When Google chose San Joaquin County, Calif., for its 2015 Government Innovation Lab, Monica Nino was ecstatic for what her county would receive. Now that it’s over, the county administrator is elated for what the lab took away.
In a word, she said it amounts to a loss of preconceptions — the old assumptions that insist government can’t be anything other than what it is.
“When you're in government, we're always dealing with our day-to-day operations in the delivery of services, so you don't always look at it with a clean canvas,” Nino said. "So I think that’s the biggest gift.”
Due to its participation in the lab, the county now has five audacious projects underway across various departments. The initiatives are what Nino views as part of a dramatic turning point for innovation in the county, a shift that began in June of last year following approval by the county’s board of supervisors. The Google agreement totaled $160,000 for services from the Google distributor SADA Systems Inc., and for guidance from Google itself. The program, which was previously organized in the California counties of Kern and Alameda, teaches civic innovation by taking 50 officials from various departments and pitting them against five civic issues.
James Waterman, Google’s regional manager for state and local government, heads the lab, and in the course of three intensive workshops — from October to September — drummed out a Google curriculum for innovation for San Joaquin that embraced ideas like rapid iteration, exponential outcomes and community problem solving. Nino said the curriculum included 50 Chromebooks, a year’s subscription to Google’s enterprise apps, unfettered access to strategy experts, and a band of Google engineers to drive these five projects forward.
As its first project, San Joaquin is working to tweak its online hiring to reduce the average hiring window from 40 days to seven. The changes are geared toward making the county more attractive to millennials, and would focus on mass hires and entry-level positions — but leave in place standards to vet more demanding positions, like leadership and law enforcement jobs. To realize such short turnarounds, Nino said the remedy adds online testing for basic competency tests, use of social media to engage applicants, searchability improvements for job posts and adapting the hiring site so applications can be sent via mobile device.
"If we can give job candidates a work environment that's both rewarding and challenging — and we're somewhat competitive on salaries and benefits — why wouldn't someone appreciate an employer that also is willing to do rapid recruitment?" Nino said.
Using data analysis, San Joaquin County plans to consolidate data from private and public foster homes to ultimately place children in proper foster care. The repository is projected to be a quick reference for social workers. When a child has to be relocated, the system will automatically match needs with possible foster homes. A child can keep attending the school he’s grown up in by mapping nearby openings. Or, if she has special needs, social workers can find caregivers equipped to handle them.
“It’s called the Perfect Match,” Nino said of the system, “and it's with our Human Services agency. Essentially their 10x moonshot [idea] was to provide the perfect placement of foster children that ensures child safety and permanency.”
The idea for creating a virtual team to assist troubled youth was prompted by officials asking themselves what would happen if every youth in the probation system was connected to a group of care and service providers. With the tool, probation officers, family members, educators, clergy and health providers would all be linked within a virtual team for each youth. If one learned of a problem — such as a chain of truancies — all would know, and all could reach out from different vantage points.
“What we've essentially identified was the ecosystem that would be developed,” Nino said. “Our chief of probation officer has identified all the participants that collect data from these youth in our community, and she’s identified some of the common pieces of information for sharing.”
Details on the project are vague since the county is still awaiting vendor responses to an RFP, but it wouldn't be too hard to envision a message board like Slack that could house shared data, send notifications, and allow teams to chat about developments. Once the tool goes through some testing, the county hopes to roll it out to probation department's adult cases.
Nino also said the county website is slated for a Google-inspired overhaul. The site, which launches in the next few months, is easily searchable and built with a citizen-first design. When looking at the site's home page, it only takes a few seconds to see its Google pedigree. Like Google’s home page — that’s simply a logo, sign-in tab and search bar — San Joaquin presents users with this same simple layout. This appears as a search bar that asks users, “How can we help you?”, three boxed sections to handle common residents, businesses and community requests, and a live chat button to put a visitor in direct contact with customer service.
“It's not our website any longer that's just focused on our organizational structure,” Nino said. “It's a website, first and foremost, for the people we interact with, who are our customers."
The site's additional accessibility features support for multiple languages, voice interaction and a responsive design for mobile devices.
The last project is spread across the website and consists of new pages, Web elements and branding that promote economic development in the region. Pages highlight quality of life benefits future residents might consider, while fleshing out compelling motives to "grow, start and expand" a business in San Joaquin. As a county just northeast of Silicon Valley, Nino said it is hoped that business growth from the tech sector will spill over into the county as businesses look for more affordable regions.
"We want to attract businesses to come to our community that may not be here in California, or even the U.S.," Nino said. "The site goes from starting your own business — and how you may want to go about doing it — to explaining how you might relocate or expand your business."
With such consulting and technical support for the projects, Google's $160,000 figure strikes as a fairly competitive offering. Popular programs like the year-long Code for America Fellowship can cost governments up to $220,000 for similar digital services — in both direct and matching funds. But price points aside, Google’s lab also might include a few peripheral incentives too.
The lab puts Google’s enterprise apps in the hands of governments, potentially setting up future customers later. Similarly, it cultivates the tech giant’s growing influence in the public sector, relationships that can play an enabling role in lucrative government procurement contracts — Gartner Research estimates government IT spending at more than $400 billion each year. Google’s competitors Microsoft and IBM are well known for their own programs that develop government relationship in similar ways. IBM's Smarter Cities Challenge embeds its smart city tech and expertise in various cities around the world, as does Microsoft's CityNext program.
In San Joaquin, Google isn’t talking about seeding an emerging market, but institutionalizing hand-to-mouth innovation tactics in county leadership. In an April interview with Government Technology at the lab’s debut, Waterman underscored the talking point as he promoted the lab’s vision to spur institutional change.
“It’s the leaders, it’s these innovators, that need to recognize that when they’re staring at that clean canvas, that these elements exist,” Waterman said, referencing resources inside and outside government. “It’s these leaders that need to organize these elements to make great advancements in society.”
Google has not named any new cities or counties for 2016, but if last year is any indication, an announcement might be made in the coming months: On April 16 of 2015, Waterman revealed the lab's first participants at the first annual Government Social Media Conference & Expo.
As for next steps in San Joaquin, Nino wants to make sure the lab's message endures with or without direct support from the tech giant. Talks are already underway for new ideas, and Nino said she'll submit a proposal soon to set aside funding for follow-up projects.
“Our goal, and my intent, is to incorporate some countywide innovation initiatives as part of our annual budget process to continue to encourage this,” Nino said. “We made innovation a priority for this organization, and it'll be a lasting priority.”
Jason Shueh is a former staff writer for Government Technology magazine.