Google has a knack for recasting the typical consumer product. It rethought the laptop with its cloud-based Chromebook; it transformed television with its Chromecast streaming device; and — love it or hate it — Google has a near monopoly on search the world over.
Yet this year, the company, now under the Google-of-everything moniker of “Alphabet,” cut a path into government with its Google Government Innovation Lab, a program that attempts to revolutionize public services while reaching for exponential results. The strategy, popularly coined “moonshot thinking,” inspired the company to pair its engineers and industry partners with three Northern California counties: Kern, Alameda and San Joaquin. Though these innovations harness Google tech, they ultimately are attempting to answer civic challenges in a Google-esque fashion — with startup bootstrapping skills, cross-functional teams, rapid-fire ideation and the like.
Kern County announced its Google prototypes in August, San Joaquin started that same month and Alameda is the next county to publicly unveil the lab’s handiwork. In an interview with Government Technology, Alameda County CIO Tim Dupuis said the county has seven Google projects in various states of development, and 23 additional ideas it intends to jump-start on its own with the new skills.
“What [the lab] has done is it’s kind of rounded out our strategy on innovation, where it’s helped to engage our workforce and bring together our leadership and private-sector thought leaders,” Dupuis said.
The public-private partnership, the first of its kind for the county, adds to Alameda’s engagement and innovation undertakings that include hackathons, mobile leadership programs, social media campaigns and a suite of mobile apps for citizens, among other things.
Alameda’s projects begin with a resolution for its board of supervisors to take a customer-centric approach to service. The resolution, titled “One Community,” codifies Google’s customer-centric approach into the county’s operations and planning. And although “customer service” is a buzzword, its application in this case is distinct — and ambitious. Here, customer service touches procurement practices, user feedback and responsive communications. The overarching concept is that government can’t just design solutions for government anymore. It’s a citizen-first approach, with staff and leadership second. Or, in the words of Google’s founding principles: “Focus on the user and all else will follow.”
“One of our big 10x, moonshot ideas kept coming back to the theme of customer service, that there is ‘no wrong door,’” Dupuis said. “Any way a constituent comes to the county, we want to provide them with the service and information they’re looking for.”
Two representative examples of the philosophy are “AlcoPal” and “AlcoBiz,” projects that will offer citizens what Dupuis calls a “one-stop shop” for both permitting, via AlcoPal, and service contracts, via AlcoBiz.
Other projects are: an emergency mass notification and citizen engagement system for the county’s disaster preparedness site Ready.acgov.org; a series of videos highlighting career and education services; and a long-term project to launch a 211 app that will be used to hand out quick and easy information about county health and social services.
Alameda County also will continue to spearhead the effort with a new site where its 9,600 employees can create a dialogue on current and future projects.
All projects are focused on community priorities of education and jobs; safe communities; service improvement; department collaboration; hunger, health and housing; and emergency preparedness.
From his perspective, Dupuis said he thinks Google is in the early stages of drafting a curriculum for government innovation — one that, with a bit of fine tuning, may be applied to any number of jurisdictions and geographies.
For governments, the benefit is professional mentorship and added IT resources; for Google, the free program is an opportunity to immerse itself in the government sector, strengthening its relationships and possibly opening up opportunities for its government apps and partners.
IBM is well known for its Smarter Cities Challenge, which attempts a similar kind of innovation, but instead of Google’s six-week program and development help, offers consultation throughout a three-week period.
County Administrator Susan Muranishi praised the program, saying that the next phase of collaboration will arrive in a series citizen town hall meetings, with more project announcements to come soon.
“[The Google Government Innovation Lab] clearly is adding to our arsenal of innovative new tools that are helping residents obtain the information and services they need,’’ Muranishi said in a press release. “More importantly, it has offered us a vivid example of the culture of innovation we are working to create — a culture where all employees are encouraged to offer their boldest ideas without fear of failure.’’