Alaina Teplitz manages the State Department's rightsizing of overseas posts, business process re-engineering, shared services, data governance, innovation efforts and efficiency initiatives. (Mike Morones)
Alaina Teplitz, a career Foreign Service Officer, became director of the State Department’s Office of Management Policy, Rightsizing and Innovation (M/PRI) in October 2012 after serving as minister counselor of management at the U.S. Embassy Kabul in Afghanistan. As director of M/PRI, an assistant secretary-ranked position, Teplitz advises State’s top leadership on management policy. She also manages the rightsizing of overseas posts, business process re-engineering, shared services, data governance, innovation efforts and efficiency initiatives. In a recent interview with Federal Times Editor Steve Watkins, Teplitz said knowledge management often lies at the heart of these initiatives and that the enterprise changes they effect come via “evolution, not revolution, and persistence.”
When you became director of the office two years ago, what were the biggest challenges that you had on your plate and where do those stand right now?
I think the biggest challenges are the perpetual challenges that are facing most of government but certainly the State Department today. They center around the global nature of our operation, resources — making effective use of them, managing their use, monitoring their use, conserving them. I think also fundamentally around knowledge management. I came to the job with an intent to make some in-roads in those areas and I think we face those challenges today. They’re not ones that can be addressed overnight and they’re the kind of thing where you have evolution and not revolution at the end of the day. And if you’re going to make progress, you’ve really got to hang in for the long haul because that’s what it’s going to take.
Hopefully I’ve helped kind of coalesce some energy behind some of the key lines, help shape that, help spread that across the enterprise. This is more than just a management initiative; it’s something that actually is an enabler where we’re trying to make some progress in terms of data quality, looking at leadership and management — so the human capital side of information and knowledge management — and that these are not perceived as something being done to the organization but something that everyone wants to be a part of and invested in because that’s how we all move forward.
What are the top initiatives within that?
We have something called the Enterprise Data Quality Initiative, or EDQI, which is an effort to tackle part of that knowledge management challenge. I think probably the two greatest assets of the State Department are information and its people. And on the information side, the people don’t have good access to the information — they can’t find the information even if the information is there, and then often when the information is there, it’s not as organized or pure as we might like it to be to make good use out of it. So we’ve got issues I’d say from data governance all the way through to the business intelligence end, the “what do we do with it.”
The EDQI effort is designed to tackle all those aspects, so looking at how we govern our data and our systems — and we have an active group that is harmonizing certain data sets. And these are really basic things like, for example, in our corporate systems we were spelling Baghdad six or seven different ways. And so if you want to search information related to Baghdad, it’s impossible because how do you know how they spelled it in the system and you can’t pull it out. So we’ve done things like say “Hey there’s one spelling of Baghdad, this is what it is. Everyone is going to spell it the same way and all corporate systems are going to use this spelling.” So we’re working through that and that is also fundamentally a governance issue too of IT systems.
We’re also then looking at some broader issues of the connectivity between systems, so this gets into the search and accessibility of how do we ensure that the data that we’ve got — it’s not just little data points, we’re also looking at unstructured data and other things — how do we ensure that we can cut across systems and pull information so that we can use that for business analytics? And then how do we ensure that the information that’s in the systems is actually good, that it’s reliable and it’s trustworthy?
You know, some of that comes down to just poor data entry, some of it comes down to poor systems design, some of it comes down to people not understanding what they’re going to do with it, so that’s a training aspect. This initiative is designed to kind of grapple with all of that. And it’s a long-term thing.
In the medium haul, we want to have some harmonized data. We’d like to see some connectivity among basic systems. And then in the long haul, really we’d like to see a little more of that kind of revolution in the sense of we’re really reacting and interfacing with data and information on a very different level.
Secretary Kerry recently launched some leadership principles, that’s another major initiative. We’ve been behind that and are working to make those very real and I like number five, which is learn constantly and innovate so you know we’re out there trying to model that for everybody. But we’ve also recognized that that’s just the beginning of again an employee based framework on how you would -- how you can better collaborate in an organization. I mean as an agency we’re very focused on our external stakeholders and interlocuters. We weren’t spending as much time figuring out how I can relate to somebody in another office and collaboratively we can solve a problem. So this framework is -- pulls on our leadership and management principles, it pulls on some basic management methodologies and things like process mapping, things like doing a pick chart where you go through your brainstorming, decide what you’re going to do, what you’re going to kill off, what you’re going to keep and that kind of thing. You know just some mental support to make decisions ultimately and solve problems in a focused way.
So what you’re saying is you’re actually trying to adopt common approaches to policy formulation which do not exist right now.
