Interview: Jonathan Palmer (CIO, IMF)

In an interview IMF’s CIO Jonathan Palmer spoke about how IT has made the organization more proactive and transparent. This story was published in the Dataquest Magazine, the link being:(
‘IT has made us more transparent and accessible’

It is hard to come across a person who has not heard of the International Monetary Fund. Even harder to come across one who does not have a view on IMF (in all probability a negative view tinged with apprehensiveness and distrust). But the irony is that not many individuals seem to really know what really the IMF does. Often, one comes across new stories that belabor the IMF’s Keynesian approach and its frequent ‘austerity programs’. The Fund, as it is referred to as, is often chastised for it recommendations to poorer nations on currency devaluation, and balancing of budgetary deficit.

That said, the IMF plays a very crucial role in the world economy today. In a globalized society that we exist in, the IMF acts as monetary and fiscal guardian angel over the 185 or so member countries. The fund describes itself as “an organization of 185 countries working to foster global monetary cooperation, secure financial stability, facilitate international trade, promote high employment and sustainable economic growth, and reduce poverty.” A lofty goal indeed. To achieve this goal, the Fund is employing the best and the latest that technology has on offer. And Jonathan Palmer is overseeing that this very aspect.

Palmer is the associate director of the Technology and General Services Department of the IMF. Informally, he is the CIO at the Fund and describes himself as an ‘economist on the field’. Not such a long time ago, he was an adjunct professor at the Canberra University, when the opportunity of heading the technology division at the IMF came his way. He readily took up the challenge and seems to be enjoying his role, every bit. According to him the biggest challenge he has faced has been in terms of working with diverse and multi-cultural teams. While he admits that he is interested in open-source, he is certainly not obsessed with it and feels that proprietary standards and software also have a lot to offer. In an extended telephonic interaction from Washington DC with Shashwat Chaturvedi, Palmer spoke to Dataquest and gave an insight on what makes the IMF tick. Little surprise, it is indeed technology. Excerpts.

How does technology help the IMF meet the changing needs of member countries in an evolving world economy?
The IMF has a clear strategy for responding to the changing environment, in particular to the challenges of globalization. It’s called the Medium-Term Strategy or MTS. Technology plays a strong role in supporting this strategy. For example, since one of the requirements of the MTS is enhancing the IMF advice on financial and capital markets, we are assisting in developing new financial models for assessing risk. We are also working on reducing e-mail overload and maintaining the Fund’s efficiency, and several other aspects related to the MTS. In brief, IT helps us in meeting up with the challenge of globalization.

The IMF has been established to promote international monetary cooperation and exchange rate stability. What are the mechanisms in place to help the IMF meet its goal? How strategic is IT in meeting these objectives?
All our processes are completely enabled by IT and technology. IT has been integrated in all the core activities of the IMF, which include surveillance, financial and technical assistance. We have a broad portfolio of systems, data warehouses, publishing systems, document repositories, economic models, and a range of systems that support our Human Resources Department, our Finance Department, mission travel, etc. To say that IT is strategic will be an understatement, as it forms the basis of all our operations.

Starting with around 40 member countries in 1945 to over 180 now, how does the IMF link all these member countries and how are the statistics recorded?
The IMF has 185 member countries at present. Its organization includes Resident Representative offices in about 90 countries, three regional offices, and six technical assistance centers. All the staff in these offices are linked to the head office in Washington through our network, and we are making increased use of video conferencing, Internet telephony, instant messaging, and extranets to improve this linkage between IMF staff at headquarters and the staff in the field.

As far as collecting statistical information is concerned, we use a highly automated and secure system called the Integrated Correspondence System. We are also participating in an initiative called SDMX (Statistical Data and Metadata Exchange), which is defining formats for the exchange of data and metadata. This is relevant because to automate the collection of data and integrate data across countries, it is important to have appropriate standards. The IMF is playing a leadership role in this area.

How has the current IT infrastructure evolved over a period of time and what is the current infrastructure?
In the last year or so, we have put a lot of work into improving our infrastructure redundancy and availability. We have two data centers at headquarters, which operate independently and support each other if one of them goes out. We also have a remote DR facility, from which we can host systems in the event of a major disruption to our headquarters.

Another change is the support for new devices in the network, like Blackberries and Windows Mobile devices. We recently finished a pilot deployment of Skype and we’ll be deploying it organization-wide as a platform for instant messaging and telephony. Also, we are exploring software as a service. We are working towards keeping up-to date with the latest that technology has to offer. The two key drivers behind all our initiatives are high availability for our global workforce and cost-effectiveness, all in the framework of our MTS, as I mentioned before.

A major accusation against the IMF is the apparent lack of transparency, are there some initiatives in place to deal with this as well?
We have made enormous changes in accessibility to information and our website has been a key mechanism for that. We now publish the vast bulk of the material that we produce on surveillance, at the global, regional, and country-specific levels. The challenge for us now is to recognize that it’s not only a question of putting the information in the public domain, but communicating effectively about what the information means. That’s a challenge that technology can support. We are already doing much more video presentations through our website, we have plans to provide enhanced support for multiple languages, and right now we are doing some very interesting work on data visualization.

You have been associated with the Australian Bureau of Statistics, and the New Zealand Statistical Authority, and have been adjunct professor at the University of Canberra. So can you talk about the transition of roles? How does it feel to be a CIO of an organization that has such a major role to play in the global economy?
In many ways my role is not unlike the ones I’ve had in public sector institutions. I’m continuing to work in organizations that have a very strong public mission and do important work. But there is a difference in the global dimension this time. Personally, I’m enjoying the diversity and high caliber of the staff at the IMF.

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