Los Angeles Embraces Google's Gmail

An innovative technology deal turns political for the Los Angeles City Council president.
February 2010
Steve Towns
By Steve Towns  | 

Los Angeles became a cloud-computing pioneer in late October 2009 when the City Council unanimously approved a five-year deal with Google to use the company's Internet-based e-mail and productivity tools. The city is thought to be the largest government entity that decided to move its entire e-mail system - used by 30,000 municipal employees - to Google's Gmail service.

But getting there wasn't easy. The outcome was uncertain until the moment votes were cast. And in the months leading up to the decision, city departments - including the Los Angeles Police - raised concerns about the plan, and industry heavyweights and others lobbied the Council intensely against the move.

"I thought this was a no-brainer. The idea of going out to the cloud to me seemed so obvious," says Los Angeles City Council President Eric Garcetti, who shepherded the measure through the vote. "It did surprise me that there was so much initial opposition."

Why did a plan considered a slam-dunk by the city's technology agency end up passing by the skin of its teeth?

"There was an assumption by some of the IT professionals that this would sell itself or that people would trust them because the IT professional is recommending it," says Garcetti, one of the nation's more tech-savvy local leaders. "In changes to the core systems that people use - and I would argue e-mail is more core than the telephone these days - they have to consider the political environment. The stakes are high, and people will be lobbying one way or the other. People have to think it through not from the technology side, but from the human side."

Cloud computing is new to government agencies. Many of us have made the leap to cloud-based e-mail in our personal lives by opening Gmail, Microsoft Hotmail or Yahoo Mail accounts. But in government, having a private company own and operate the equipment needed to run an official e-mail system - and to store and manage the information that system produces - is stepping into relatively uncharted water.

So, even though Los Angeles was replacing a cranky old e-mail system with a widely popular suite of services provided by one of the world's most innovative technology companies, the move had to be carefully sold to city departments and the public.

Garcetti says elected officials must play a central role in making the real-world case for technology upgrades, especially when they involve relatively new approaches.

"The Council's role was to have that public debate, and for me to try to speak about the benefits of this in plain English. To not say, 'Hey, check out all these gizmos,' but look at the simplicity of this system and think about how you'll use it," he says. "This will not sell itself and information technology professionals can't sell it themselves."

Garcetti's advice for communities undertaking similar initiatives: Technology professionals should make their case to elected leaders, and then rely on those leaders to sell the plan to rank-and-file users and the public at large.