The Wyoming governor’s office gets a mountain of correspondence from constituents, both email and snail mail. On a recent day, for example, some 1,500 inquiries landed on Governor Matt Mead’s desk.
Until recently, the process of managing constituent inquiries to the governor was manual and paper-based, even for electronic correspondence.
“If it was email, [staffers] printed it out and stored it in a cabinet and filed it by topic,” said Wyoming chief information officer Flint Waters. “They had a little database and entered the names of who was contacting them but then everything was manually stored, even the digital content…there were stacks of file cabinets.”
Under Waters, who became Wyoming CIO about a year and a half ago, the state has rolled out a cloud computing-based system to automate the process of managing correspondence from constituents and improve response times. Developed with Google Apps for Government, the system lets Governor Mead and his staff review and track correspondence anytime, anywhere.
“We wanted to make these communications available to the governor when he was out on the road with his iPad, so when he was travelling [for example] into Green River, Wyoming, he could bring up the information and see what was going on,” Waters said. “We wanted to be able get that detail in front of the governor right away and give him direct access to the actual correspondence.”
Wyoming still has “a fair number” of constituents who send letters to the governor in standard mail, Waters said. The letters are scanned into Google Docs and dropped into the response system. Integrating paper correspondence into “a digital and highly mobile environment required a solution that was dynamic and met the expectations of a more agile government,” he said.
Using the system, the governor and members of his staff can view the status of every communication via any type of device wherever there is Internet access. They can categorize correspondence, assign tasks, route communications through Gmail, put followup items on stakeholder calendars, and customize output to suit the particular needs of a recipient.
Wyoming last year moved all its 10,000 state employees to Google Apps, putting all of its employees on a single email platform for the first time. Migrating employees to the cloud for email provided the state with better security, more storage capacity and the ability to share documents and collaborate, state officials said. By moving to the cloud, they also expect to save about $1 million per year.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Waters said. “It has really changed how we work. Even some of the most vehement detractors have come around.”
But migrating to the new system was not unlike traversing Wyoming’s famous mountain ranges.
The ability to collaborate from anywhere on any device has been one of the biggest benefits for the state’s employees, Waters said. “From collaboration to group scheduling to simultaneous authoring of documents-all of these functions you can now put in your pocket,” he said. “You can help your director work on a document at the same time he’s sitting in conference in Miami.”
If I were to start over I would recognize from the beginning that moving over to Google is absolutely not an email switch.”
David Mihalchik, head of Google’s government sales and business development team, said that Google Apps isn’t just about giving users a new, cheaper email system and backending it in the cloud. “It’s about doing the things you couldn’t do before and the cloud enabling those things,” he said.
Waters cautioned, however, that the transition to the cloud from a Microsoft .NET infrastructure has generated a few lessons learned. “If I were to start over I would recognize from the beginning that moving over to Google is absolutely not an email switch,” he said. “It is a revolutionary transition.”
Building a tool like the constituent response system using Google Application Programming Interfaces is a case in point.
When Waters’ software team embarked on the project about a year ago, he had mostly .NET developers. “That was one of our biggest lifts,” he said. “Our infrastructure still has some legacy underpinnings going back to a .NET Web server. We were able to get a couple of folks up to speed on Java so they could start working on some of the [Google] solutions…If I went back and did this over again, I would have moved the entire solution to the App engine in the beginning.”
As a result, “We’re getting more aggressive in our pursuit of the App engine as solution provider for the state,” he said.
To this end, Waters has hired a scores of Java programmers to handle Apps projects. For example, the team is currently developing a system to track the workflow in the CIO’s office. “We got on the front end and invested in folks that know Java and are prepared and that’s been amazing,” he said. “We are leapfrogging ahead of what we did with the [constituent request system] by going ahead and just committing on the front end.”
Waters advises other government IT professionals transitioning to a cloud environment like Google Apps to “invest in the personnel…take the time to learn it, get into that environment and attack it.”
He added that moving to the cloud has given the Wyoming state government “a chance to jump over several evolutionary steps in IT. When I walked in the door, it was one desktop OS and Blackberries. And now we’ve got folks with Droids, I-phones, I-pads and other tablets and Macs.”
“It’s not about the platform, it’s about the data and the delivery of that success….it’s allowed us to get the basics of what IT should be doing and that’s delivering for business instead of business customizing to fit IT,” he said.