The truth about email at the State Department

Email, servers, classified memos. By now there would appear to be nothing left to say about Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonSinema invokes McCain in Senate acceptance speech Sinema defeats McSally in Arizona Senate race Hillicon Valley: Social media struggles with new forms of misinformation | US, Russia decline to join pledge on fighting cybercrimes | Trump hits Comcast after antitrust complaint | Zuckerberg pressed to testify before global panel MORE’s e-troubles. We’ve had thousands of pages, articles, tweets, blogs, stories, testimony, Congressional investigations, State Department releases, Justice Department statements, and enough talking heads to make your head spin.

But there is one unspoken fact about the Clinton email saga that rarely gets mentioned because it risks being politically incorrect to say; namely that anyone who knows anything about the State Department knows that the infrastructure of its information technology, well, stinks.  Better put, it is all but inoperable.

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From confounding travel systems (the much hated “E2”), to the blocking of basic productivity software used around the world in everyday business such as Skype, Asana, and Sales Force, to simple Web and even WiFi use, it is virtually impossible to work on a daily basis using the outmoded IT systems at State. When it comes to sending and receiving emails, the extraordinarily user-unfriendly unclassified and classified system is simply impossible to work with in anything approaching a timely fashion, particularly given the volume of incoming material and the time constraints of everyday life in the Department. Between the seemingly infinite number of passwords required – all of which must be changed at least every 90 days, a process that stops you dead in your tracks no matter what you may be working on – and rules governing what can and cannot be seen, many State Department staffers find it frustrating to work.

Given that the IT infrastructure of the Department is so cumbersome as to make it unusable, it should come as no surprise that everyone -- even the Secretary of State – seeks “workarounds.”  People who work in what is affectionately known as “Foggy Bottom” look for a not-foggy spot, outside the official building, from which they can better access the Internet even if that means teleworking to access the Web remotely from home.

Yes, security matters. Security surrounding e-traffic in national security professions is vitally important. We see enough hacking and trolling to know that our most sensitive information must be protected from those who might seek to harm us or interfere with our democratic process. But not being able to use time, productively, while serving your country is also dangerous.  Too much bureaucracy can stifle both creativity and productivity.

None of this excuses breaking the official rules about using your own server.  But this should be a learning moment to highlight a system that is broken—both the classification system and the IT systems.

By the way, this story won’t come as a surprise to insiders. The management offices at State are well aware of the awful state of IT infrastructure. But career personnel at the State have little or no experience with how to procure the best systems or are hamstrung by the procurement process, itself.  Moreover, the details of managing programs is often left to those at the lower levels who don’t have the political sway to demand modernization of systems. And the people at the top are rarely invested in making those kinds of changes. Fixing the IT infrastructure is not a very appealing topic for any high ranking political appointee doing a finite tour of duty. They are trying to achieve “big things” during their time at the helm.

As one who suffered under the same IT regime afflicting Clinton, I would suggest the State Department accept the same advice I give entrepreneurs around the world when trying to mentor them in building their businesses: “It’s 5 percent inspiration and 95 percent perspiration.”  Very often, it is the boring details and not the grand statements that make things work.  The U.S. Government is sorely in need of more managers willing to “perspire.” And it is perhaps time to stop berating those who found themselves trapped in the byzantine world that is the State Department and tried to accomplish something despite the headwinds – like Hillary Clinton. Let’s tackle the problem and remove the irritant so that everyone can get back to work.

Steven Koltai was Senior Advisor for Entrepreneurship at the U.S. Department of State from 2009-2011.  He is a long time business executive and entrepreneur who ran a “software as a service” Internet company.  He is a Guest Scholar in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a Fellow and Senior Advisor for the Bretton Woods II Program at New America, and author of Peace through Entrepreneurship:  Investing in a Startup culture for Security and Development (Brookings Institution Press, Summer 2016).


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.