The State House dome before a "Raise Maryland" budget… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
Not long ago state officials in Maryland faced a technology roadblock that anyone who works at a private company would find quaint: There was no easy way to blast an email to the entire workforce.
For an administration led by an early BlackBerry addict, the inability to quickly send government-wide emails in an emergency — or even to invite state employees to the executive mansion for the annual open house — was an odd holdover from an era before camera phones and touch screens.
Now, roughly 54,000 state employees are switching to a cloud-based email and scheduling system provided by tech giant Google — making Maryland the largest state in the nation to rely on the ubiquitous search engine firm for email, calendars and document sharing.
Not only does the new service solve the government-wide message problem and replace a patchwork of email systems the state previously relied on, but supporters said it will also encourage better cross-agency coordination and save money.
"What we're looking to do is to help them work better together," Greg Urban, the state's chief technology officer, said of state employees.
Maryland has joined a growing number of federal agencies, the city of Los Angeles and three other states — Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — in moving to a cloud computing model run by Google, one of several companies offering government systems similar to those already used by millions of people on their computers at home.
The state signed a $56.1 million, 15-year contract with the California-based company in 2011. Some 30,000 state workers have already migrated to the new system — including Gov. Martin O'Malley and his top aides.
For the O'Malley administration, the transition has gone far more smoothly than the state's other ongoing major technology effort, the health insurance exchange developed to implement the Affordable Care Act. That more significant project has led to finger-pointing among contractors, hearings in Annapolis and political infighting.
Jeff Pittman, a spokesman for the Maryland chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said he wasn't aware of any workforce complaints about the state switching to Google.
Government agencies have been steadily moving to the cloud for years, and several experts said that the progression is all but guaranteed to continue. For one thing, states save money by having to rely less on huge server farms that require significant electricity to keep them air-conditioned.
Urban said he could not estimate how much money Maryland will save because the state's prior crazy quilt of email systems was so confusing that nobody knew how much was being spent on it.
But there are more mundane benefits to an integrated system, such as being able to reliably find contact information for an employee in another agency. In the past, workers had to search the other agency's website to find that information.
Google, with more than $50 billion in annual revenue, has built an Internet empire that provides email, document storage, mapping, blogging software, phone and other services. The company announced earlier this year that it is expanding its effort in cloud computing, taking on companies such as Amazon and Microsoft.
In a statement, the company said it welcomed Maryland as the latest state "empowering [its] employees to move fast and innovate with tools [it] can trust."
The rapid growth in cloud computing comes despite initial security concerns about whether data stored off-site is safe from attack or theft. Bhavani Thuraisingham, a computer science professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, said the systems can be designed to be safe.
And Urban argued that the new system offers many improved safety features. Officials can now implement government-wide security protocols that block state employees from inadvertently emailing sensitive data, such as Social Security numbers, for instance. Some agencies have those measures in place now, but not all.
For O'Malley, who as mayor of Baltimore planted a BlackBerry on his hip long before smartphones became common, the transition to a smarter email system is a natural fit. The Democrat rose to national prominence in part by leveraging computer technology to create a program that kept the statistical pulse of the city known as CityStat.
In his City Hall days, there was often still a lot of paper on desks at CityStat meetings. Now, as he oversees the state equivalent of the program, the governor is apt to rely on a tablet.
The state of Colorado made the switch to Google in 2012 and rapidly moved about 30,000 employees onto the system.
Kristin Russell, Colorado's secretary of technology and chief information officer, said the transition was initially rough for some.
"It's just a different tool," she said. "They're used to picking up a hammer to do something. I just gave them a screwdriver."
But Russell said that after the start up, the state never looked back. Now, employees are vastly expanding the number of documents they share. They no longer have to trade physical business cards to exchange contact information. Employees can now quickly reach one another.
"It isn't just email," Russell said. "It's a very powerful tool."