How do you attack two big challenges for Federal agencies under the President’s Management Agenda – improving both customer experience and cybersecurity – with just one set of pilot projects focused on better device management?

A good person to ask for advice on that front is Dr. Kelly Fletcher, who took over as State Department chief information officer in October 2022 after stints at the Defense Department (DoD) as principal deputy CIO, and principal director for resources and analysis in the DoD CIO office.

Kelly Fletcher, State Department
Kelly Fletcher, State Department

Fletcher gave us 40 minutes of her time a few weeks backs to walk through the Tech for Life initiative, how the project is aiming at real improvements in the CX and cybersecurity categories, some early metrics of success, and some of the cultural and technical work that remains to be done for the pilot efforts to mature into standard policy.

The following Q&A with Fletcher – edited for length – also covers technology thinking for the State Department’s unique and far-flung mission, architecting solutions for hybrid environments and the differences of CIO office roles at State and the Pentagon. She also hints at a favorite venue for off-time relaxation, but fair warning: you’ll need to swim.

MeriTalk: No doubt you have a hundred projects we could talk about, but what’s one that you think of that falls into the “cool tech” category:

Fletcher: Let’s talk about the Tech for Life initiative, which is working to improve both customer experience and cybersecurity. Tech for Life aims to streamline phone and device configuration – and because of that, user continuity – for State Department personnel so they can take their devices and permissions all over the world with them, and avoid having to get new gear and permissions when they change locations.

Tech for Life is really about provisioning to users a device that they take with them, and it remains their device around the world.

That’s instead of going to Nairobi and being handed the device in Nairobi, working in Nairobi for two or three years, and then coming back to D.C., going on home leave, taking a break from being overseas, getting some training, having no device, and then going to Bogota, and being handed a new device.

The way we’ve done it in the past doesn’t make sense for the workforce we have that is moving every one to three years and spending significant time in the U.S. in between overseas posts. And not only are we giving them a device, we’re giving them a telephone number and that’s their number for as long as they work with the State Department.

MeriTalk: When you say devices what does that include?

Fletcher: We’re doing laptops and phones. Obviously, the phones are going to ride over cellular or Wi-Fi, laptops the same – Wi-Fi or fiber. Then they are able to access all of the assets on a laptop of Open Net, which is our State Department unclassified network, and for phones all of those assets that are accessible from a mobile device.

MeriTalk: Can you take us through how this helps on the cybersecurity front?

Fletcher: From the cybersecurity perspective, State employees are using a managed device – as opposed to a third-party issued one – so I have robust logging, I know what they’re doing, I know what they’re .connecting with.

Then the second thing is we are no longer not refreshing devices consistently. When we allow devices to be managed at the local level – that may happen for a couple more years – you get certain locations where folks are operating with phones from six years ago. That’s a bad answer from both a customer experience and cybersecurity perspective.

MeriTalk: And on the customer experience front?

Fletcher:  Everything I’m doing, I’m trying to couple customer experience with cybersecurity. In the case of Tech for Life, the customer experience improvement is pretty obvious – employees can stay in contact better.

And then Tech for Life also aims to help our people do better at what the State Department does from a diplomacy perspective.

I came from DOD, but at State, we have a fundamentally different mission, and that mission is really based on relationships. Part of the power of having the same telephone number and being able to be in contact is even when someone leaves or moves on to their next post, it may be that these foreign partners that they have a relationship with may reach back out.

Tech for Life gives them the ability to better navigate these transitions and to maintain the relationships, which I think is really important right now.

MeriTalk: Tech for Life is a pretty recent creation?

Fletcher: It is. We are doing two pilots of Tech for Life this summer. One is for new hires, so if you are brand new to the Department of State, we’re going to give you some devices, and these are associated with you. The employees are brand-new, they’re excited to get a device. That is going really well so far.

But that’s not the pilot that I am most interested in the results of. The second pilot is the pilot for Foreign Service officers, and these are the people that have been saying that they need this capability.

We sent out a note to all of the Foreign Service officers who are transitioning through D.C. that they could participate in this second pilot. One thing we wanted to find out is whether want a laptop, or a phone, or both – those are the options.

MeriTalk: What’s the uptake on that?

Fletcher: Going into it, I believed that laptops would be less popular than phones, dramatically. I thought phones would be like three or four times more popular. Turned out I was utterly wrong – the laptops and the phone are equally popular. Some people just want a laptop. Some people just want a phone. But the last time I checked, I believe that we had provisioned one less laptop than phones.

So that’s part of what we are going to run metrics on – what grade level or rank picks a particular device, and how does where they are going help to color that preference. This pilot is not only allowing us to start the process, it’s also allowing us to gather information on what the workforce wants.

MeriTalk: What’s the size of the pilot?

Fletcher: The pilot for new hires is 200 new hires over the summer, and pilot for Foreign Service officers covers 2,000 total laptops and phones. So depending on how many devices people choose, we could end up provisioning 1,200 to 1,500 people. So far, we’ve had 400 people either receive a device, or have an appointment to receive one.

