More Collaboration, Better Citizen Service

From President Obama’s 2011 customer service mandate to the World Bank’s Demand for Good Governance initiative, governments around the globe are focused on delivering efficient and responsive service.

One way in which they’re improving their operations is by reinventing the way they share information. By boosting communication and collaboration within and across agencies, governments are reducing duplicative work, making better decisions, and ultimately enhancing citizen service.

As governments strive to improve their service, many are turning to the cloud. And they’re choosing Microsoft Office 365 over Google Apps for Government because it provides a more efficient way to communicate and collaborate. As NBA basketball coach Pat Riley once said: “Efficiency of performance is what wins the game for the team.”

The Office 365 Advantage
So how does Office 365 help government agencies achieve the highest efficiency? It all comes down to richness of features. Simply put, there’s no match for the communication and collaboration capabilities of Office 365. As Woody Leonhard of Infoworld puts it, “Comparing Office 365 to Google Apps is like comparing the QE II to a sailboat.” While Leonhard says both will get you over the water, I know which boat I’d bet my life on if I were crossing the Atlantic.

With Office 365, government agencies get a communications and collaboration platform they can depend on. Using Lync Online, government agencies can see whether colleagues are immediately available and then quickly arrange ad-hoc videoconferences or instant messaging (IM) chat sessions to discuss pressing issues. They can schedule meetings with just a few people or with a large group. And they can share their computer screens or use virtual whiteboarding to collaborate and illustrate points.

Government agencies can also efficiently collaborate using SharePoint Online. Using SharePoint Team Sites, for example, they can create workspaces that make it possible to store documents in a central location, track and communicate about projects, coordinate deadlines, and collaboratively write and edit documents. They can also use the “check-in, check-out” feature to check out documents as you would in a library. This helps to maintain one version of each document and avoid the frustration of colleagues overriding each other’s edits.

Communication and collaborating with Google Apps is a different story. Using Google Talk, government workers can also only hold one-on-one videoconferences – not so useful when working as a team. What’s more, they don’t have access to screen-sharing or virtual whiteboards. So much for collaborating in real time! True, screen-sharing, whiteboarding, and multi-person videoconferencing are possible with the Google+ social networking service, but Google+ isn’t currently covered by the Google Apps service level agreement.

Even more basic, Google Apps lacks support for “track changes,” a widely used editing feature that’s been available within Office since the release of Word 97. Without the ability to track changes, users have no way of seeing who made which edits. Google Docs also uses a proprietary format that often must be converted to Word or PDF in order to be shared with others. When making this conversion, users may lose important formatting. The same is true when opening Word docs within Google Docs. Headers, footers, tables, images and other parts of the document may get lost or jumbled during the conversion.

Another feature missing from Google Apps is the ability to check documents in and out. This opens up the risk of multiple people making conflicting edits to the same document.  Taken together, limitations like these add up to less efficiency. As Tony Bradley of PC World put it, “By comparison, Google Apps' menu bars and features seem austere … Google Apps is more limited in what it allows you to do, both in formatting and in functionality.”

Improving Cross-Agency Decision Making
Among the government agencies that chose Office 365 to improve the way it shares information is the State of Minnesota. With more than 70 agencies that interact with each other to handle state business, communication and collaboration are paramount. “Most government business involves the sharing of information either internally or with citizens, sometimes in matters of life and death,” says Ed Valencia, OET Deputy Commissioner and Chief Technology Officer for the state. “The speed at which the right people can connect with each other—to solve a problem is vital to providing government service.”

Office 365 has given the state’s 35,000 employees access to a shared platform for communications and collaboration. Employees use Lync Online to quickly locate colleagues and start on-the-fly, video conferencing sessions. And they use SharePoint Online to access project information, share documents and collaborate on project content. 

“Whatever the focus—job creation, healthcare, law enforcement, or even our IT team’s recent consolidation, when we can collectively share information and accelerate communications across agencies, we put ourselves in a much better position to reform state government and better serve our state residents,” says Carolyn Parnell, OET Commissioner and Chief Information Officer for the state.

Likewise, the Western Bay of Plenty District Council moved to SharePoint Online to improve the way it shares information across governments. The council, which manages infrastructure and economic development on New Zealand’s East Coast, had been using SharePoint for its corporate intranet, and wanted to extend the solution to BOPLASS, a group of nine councils that share information.

“Each council had its own method of storing internal documents, so emailing files between groups was the only way to exchange materials—and that was tedious,” says Marion Dowd, IT Manager at Western Bay of Plenty District Council.

BOPLASS member councils now use SharePoint Online to store shared documents in one, central location, and the enhanced search features to quickly find and organize the information they need. “SharePoint Online gives us one version of the truth,” says Dowd. “We can upload, edit, and distribute documents without worrying about old versions being sent out by mistake.”

Better Collaboration = Better Service
By improving communication and collaboration, both the State of Minnesota and the Western Bay of Plenty District Council are also improving service. Says Dowd, the Western Bay of Plenty District Council’s IT manager: “We didn’t need to look at any other solution. We know that with Microsoft and Office 365, we can easily set up additional, shared sites and get right to work. The increased organization and efficiency internally will only help us better serve our communities.”

Carolyn Parnell, Commissioner and Chief Information Officer for the State of Minnesota, agrees: “We now have what we consider one of the most advanced communication and collaboration ecosystems in the public sector. It is this kind of innovation that is going to allow the State of Minnesota to deliver services more efficiently in the 21st century.”