Common approaches to policy formulation and I would just say problem solving and collaboration at large have a common language within the agency to tackle all those things. It doesn’t -- these frameworks don’t prescribe necessarily what outcome you’re going to come up with or the substance of the issue but they do give you some touch points so you can run a meeting better and get more out of the collective energy of the people that are there. You can work through sort of iterative processes to come up with a solution and I try not to get geeky when I explain this to people because they, you know, their eyes glaze over, but I think as an organization we all struggle like many do with the idea of “Hey we’ve had this conversation before”. We’ve met and we’re not getting to our solutions, how do we get there? We want to provide some tools and we want to link it back to the idea that we have an expectation that people at all levels are going to be leaders and managers of the organization. They’re going to look at all the tools available to them to try and you know, advance our mission at the end of the day.
So it sounds like in a nutshell what you’re doing is trying to develop and I guess implement a State Department ‘way’ of leadership, policy and management, basically?
Yes. This is just our way, that’s a good word for it.
As you try to get all these different entities to collaborate toward this common goal of more useful standardized data and so forth, are you finding this in any way is adjusting or realigning relationships between, say, the IT communities and the business communities or the financial management communities within the department?
And I’d add the human resource community, and the security community and even broadly beyond that, exactly. Yes, it is realigning relationships. What it has done is pulled together people who previously thought they had no relationship or where their information was their information and it wasn’t to be shared. And being mindful of over sharing, some information does have to be shared to be meaningful and finding ways to do that in a trusted way has been some of the value that we’ve added.
We have a group called the Application Data Control Working Group that convenes a very broad array of stakeholders, basically all the system owners in the department. They have found a common interest in aligning data sets so that they can all make use of it and eventually can reap the reward of being able to do some kind of targeted mining of the information that’s out there, appropriate to their purpose. But I think they’ve realized that all their interests are actually aligned and that if they’re working together and instead of pointing the finger — “Oh this is the IT guy and he won’t let me do this, so it’s their problem” — that they can actually be part of the solution.
So it’s become a powerful group. More than just focusing on these data sets, they’re talking about the governance of applications, the need to design applications so that they’re flexible. It’s helping us better align with some of those broader strategic goals and get buy-in for them — the idea that you build on platforms that aren’t necessarily device- or software-specific, all of that kind of stuff.
It’s gotten a broader conversation going, so we are seeing some changes in how people interact. And we’re pretty relentless in insisting people focus toward some of our end goals. And that persistence, I think, has also caused some realization that we can’t afford not to do these things today. We’ve got to make some progress in these areas or we’re going to have real trouble tomorrow when we want to do something even bigger and better. So again: evolution, not revolution, but being persistent that something will happen, we’re not going to just let it lie.
Right-sizing is a big part of what you do. Can you explain a little bit what the State Department has done so far in terms of right-sizing its worldwide presence and what are the big challenges you have still ahead?
Well, right-sizing is congressionally mandated; so we’re visiting every post, every two or three years, I think, at this point. We do a follow up; if we’ve issued a report we follow up within a year; so we are on that cycle where we’re out there visiting. Everyone is going to get a visit. And we try and be as objective as possible and evaluating whether the human resources are aligned towards the goals and objectives for that location; so we’re looking at it at a local level, a very mission specific level, if you will. We’re also evaluating whether on the management side, the potential for off-shoring: Is that post making the best use of automation and things like that, that might speak to the number of people they’ve got. So on that level I think the right-sizing is moving along.
When you say off-shoring, do you mean outsourcing work to local national companies?
Yeah, it could be like a housekeeping — maybe you hire a company to do it rather than housekeepers work for you or it could be off-shoring in the sense that we have entities here in the United States that could do that work. We’ve got a system where we essentially off-shore voucher processing. So I’ve bought my widget. As opposed to submitting my invoice for payment, that now goes to a virtual in-box and gets paid by one of three offices globally, one of which is in the United States in Charleston, S.C. It could be any one of those things: outsourcing and off-shoring.
You mentioned before that you do have some metrics that you reference as you’re looking at the makeup of these posts overseas, and now you’re approaching this from the departmental level. You used to oversee management at the embassy in Kabul. What did that experience inform you with in terms of how you’re approaching this task of now looking at all these posts overseas for their right sizing?
It’s definitely reinforced the positive role that an objective metric can play. You end up with some comparability. You also end up, I think, with a touchstone — when you’re dealing with the audit community or others, it’s not a subjective issue on the table. You’ve got a real benchmark that’s there that’s enabling you to have an objective conversation about performance or about scale or about scope that kind of keeps it from being an opinion. And I think that’s pretty useful and I also think the comparability is something not to be underestimated, even if locations are different sometimes they’re also the same. They might have some of the same underlying issues or challenges, they’re just cloaked with slightly different policy permutations or different spot on the globe and we’ve got to take a look at what the commonalities are as much as what the differences are to understand whether we’re being effective and fair at the end of the day. As a resource manager, you want to allocate your resources in the best way possible but I think we also are looking at that as an equity issue too. If everybody has got a claim that’s equally valid, you want to try to do justice, if you can, to all of those claims. And this gives us a chance to do that, so the objective references are really helpful.