Listen to Cecilia M. Coates discuss her work:
The State Department operates a sophisticated worldwide supply chain management system comparable to Amazon.com that provides diplomats and other U.S. personnel with everything from medical supplies to vehicles, both during ordinary times and when there is a crisis.
This logistics system, which services 280 locations and handles 56,000 shipments worth $10 billion in annual procurement spending, was conceived, implemented and is closely supervised by Cecilia Coates, State’s managing director of program management and policy.
“Cecilia Coates created a fundamentally new way to manage logistics within the State Department, the first and only fully integrated, end-to-end global system within the federal government,” said John Goodman, chief executive of Accenture Federal Services, a contractor who works with Coates to run the system.
The department’s logistics system was first introduced under Coates’ direction about a decade ago, and she has constantly worked to upgrade and improve it with modern technology. In the past few years, for example, she has overseen movement of the supply system to the cloud, added new security features, modernized the inventory tracking system for embassies, and partnered with Google to create a 24/7 help desk that uses artificial intelligence to improve customer service and lower costs.
Prior to the creation of this system, federal employees serving around the world used more than 25 systems to obtain goods and services. That was enormously inefficient, wasteful and costly, and resulted in lengthy delays. Now goods are ordered and shipped far more quickly, and in a far more cost-effective way. Since it went into operation, the department estimates there have been hundreds of millions of dollars in savings along with increased efficiency, global visibility and customer satisfaction.
One of the system’s customers is Margaret Sula, a foreign service officer serving in Doha, Qatar. “I can’t overemphasize the amount of time and effort the Integrated Logistics Management System saves me and my team. It’s like ordering from Amazon.”
For regular supplies, customers order from a virtual catalog. Once approved, the system connects with the private sector supplier to fill the order, which is given a tracking number and sourced either domestically or overseas.
In addition to providing more efficient, cost-saving procurement of goods and services, the system tracks nearly $5 billion of State Department assets, which enables detection of fraud, waste and mismanagement. Department and overseas personnel can pinpoint what they have, what is in the warehouse, and what and when to reorder. All this saves millions of dollars annually.
The supply chain system also can be lifesaving in a crisis, since it can be operated remotely either in neighboring countries or in Washington, D.C. This capability was vital during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ve been dealing with the coronavirus crisis, and we have had to get supplies out to our embassies around the world,” Coates said. “We’ve got a much more nimble system now that enables us to stage supplies at regional locations and get them to a diplomatic post very quickly.”
In the past, the system has been used to respond to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the war in Libya, ISIS attacks, the Ebola outbreak in Africa and the Venezuelan political crisis.
“We often deliver lifesaving resources including medicine to protect not only our personnel, but also other people we want to safeguard,” said Annette Redmond, deputy assistant secretary of state for Intelligence Policy and Coordination. “Because the ILMS is a well-honed machine, it’s often able to reallocate and move things quickly in a crisis.”
In addition to supporting diplomatic locations around the world, the supply chain system is used overseas by 40 different foreign affairs agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, the Navy, the Marine Corps and USAID.
Initially, accomplishing such a fundamental change on a global scale wasn’t easy. Coates faced resistance from department leaders who were leery of costly IT projects, and from field personnel who doubted whether people in Washington could understand their unique challenges.
To counter those obstacles, and despite severe staffing and budget constraints as well as inconsistent executive support, Coates focused her team on the goal of developing a single global integrated system. She “built on smaller successes until she earned their trust,” she said. And, equally important, she gave a voice to field personnel in developing and improving the system.
Coates now manages a budget of roughly $150 million and supervises a team of approximately 400 contract workers and 100 department employees.
Redmond said Coates “revolutionized” a system that was not responsive to the needs of the State Department by using her own know-how, leveraging industry expertise and listening to the users in the field.
“She’s open and wants to include everyone,” Sula said. “She’s taken on the skeptics, and she finds ways to work with them until we are all moving in the same direction.”
Coates said she is passionate about trying to make government work better.
“I’m a firm believer that if you are not working to improve operations every single day, then you are not doing your job,” she said. “We owe it to the American taxpayer to continually work to make our government more efficient, more responsive and less costly.”