State of grace

Thomas R. Temin

It must have given secretary of State Colin Powell a lot of pleasure to personally hand over CD-ROMs of department documents to archivist James Carlin.

After all, the State Department until recently has been one of the government's more spectacular technological backwaters. It wasn't until the summer of 2002 that the department began to widely install Internet access on users' desktop computers. Before that offices had one connected PC, sort of like having a telephone booth for the whole office.

Under Powell, the department has accelerated its deployment of modern tools. One case is point is its new electronic personnel folders. The folder system will reduce the messy and error-ridden process of schlepping paper human resources records all over the world for overseas workers.

More fundamentally, Powell, a believer in IT and its mission-enhancing capabilities, imposed a bridging of the gap between the IT and diplomatic staffs. He did it with money and smart people in the right places. Now State has a Defense Department-class network for foreign affairs.

And earlier this month, there was the well-publicized delivery of 700,000 30-year-old documents to the National Archives and Records Administration.

But hand-delivering CD-ROMs? With data NARA will transfer to digital tapes after content verification? Doesn't that have the slightly musty odor of aging technology?

CD-ROMs are a step up from paper with respect to storage, but hardly an elegant solution, especially since disks are only the bucket for transferring data to NARA's tape libraries.

Turns out the CD-ROMs are a transitional thing while contractor Northrop Grumman Corp. builds a system to truly move records electronically.

In the meantime, even with hauling CD-ROMs out of Foggy Bottom, it is clear that State has made tangible progress toward becoming a 21st century agency. That should put a smile on any secretary's face.

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