listening to what users wanted, establishing better contract support services, and adopting new technology, they began delivering a more targeted and quality service response.
When the COVID-19 pandemic changed everyone’s work-life, IRM’s technology adoption accelerated. Telework expanded to nearly 90%; more than 40,000 employees transitioned to GO Browser within the first week; virtual work engagement became the norm; laptops became the new workspace; and migrating to the cloud meant access from anywhere. But the deployment rate of multiple new tools and applications strained customer limits, and ITSC aided users in distress. ITSC transitioned from the on-premises call system to a telephone cloud software, providing off-site options to both users and support staff, while protecting everyone’s health. The result was 20,000 extra calls in a month, and CCS upgraded support to meet customer demand.
IRM embraced a customer-centric mindset as one of IRM’s five 2021 strategic priorities, integrating user needs into the initial application or development phase. Customer feedback drove self-service options, such as password reset and improved printer mapping. Users resolved simple issues themselves, allowing technical staff to focus on complex activities that required more customer interaction.
IRM coordinated with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Foriegn Service Institute (FSI), and Bureau of Global Talent Management to reshape Department entry routines. CCS used virtual onboarding to bring 4,500 newly recruited staff to service, including White House and other VIP appointees, FSI students, contractors, and interns. CCS also brought new services to employees. In May 2021, State Annex (SA)-15’s IT Mart reopened its doors with an updated office and enhanced services. It now offers Wi-Fi, device charging stations, and workstations to keep people in the Rosslyn area connected. This year, CCS opened a third IT Mart at SA-17 to support Consular Affairs, the passport office, and child care center users.
In 2022, IRM devised and implemented lasting improvements: deploying laptops in lieu of workstations; created more in-person service opportunities; and adopted more automation tools. IRM, working with other bureaus, including A, M/SS, Bureau of Diplomatic Security, and Bureau of Global Talent Management, changed Department policy—transitioning to laptops instead of desktops, as the primary endpoint—one of the biggest IT improvements since Secretary of State Colin Powell introduced the Department to internet at the desktop. In January 2022, CCS set up weekly “Laptop Fairs” to deploy the new devices, engage one-on-one with customers, and give diplomats needed flexibility. This also helped meet the undersecretary of management’s 2022 goal of deploying 9,000 laptops domestically.
CCS has recoded the service desk to better serve customers of technologies in diplomacy, and three years of data give tangible proof that these efforts are working. From March 2021 to March 2022, the average ‘call answer’ speed improved by 94%, and the mean time to resolve incidents decreased by 90%. Survey satisfaction from 13,853 responses showed an average rating of 4.45 out of 5.
As the team continues to tinker with the systems, work continues to improve, and align with quality targets. CCS needs customer candor to continue improving. Customer feedback helps IRM target performance improvements, quality, and scope, while users focus on Department goals. It also helps when a Department employee sends kudos to their local IT person when they receive excellent support. The technical support guild has hard-working, dedicated folks who care deeply about supporting diplomacy.
Leveraging inventive tools will yield improvements far into the future. An IRM and M/SS joint project uses the Microsoft Teams phone system to assign each employee a single phone number for their entire careers. Customers can receive and make calls from desktops, laptops, and mobile devices—wherever internet access is available—via a dial pad within the Teams application. This innovation will transform how employees connect to diplomacy, while reducing employee disruption and continuing to deliver towards the Department’s “Future of Work.” Technology will keep changing, and IRM will continue helping users adapt to the changes. It’s safe to say that neither the telegraph nor the cloud nor the next big invention will be the end of diplomacy.
Todd C. E. Cheng is the former director of the Bureau of Information Resource Management’s Office of Consolidated Customer Support, and Lisa Kurtz is a retired Foreign Service officer.