The Peace Corps is moving toward a lightweight, agile technology environment.
And one way it’s doing that is by working differently with the business side of the house.
“It used to be that people didn’t like working with us so at the very last minute they’d call us and say, ‘we need technology.’ That’s changed,” said Dorine Andrews, the Peace Corps chief information officer. “Now we are leading the sessions to redesign the business so that it allows the business people to make the decisions. I’m really excited about our role in front end business process reengineering.”
The effort to empower the business folks isn’t new. Andrews started it when she became the Peace Corps CIO in 2010. But more than three years later, she said the priorities reflect just how much the environment has changed.
“When we started out with business modernization, we were defining it as workflow automation and the elimination of paper. We ran an Office 365 SharePoint pilot with two applications and we came out of that saying, ‘This is not exactly what we thought it would be,'” she said. “What we decided is business modernization is all about information management and access. We are using dynamic customer relationship management [tool] and we built an application for health screening as part of the application process for candidates. We found it very helpful, useful, powerful and easy to maintain.”
She said that experience led the Peace Corps to rearchitect its core information databases, which are old, fragmented and flat, instead of dynamic and relational. Additionally, Andrews said the Peace Corps is using dynamic CRM to update its grants management system.
“We will be launching it in December and January,” she said. “We will bring it in- house. We spent two months configuring it to our requirements so there is no coding going on except for a small portal on the front end for the volunteers. We are automating a world-wide process where volunteers apply for grants, they get reviewed and the money goes out, and we are able to report back to our donors and sponsors how that money was used. It’s all an automated process. We are excited that this is our foundation for us moving forward. If you interview us in two years, just before I retire, you will find most of our core systems are in this dynamic CRM environment.”
Easing communications with the field
She said as the Peace Corps updates legacy apps or brings in new ones, they will all be based on this dynamic CRM structure.
Going forward, one of those systems the agency plans to transform its business processes around is its health system configuration project, which will be based on open source software.
“We will be able to put automation out at the posts with connections to headquarters to automate volunteer health records because the safety and security of our volunteers is so critical,” said Andrews, who was a 2012 Causey Award winner for her efforts to improve her IT workforce.
Several other priorities are focused on making it easier for volunteers around the world to interact with headquarters. Andrews said the agency is launching a new volunteer reporting tool in the coming months.
“It will allow us to report up all the good work that our volunteers do around the world within a really well-structured, strategy and objective framework,” she said. “It will roll up into our report to Congress. It will dramatically improve the accuracy and completeness of our reporting.”
A third priority area where the CIO is working more closely with the mission owners is in the development of the Peace Corps application process and around mobile apps.
Researching mobile devices
Andrews said the Peace Corps is redesigning the application process for volunteers to make it easier for them to understand where they can serve and what kinds of jobs they could do.
As for mobile apps, Andrews said the Peace Corps is researching whether to replace the BlackBerrys most employees have or to upgrade them.
“We have set an engineering team to do full market research and see what our options are and the pluses and minuses,” she said. “We will identify some of the regional managers to participate in some exercises of new technology. We are not sure what we will end up with yet.”
From there, she said if funding comes through she’d like to develop a mobile app to better identify, develop and manage sites for volunteers to do their work.
“We have to make sure our volunteer reporting applications run on a variety of platforms because we don’t provide the volunteers with devices,” she said. “The technology is allowing us to do it better than before. Volunteers are innovatively using their iPhones and Androids to do videos and trainings and collect data. There are cases where some of the posts are experimenting by putting all the manuals and training on e-readers. What we do here at the OCIO is not try to control everything that goes to volunteers and posts, but we provide guidance. We provide guidance on the purchase of satellite phones, and what kinds of phones work in which environments. We have guidance on post-website development. We have guidance on e-readers. We have guidance on what tablets to buy if you don’t want to use the laptops we provide. My philosophy is creativity and innovation takes place at the edges of organizations most often. Our job at headquarters is to keep everyone connected, and keep us moving and keep our core systems going.”