Editor’s note: Today our guest blogger is Richard Ferrick, Network Administrator for Panama City, Florida, one of the first governments in the country to adopt Google Apps for Government. Join Richard for a live chat on GovLoop this Thursday, December 2 at 2pm ET / 11am PT / 6pm GMT.

Panama City, Florida is a beautiful resort destination on Florida’s Emerald Coast; our white sand beaches attract vacationers year round. We’re also home to 37,000 residents who care a lot about open access to their local government. Our city government makes it a priority to make our operations transparent to citizens, businesses, and visitors alike. At the same time, with a three-person IT department supporting nearly 250 city employees, finding ways to work smarter and conserve funds is essential.

Google Apps has freed our IT team from maintaining email servers and updating websites to focus on important transparency initiatives. We started with a 50-employee pilot of Google Apps in 2007 and gave all city employees the Google email and collaboration tools in 2008. Earlier this year, we became one of the first users of Google Apps for Government to take advantage of its government-specific security measures.

We decided to move our public facing website to Google Sites after experiencing a catastrophic server crash with our old site this spring. We were happy with our previous website, but now we like our site even more. Google empowers people in other city departments to update the website with ease. For example, major changes are underway for Panama City’s Comprehensive Plan. Planning staff post announcements, updates and amendments as they happen. Human resources adds new job postings and other departments collect input from residents using a simple form. IT no longer needs to make every update ─ and when we do, it can be from anywhere. This keeps the website more current and saves valuable time. Plus, we’ve had a lot of compliments from citizens who say everything is easy to find.

Google Apps also simplifies finding information to respond to public records requests. The state puts a high priority on the public's right of access to government information. This daunting task is now simplified with the email archiving capabilities of Google Message Discovery. What would take hours for a single request now takes minutes.

What’s more, mobility limitations for the staff are now a thing of the past. Previously, employees were forced to use a VPN connection and remote desktop. With Google Apps, no VPN is required. Some staff even access Apps securely from personal mobile devices. Employee productivity is at an all time high.

With time savings like these, our IT staff has more time to focus on open government initiatives. In 1967, the state passed the “Sunshine Law” establishing a basic right of access to most public government meetings. This used to mean people could attend these meetings in person, but that isn’t always practical. We wanted to make the proceedings more broadly accessible. So, we added live streaming of all public meetings to pcgov.org. Then we set up our own YouTube channel, making past meetings readily available to the public. We will also start testing video chat for use during city meetings, and look for more ways we can use Google Apps to open up our government.

Please join Thursday’s live chat on GovLoop to learn more.

by Richard Ferrick, Network Administrator / Web Development, Panama City, Florida