i spy

The “Washington Whispers” column in the January 26 issue of U.S. News and World Report notes, in the “Master of His Web: Colin Powell” entry:

Hey, State Department Web gang: Think twice before blowing off those E-mails asking what may look like niggling questions. They’re possibly from Secretary of State Colin Powell. The latest proof that Powell is a 24-7 techie who E-mails with abandon and would rather Google an issue than phone an aide comes from insiders, who say he has set up an anonymous E-mail account from which he “bombs in” questions about what’s on the State site. “He’s checking response times,” says one insider. Powell’s desire to have the best government Web site doesn’t end there. He recently showed off a cheapo digital camera from Amazon.com and said top aides should have one. “When you travel,” he said, “we can put your pictures up.” Pals say Powell is proud of making the Internet available to over 43,000 State computers–up from a few hundred–and wants it used. Overseas, he often steps into the ambassador’s office “to see if the computer is in use or being used as a hat rack,” we’re told. And he’s not just an at-work techie. At home he loves his TiVo, taping shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy for fun.

I’m responsible for the intranet at one of the State Department’s bureaus, and we’re always very good about responding promptly to our webmaster email, but you can bet I’m paying very close attention to every one that comes in these days.

I can vouch for some of this piece. It’s true that until Secretary Powell’s tenure at State, employees here did not have Internet access at their desktop. When I took this job in the summer of 2002, I was stunned to discover that my colleagues had only had Internet access for about 18 months, when I’d been using it at all my previous (albeit non-government) positions for at least 8 years. I’m very grateful that the Secretary made changing this situation a priority on his watch.

I also remember the Monday morning I came into the office to be summoned immediately to the Executive Director’s office; the Secretary had been trying to access his online distance learning account on Sunday night, had been unable to log in, and sent a fax to the Director of my bureau that night. We were on it first thing the next morning (it turns out that the third-party site that provides some of the online training does maintenance on Sunday nights, so fortunately it wasn’t something for which we were responsible), but it was interesting to see that even at home on his own time he was making use of the Department’s online resources.

But I don’t believe that I’d label the Secretary a “techie.” He certainly is an avid user of the Internet and other new technology, and he’s a wonderful evangelist and supporter for our efforts in using multimedia and technology for training, but my suspicion is that the Internet and related technology is not something that he understands at a more fundamental level (this is not a criticism). And that’s fine, because that’s why I have a job.