MeriTalk: When did you kick the pilots off?

Fletcher: We started in June, so just a couple of months ago. We’re very excited with the number of people signing up, and we’re very excited to learn what they want.

MeriTalk: The two pilots are going pretty well. Is there an end-date on the pilot phase when you take stock and work on some metrics?

Fletcher: September is what we’re aiming for, and so at that time, we’re going to be where we are, and I we’re going to do a tough assessment on what went well, what didn’t go well, what was the uptake, and what was the interest.

Even though the pilot ends, the great thing about this is that individuals will have had their device and they will have gone to their post, and then in a year or two years or three years, they’re going to move. So this isn’t something where we can just forget about it. They’re going to need that device refreshed.

And let’s say that they’re going from a place where they could bring their device and to another place where they can’t, we’re going to need to gather that device and make sure it gets back into the inventory – so asset management that will be ongoing indefinitely.

MeriTalk: A quick question for those of us not steeped in the State Department, what’s the difference between a regular employee and a Foreign Service Officer?

Fletcher: Civil service employees are spread all throughout the government, some of them are overseas, but they usually are not the people whose job it is to be overseas.

The Foreign Service is a little different, I think of it along the lines of the military – we have uniformed service and then we have civil service. At State, I think of the Foreign Service like I think of the uniformed military. They’re the folks who signed up for it, took exams for the Foreign Service, and now for a lot of their careers, they’re going to be living somewhere overseas for two or three years at a time. It’s a mixed workforce.

MeriTalk: It’s probably too early to tell, but it sounds like Tech for Life is promising enough to maybe turn into the normal course of business?

Fletcher: I absolutely do want it to be enduring.

MeriTalk: Are there State Department locations around the world where Tech for Life is less suited?

Fletcher: There are some challenges that we are going to have to think through. As you know, the State Department is global, we’re in 275 locations. Some of those are places where the problem is that diesel fuel is being siphoned, and others are modern capitals like Paris.  Conditions on the ground can be wildly divergent, and because of that, there are some places that are always going to have to have dedicated devices for that location.

MeriTalk: Does that also have to do with condition of local infrastructure on the ground?

Fletcher: 100 percent, yes, it’s about what is available locally. I’ve learned a lot about phones and SIM cards, and what phone works where, and can we buy phones in D.C. that work? The answer is, very frankly, we have to go location by location and say, is this a location that if I give someone a phone in D.C., will it then be supportable wherever they’re going. We have IT professionals at every location, so that if you have a problem with the device they can help you. But I have to give you something they can help you with.

MeriTalk: Tech support at all 275 locations?

Fletcher: Absolutely. This is the best job I have ever heard of – you get to go be an IT pro globally, support diplomacy, participate in diplomacy, help folks use technology. It’s an incredibly cool job.

MeriTalk: Are all of those U.S. citizens, or do you hire the IT staff locally as well?

Fletcher: Our Foreign Service officers are the head of IT at every embassy or post, and that’s going to be an American citizen. But they absolutely have staff of local employees, and these local employees are critical to us being able to do our job and meeting the mission. Oftentimes, those are the folks who have the history – they’ve been there for ten or 20 years.

MeriTalk: What can you share in the way of challenges? I’m generally a tech Luddite and don’t want every new device or update, are you seeing any sorts of those kinds of “people” challenges?

Fletcher: This is a fundamental change to culture, and I mean that both with the customers who are not at all IT people, but also from my IT team. We are accustomed to having devices associated with a location, but now I’m flooding the zone with these devices that are associated with people.

Our IT pros overseas are thinking – let me get this straight, somebody is going to show up, they’re going to have a device, I didn’t provision the device, and I’m just going to have to help them fix it? That’s a culture problem.

And then there are the customers. At the State Department, we have a lot of really passionate people, they want to be involved. But they have a lot of questions – what happens if I leave Nairobi, what do I do with my device? Well, the answer is it’s a pilot, and I have some ideas – don’t worry, we will get the device.

But there is a fundamental change in culture for people in that it’s not I go to a place and get provisioned for a device that is associated with that post. Instead, this is my device that I’m responsible for.

MeriTalk: At some point in a top-down organization though, you just give an instruction to show up and pick up your new phone, and that’s that?

Fletcher: At DoD, I would have agreed with that statement all day long. But at the State Department, it’s been really interesting to me that we are an organization of people who are negotiators. I can say, ‘I’m the CIO, we’re going to do this,’ and then the wonderful people who work for me will see that as the beginning of the negotiation.

I think it’s creating better solutions – we’re having this robust engagement with all of the civil servants and Foreign Service and people in D.C. and people overseas. It is giving us stronger answers.

MeriTalk: Anything else cropping up in the way of challenges?

Fletcher: Culture is the big thing, but there’s also asset management for IT people. We’re standing up a new way to manage your assets and we’re operating in a dual environment, and frankly, we’re always going to be in a dual environment because there are some posts where this doesn’t work.

