The City of Edmonton has become the first Canadian municipality to migrate its e-mail and office applications to Google Inc.’s cloud.

Starting at the end of the year, the city will begin using Google [Nasdaq: GOOG] e-mail and calendar features, with other Google applications being gradually introduced in the coming years. The change will affect more than 10,000 employees, 3,000 of which were previously without an e-mail account.

“When we looked at Google what we found was it met our needs on two fronts,” says Chris Moore, CIO at the City of Edmonton, “one financial, and the other one from a functional perspective. It wasn’t so much that we set out to [say] ‘let’s go to the cloud.’ We set out to lower our operating expenses around productivity tools, and of course, the cloud model provides that.”
Google Apps, the city says, will make employees more productive and efficient, and promote collaboration among them. City workers will also have an easier time working remotely from laptops and mobile devices.
Moore says all city workers, whether they sit in a cubicle or drive a bus, will also have access to the richer level of media the city is now disseminating.
“In the past, people used to send out a memo or an e-mail,” he says. “You’d print that and put it on the lunchroom wall. “Well, nowadays, we’re doing a lot of Webcasting and video. You can’t print a video and stick it on the lunchroom wall.”
But Moore says that the online workplace will require a significant behavioural shift on the part of employees. They won’t necessarily require more technical knowledge, he says, but they will have to get used to working with their office software in different ways.
“Functions are different, and you need to think about things like, you know, when I go to my Google Docs, I don’t have to necessarily be concerned about where I store things because I can use the power of Google search to find things. So, it isn’t so much the technical difference—and this is where we’re focusing a lot of our energy—it’s on the people side, and the change management.”
The Toronto International Film Festival, another organization that has migrated to a Google platform, faced similar problems. Kalyan Chakravarthy, director of information technology at TIFF, wrote in an e-mail message that there were TIFF employees who had difficulty adjusting to the new system initially, some undergoing a “steep learning curve” when switching to browser-based email applications in particular.
“Some of the users had concerns about functionality and usability,” Chakravarthy adds, “but repeated user training helped them to understand it and adapt to Gmail faster. Many of the users were accustomed to Gmail as their personal e-mail provider, so this helped get them up to speed. Another huge change that people had to adjust to was moving from [the] ‘folders’ concept to ‘labels.’”
Edmonton officially chose to go Google in 2011, following a city council decision. Moore says the contract was painstakingly examined, including its data security provisions. “Our law group actually had, on retainer, an expert out of Toronto who was involved in negotiating many cloud-based contracts, because they’re absolutely different than the traditional IT purchases,” he says.Moore stresses that proper education—and a solid contract—are the ultimate guarantee of a successful move to the cloud. The city, he says, set out to learn about U.S. legal concepts around privacy and security, such as “blind” subpoenas.

“A lot of the questions I’ve had in the last 24 hours have been ‘aren’t you concerned about the Patriot Act?’” he says. “You know, it’s not about being afraid of the Patriot Act, it’s about understanding it.”
“Security is always a concern for organizations,” says Jim Lambe, director of Canadian enterprise at Google. “And I think what happens is as they get deeper and deeper into the Google technology, into our best practices, into our operational capabilities, they realize that our security is superior. So, oftentimes it begins as a concern but it ends as a highlight, actually, of this type of implementation.”
Lambe says that from Google’s perspective, migrating a city government to a cloud-based platform is essentially the same as doing so for a private sector company. He says creating a collaborative work environment is “inherent, as opposed to a feature.”
Google does, however, market its products with governments in mind. “We have what we categorize as Google Apps for government,” he says, adding that security arrangements are the same for both U.S. and Canadian government agencies.
Google is in the process of speaking to other public sector organizations in Canada about moving their office tools to the cloud. While he says he can’t discuss specifics, Lambe does say that the recent deal with the City of Edmonton is “a first, major step for Google Canada.”
Asked about other governments considering adopting a cloud-based office platform, Moore says along with underlining the importance of education, he would offer the following advice:
“Be brave. Change in government is not for the faint of heart.”