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Los Angeles CTO Defends Embattled Google Apps Deal

The city’s desire to cancel e-mail migration for the LAPD stems from technology outpacing policy, Randi Levin says.

Los Angeles CTO Randi Levin said Thursday that Google Apps is “working fine” for the majority of city employees, and that the city’s desire to cancel the cloud-based e-mail suite in the Los Angeles Police Department and other agencies that handle criminal justice data is a result of technology outpacing public policy.

Levin’s remarks came two days after Santa Monica, Calif.-based Consumer Watchdog released on its website a letter from Levin to systems integrator CSC which formally requests that CSC refund to Los Angeles money spent on seat licenses and migration costs associated with moving its law enforcement and criminal justice personnel to Google’s cloud product.

CSC signed a $7.2 million agreement in 2009 to move all 30,000 Los Angeles city employees — including the LAPD — from Novell Groupwise to Gmail, the e-mail client in Google Apps. Approximately 17,000 Los Angeles city employees currently are using Google’s e-mail and applications suite.

The contract amendment — attached to the letter written by Levin — asserts that in May “CSC indicated that CSC and its subcontractor, Google, will be unable to complete and comply with all the city’s security requirements” and that the parties agree that the LAPD and other law enforcement personnel would be unable to migrate to Google Apps.

Levin said Thursday that to her knowledge CSC hasn’t yet responded to the city’s request to modify the contract.

Levin said there is one issue outstanding that must be resolved for Google Apps to be fully compliant with the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) requirements for data storage and security. She didn’t divulge publicly what the unresolved problem is.

“The real issue here is the fact that the policies related to a lot of different areas in the government are not matching the technologies that are coming out,” Levin said. “That is the core issue: The criminal justice requirements were never written with cloud computing in mind.”

It’s taken a long time and some interpretation, she said, for all those involved — the city, Google, the FBI and federal government — to figure out how to make Google Apps compliant with the federal government’s security requirements.

In a press statement, CSC said it’s continuing to work with Los Angeles to meet these e-mail requirements. A statement from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s press secretary said the city and Google continue to work together to resolve issues related to new Department of Justice e-mail requirements. “Discussions between the city and Google over specific requirements are ongoing and it would be inappropriate to issue further comment at this time," Villaraigosa’s office said.

Levin added that Google Apps isn’t the only product of its kind that hasn’t yet achieved full CJIS compliance. For example, Microsoft’s Office 365 hosted e-mail solution also fails to meet CJIS requirements, she claimed.

This week’s developments represent the latest curveball in the two-year-old story that has made Levin and the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency a battleground for cloud computing providers that are trying to stake claim to the public-sector market.

In 2009, Google hailed Los Angeles as a trailblazer when officials agreed to move the e-mail and productivity applications of all city employees — including the LAPD — onto Google Apps. Some observers thought the move was bold because it meant that public data would be stored off-site in Google’s data centers. Levin admitted in a later interview with Government Technology that the city didn’t intend to become the first large U.S. city to attempt an enterprise rollout of Google Apps. The city, she said, had misinterpreted the extent of Washington, D.C. government’s earlier implementation of the solution.

Migration of the LAPD’s e-mail system proved problematic from the beginning, as officials from the police department told Levin and the L.A. City Council two years ago that there was concern about storing and securing data with a private company. Levin thought she had assuaged the outcry after receiving assurances that Google Apps would be fully compliant with the FBI and Department of Justice regulations. But progress has been slower than anticipated.

In a press statement Tuesday, Consumer Watchdog said the outcome of L.A.’s contract with Google has “serious implications” outside of Los Angeles for other government agencies that have adopted Google Apps. In a letter of its own addressed to Villaraigosa, the group asked the city to “disclose immediately the extent to which Google has failed to comply” with its contractual obligations. The deal has amounted to “broken promises and missed deadlines,” the group claimed.

“Google has used its acquisition of the L.A. contract as a badge of honor and a way to break into other municipalities,” said Jamie Court, Consumer Watchdog’s president, in an interview with Government Technology on Tuesday. “Until the L.A. contract, there was no major city with a cloud contract and so it has become a marketing tool for Google.”

Google responded to the controversy by saying it had met its contractual obligations and had saved Los Angeles millions of dollars in the process.

In the short-term, the LAPD and other criminal justice agencies will remain on Groupwise. The rest of the city’s employees will continue using Google Apps.

It remains to be seen what e-mail system the LAPD will use in the long run. “At some point the city will make a decision whether or not to make a change,” Levin said. “But I believe that Google is working toward compliance.”

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.