Kerry Collins, Information  Systems Director for Michigan's Cass County, unified his county with a cloud solution.

Jan 29 2020

SaaS Secures and Simplifies Email for Government Workers

State and local agencies synchronize email solutions with cloud-based services.

Kerry Collins would not tolerate the situation any longer. As the information systems director for Cass County in Michigan, Collins had led the county’s transition from a premises-based, self-hosted email system to a solution hosted in the cloud. Collins had made the move to reduce the need for maintenance — his four team members would no longer have their own server to support.

But now, the county had a new problem: County employees, including court officials and workers at the sheriff’s office, were missing meetings and important correspondence because of frequent interruptions to the system. “The vendor we’d chosen was having issues, and it really just led to a terrible user experience. It was clear that we needed to try something different,” Collins says.

To resolve these issues, Cass County turned to another cloud solution with Microsoft Office 365 — and it is far from the only government agency to find better performance with an email system and other communications technologies in the cloud. Chattanooga, Tenn., for example, recently shelved its legacy office productivity tools (and the continual maintenance required) and opted instead to replace them with Google’s cloud-based G Suite solution. Arizona did the same, migrating its 36,000 government employees and contractors to G Suite as part of its cloud-first policy for IT.

In Cass County, Chattanooga and Phoenix alike, the decision to move email to a Software as a Service subscription was driven by a multitude of considerations, from the efficiency gains such a shift could enable to the savings that might be realized in labor and other costs. One of the biggest concerns for all three, however, was email security, and the growing threat of spoofing and phishing attacks.

“Your agency can have the best security awareness program in the world, and you’re still never going to educate your end users to the point where they’re completely safe from these kinds of threats,” says Keatron Evans, senior instructor and training services director at Infosec Institute.

Most leading SaaS email solutions include built-in, automated security tools that bolster threat detection, ensure data encryption and facilitate data loss prevention, he says. “One of the advantages of switching to a cloud-based email solution is the access you get to these integrated security capabilities that you otherwise might not be able to afford.”

The affordability of better security was certainly top of mind for Collins as he looked to move away from self-hosted email.

Flexibility, Security and Compliance Come with Office 365 Switch

In addition to savings, Collins sought a solution designed specifically for use by government agencies.

“Email today is more than just email,” Collins explains. “You’re not just sending messages in a lot of cases; you’re creating a record of your communications that you can reference later.”

In the end, his team chose Microsoft’s U.S. Government G3 package for Office 365, which includes records discovery tools and is compliant with Criminal Justice Information Services guidelines. “We can encrypt our email, which we couldn’t do before. And if there’s a lawsuit or we get a Freedom of Information Act request, now we can quickly retrieve the information that’s needed — and we don’t have to worry that it might be lost.”

At the same time Collins’ team was dealing with their email difficulties (the county’s issues began in November 2018), his department sought to improve the use of Microsoft Office.

Kerry Collins, Information Systems Director, Cass County, Michigan
Email today is more than just email.”

Kerry Collins Information Systems Director, Cass County, Michigan

“We had nine different versions of Office floating around the organization. That was a problem from a security standpoint,” since support for the county’s older Office versions ended long ago, “and it was a problem when it came to compatibility for different users to share files with each other,” Collins says.

The county considered the options and ultimately decided the best solution was to move the entire county to Microsoft Office 365. Critically, the cloud-based suite of apps from Microsoft could be accessed from any device, so county employees could communicate and use the tools even when they weren’t in a government building. It also brought the agency up to speed with the state of Michigan, which was already using Office 365.

“The county courts in particular do a lot of sharing of documents with the state,” Collins says. “Now we’re completely in sync, so it just makes everything much more manageable.”

MORE FROM STATETECH: What are some of the top anti-phishing best practices for state and local governments?

Pasco County Needed an Email Archiving Solution

The need for reliable message storage and retrieval capabilities led Florida’s Pasco County to a Mimecast solution that archives emails in the cloud, says Pasco County CIO Todd Bayley.

Unlike Cass County, Pasco County decided to stick with its on-premises email system — it uses Microsoft Exchange with Office 365 ProPlus — and rely on Mimecast as a cloud-based partner to sandbox incoming messages and cache those going out, Bayley says.

The county IT department is required to archive emails because of a Florida statute known as the “Sunshine Law,” which guarantees timely public access to government records, Bayley says. The county considered an in-house solution but that approach was cost-prohibitive.

Pasco County needed an archiving tool that would automate the process so workers could fulfill records requests as quickly as possible. And the solution had to be scalable — ready to expand with the county’s growing needs. “A cloud-based service made the most sense,” Bayley notes. “And email archiving is Mimecast’s core competency.”

As for the sandboxing, the company only started offering the service after Pasco County was already a customer. Up to that point, Bayley’s team struggled to keep up with bad actors, although the county had not succumbed to an attack. Bayley knew the county’s luck couldn’t last forever, “so we jumped on that solution immediately,” he says.

Now, the county has reliable threat protection across the email accounts of its 2,700 employees. “All URLs in the body of an email and in attachments are checked before they make it to your inbox,” Bayley says. “If the system detects anything that could be malicious, we get a notification that it needs to be reviewed.”

The county will remain proactive as it trains employees to recognize potential threats.

“Honestly, that's all we can do. We use the tools available and try to think ahead and raise awareness as much as we can,” Bayley says.

Photography By Bob Stefko