So what I would love to do is rapidly transition. Like every IT person knows, you don’t want to be in this interim state very long, you’re burning more money, it’s more complicated. We are always going to be in a dual environment where at some locations they manage their devices and in other locations all devices are managed centrally, and associated with an individual. This is how we’re going to have to operate.

But frankly, the asset management is not uncomplicated, it can be pretty tricky.

MeriTalk: Can you shed a bit of light on that?

Fletcher: How hard can asset management be? That was a question I asked about five months ago.

The reason is this: right now, John has a device. We give it to him in so then we manage it here in D.C. and then John goes to Mexico City, and something goes wrong. He drops the device, or loses or breaks it, now he needs a new one. So who gives John the device?

MeriTalk: Mexico City?

Fletcher: Exactly right. But then it leads to the question is that now John’s device, or Mexico City’s device. But then after Mexico City, John is going to a place where that device is unsupportable, so he has to fly back to D.C. and give me that device. Or John can give leave it with Mexico City, and they will provision it for someone else. The problem is the hybrid environment – we’ll never get out of the hybrid environment.

MeriTalk: So, learning by doing?

Fletcher: That’s the theory. Certainly we’re learning about customers, and we’re going to learn when something unexpected happens – like an employee has to leave a post early and asks what to do with a phone? There is going to be a little head scratching instead of a smooth, automated process.  I’m going for smooth and automated, but this is a pilot.

MeriTalk: Can you circle us back around to the cybersecurity benefits of Tech for Life?

Fletcher: The first thing is we aren’t going to have devices that are outdated. We’re going to have a consistent refresh plan so that nobody’s going to be on an outdated device. This is something that we’re working through policy now. If we actually have centralized management, it’ll be a little bit easier.

Then the second thing is these devices are managed. Right now, even if you receive a device in any post in the world, that device is going to be managed, and our partners in Diplomatic Security are going to be able to see logs, are going to be able to see what you did there, and we will see what you’ve accessed.

We are doing a lot of work in the logging space, and we have really exciting people with exquisite skills looking at those logs, looking at the alerts, triaging, and making decisions. I’m really proud of what we’re doing in that space now, and that will continue with these devices.

The other thing I like about it is that I think we’re going to have less diversity of devices. I want fewer device types, and I want to get people government-issued devices. I want them to use their government- issued device first.

MeriTalk: Has there been any sort of collaboration with other agencies for this project, or was it all home-grown? Whenever I think of the scope of the State Department, for instance, it reminds me a lot of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Fletcher: I love that you mentioned USAID. The CIO there, Jason Gray, he and talk very regularly about how do we enhance collaboration between our organizations, as they are sort of co-located with us. We talk about how to drive to parity where it’s easy to collaborate, and folks don’t have a have/have not scenario.

I’m blessed to be part of what I call CIO clubs – both the Federal CIOs who I’ve talked to a lot about how they’re doing asset management, and then also an industry CIO club. What I’ve been surprised about with industry is I just thought, ‘certainly global industries are doing this already,’ and that is not universally true.

A number of CIOs I’ve talked to at big global corporations have said they provision devices based on the office that you’re in, and if you leave that office, you leave the device. That was interesting to me because we’re trying to do this other thing, and they said asset management is going to be a pain.

MeriTalk: When you talk about your Federal CIO club, is that translatable into the Federal CIO Council, or is it something more informal?

Fletcher: The Federal CIO Council is the starting place. But those of us with more overlapping priorities, or for whatever reason, we have robust engagements even outside of that. I absolutely want to acknowledge [Federal CIO] Claire Martorana because I think she’s created this feeling of community where I know people’s faces and names. I love that they’ve fostered this community.

MeriTalk: Any thoughts to share about the transition from DoD to State?

Fletcher: I think I got really lucky that I arrived here – I frankly did not know very much about the State Department. I knew what the mission was – it’s the coolest mission – but I was interested that many of the things that my customers are asking for at State are different from what they were asking for at DOD.

I’ve had really robust engagements, both overseas and domestically, just to really hear what folks need to do their job better. What they need is to be able to build these relationships and sustain these relationships – this is what our business is – to have relationships, and to do this they need consistent phone numbers. They need access to communications technology to engage with their peers. The key thing is to understand your customers.

MeriTalk: Something a bit personal to you – has technology always been a natural interest to you, or did you pick it up along the way?

Fletcher: I’m an engineer by training and so I’ve always loved how technology can improve life. I had an internship really early on where I beta tested a computer program in the 1990s that was to help farmers figure out how much fertilizer and how much water for their crop yields and then it was ‘Oh man, tech can change lives.’”

MeriTalk: And then finally, can you share anything about what you like to do in “real life” that has nothing to do with technology at all?

Fletcher: I love open water swimming. For people who live in D.C. – there is open water swimming allowed in the Potomac. It’s magical. All I need is a swimsuit and goggles. And no one can call me – I’m totally unavailable!

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John Curran
John Curran
John Curran is MeriTalk's Managing Editor covering the intersection of government and technology.