Five Lessons on Fostering Government Innovation Using Google Apps

Brandon Williams, Director Google operations, Governor's Office of IT-State of Colorado
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Actually Doing What We Say We Do

The State of Colorado migrated to Google Apps for Government in 2012. In one fell swoop, everything state workers were familiar with was replaced by the most dynamic, collaboration-loving platform on the planet. Secure, but designed to foster sharing and connectivity. We rolled out a toolkit to achieve everything we know we should do in government, but don’t… until now.

There are plenty of experts who will assure you this can be done without difficulty and with minimal impact to services. Over promising garbage. There is no one-size-fits-all answer. As one who made the Google jump, I am happy to share what we discovered and share some scars and smiles recommendations.

“C-level will be happy when they see results, cost avoidance lines going up and staff producing amazing products in short order”

Five Lessons: Fostering Government Innovation

1) Assemble a team of friends to propel innovation. Good friends.


You will have a team to support migration. To extract the true power of the Google Apps suite, it takes an ongoing support commitment. The platform’s power multiplies exponentially with a core staff working together, who understand not just how the applications work, but how they can be combined and assembled to make something ordinary, extraordinary. Sites, maps, sheets, forms, apps scripts—these are game-changers when operating together. A group who understands the applications and teams with business managers to perform agile transformations of traditional processes is powerful stuff. This effort isn’t about taking existing horrible practices and moving them to Google to be cloud-based, horrible practices. This is about reinventing government practices to be more efficient and lean. Make sure the team is friendly. This will be high-stress trench work. Also, make sure the team members are strong communicators—those who are relationship and rapport builders, understand the organization and work with staff at every level. Lastly, put them in the same room. A conference table, wi-fi and coffee with friends produce amazing results.

2) Focus on staff with candy dishes.

It is easy to focus on keeping C-levels happy. But, most don’t manage their own email and calendars. Hours spent teaching them the finer points of boolean searching in Google Vault will not impress. They will, however, be happy when cost avoidance lines go up and staff is quickly generating amazing products. So, target their heart and soul—admins. Spend shoulder-to-shoulder time with them. They manage calendars, plan events, keep people informed and collect report information. Insane stress. Candy placates the hovering masses. So, if they aren’t happy, no one is. Learn from them. They are also the ones creatively innovating and collaborating behind your IT back.

3) Don’t punt on everything that isn’t Gmail and calendar thinking it will be magically solved in an undefined “second stage”.

There are 70+ applications in the Google Apps suite. They are designed to work together. It is easy to think the team cannot support 70 applications or manage the chaos that would generate. They can. Our initial rollout focused on email and calendars and, while the core services of chat, drive, groups and others were enabled, we spent little time educating on these tools. Before we knew it, users already Google-savvy were creating shared drives, collaborating on documents, generating intranets and sites. We had to play catch up for the rest. So the first phase was a multi-platform world—docs in one system, email in another, no ability to attach docs to emails direct from the system. Ugh. Several months after migrating, a non-customer agency asked us to move them to the Google Apps platform. This time we embraced and taught on the entire apps suite—hangouts, chat, docs, drive, sites, email and calendar, etc. The result was a transition so smooth we thought we hadn’t activated it.

4) Bring Shadow IT out of the shadows.

We all know they exist—the ones that make your security team shake like lab rats. They install 3rd party apps around your protocols, blast past your security warnings. Identify them. Embed your team with Shadow IT. Organize them. Host collaboration meetings. Learn. Those 3rd party apps they are installing? Those are a report card on your IT innovation efforts. They are finding them because you did not. The closer you get to those making tech decisions before you have to chase decisions and contracts already made, the better off you will be. With Google Apps, you can give them a suite of tools in a secure, safe zone that you can monitor, audit and track. Let them play. Observe what they are locating and implementing as solutions. IT shops seem to want to disown or disavow third party apps—Own it. Be aggressive; find solutions, turn things on, let people be creative… but lead. We created a private chrome store for 3rd party apps. When Shadow IT finds something they want to use, we run it through a functional and security assessment, and then enable it in our private Google Chrome Store. If it works, we spread the word.

5) Slap the word PILOT on efforts. Liberally.

Formal IT processes are complicated. Take a red tape holiday. Let that field team experiment, build, construct, assemble. Apply the term PILOT on every transformation project. The term PILOT is admin-hassle breaking magic. Track it and let small pilot projects pave the way for big change (which will need to go through the formal process). But, in the initial foray? Test and fail. We did this with elements like Google Drive and Google Sites. In the past year, we have grown to nearly 4.5 million docs—up from 1 million last year. These are collaborative environments, connecting internal and external partners, all secure under a Business Associates Agreement (BAA) and rolling at speeds we didn’t think possible. Now, draft documents are secure, done with full keystroke revision histories. In Google Sites alone, the state of Colorado avoided $2.4 million in costs by migrating and consolidating sites previously hosted on an array of off-premise content management systems. That exceeds the annual cost of Google Apps per year for the state. It constituted 71 percent of the total cost avoidance reported by the State of Colorado’s Governor’s Office of Information Technology last year. We’re just getting started.

Most of all have fun. Google Apps is not just a set of tools to do work cheaper. It changes the way we work together. Actually doing it, versus saying we do. Bringing tools like map creation, website-building and hosting, workflow creation, etc., closer to those on the front lines is transformative. Breaking the rules means our staff is more empowered to shine, with technology as a backdrop to the real work of making Colorado better.

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