Technology Leadership
Communications

Can Government Organizations use Slack?

Overcoming the barriers to achieving efficient communication in the public sector


When I interview engineers for a job at the MBTA’s Customer Technology Department, they often express reservations about working in government. All public sector organizations are backward and bureaucratic, aren’t they?

Startup Indicators

I tell them that in our case, we function like a startup and offer our adherence to the Agile methodology and usage of Slack as practical examples to show how we may differ from their expectations. Candidates immediately understand as it’s hard to imagine an inefficient government agency using such modern tools and strategies.

As silly as it may seem for this to be an indicator, one excellent sign of whether a public sector organization is startup-like is whether they use Slack. Both startups and government agencies can use Slack as the mode of communication for getting the right people assembled quickly to solve problems.

Urgent Need for Slack in Government

Many government agencies have been experimenting and thinking about applying the same principles that inform startups for a long time[1]. The global pandemic increased the urgency for government agencies to take definitive actions to support their asynchronous and remote workforce, which now resembles that of a startup more than ever before.

The MBTA has been piloting Slack in key departments for years, so when the pandemic hit, the MBTA moved quickly to make Slack available to all office workers.

As the person who researched Slack’s viability for the MBTA, I get asked by public sector leaders if and how they can get started with Slack, and I’ve collected my findings in this post.

Obstacles to Adoption

Unlike most private companies, a government agency can’t just buy a license and start inviting their people into Slack. Putting aside much of the red-tape of purchasing anything within a government agency, they first need to know that Slack meets regulatory requirements regarding its usage, data security, and data retention.

Let’s take a look at these three key areas below.

Usage Policies

The usage and conduct of employees and contractors in Slack does not warrant new policy guidance. Typically employees and contractors are already bound by existing human resources policies that govern similar systems such as email that are thorough and contain sections dealing with professional conduct and protecting privacy.

Data Security

Slack has enterprise-grade security to protect data and meet compliance requirements. For detailed information, see the Slack Security Datasheet.

Data Retention

The Freedom of Information Act[2] essentially states that anything written in a digital system is a “record.” A record must be retained and searchable to fulfill legal requests for information. Everything that goes into Slack constitutes a record. So, at first, Slack appears to be a potential liability as a new frontier for records to be mishandled.

Fortunately, Slack makes compliance with data-retention laws simple by providing message retention policies that allow keeping messages forever and storing copies of edited and deleted messages. These settings apply to all types of Slack communications: public channels, private groups, even direct messages. Just like corporate email, nothing in Slack is completely private.

Slack’s “Plus” product tier allows an organization’s Slack administrators to use the Corporate Export capability to download all messages in a plain text format. Searching Slack exports is possible to do with both free tools such as grep or commercial products. Purchasing the correct tier is important to note as the “standard” tier does not come with the necessary data export capabilities.

Moving Forward with Slack

With these critical concerns addressed, government agencies can confidently move forward with Slack, providing much needed personal productivity, team collaboration, and overall efficiency benefits to their staff.


Resources

  1. Guide to Slack import and export tools
    https://slack.com/help/articles/204897248-Guide-to-Slack-import-and-export-tools

  2. Slack’s Export your workspace data
    https://slack.com/help/articles/201658943-Export-your-workspace-data#use-corporate-export


Citations

  1. Brown, Justine. (August 23, 2012), Governments Take a Lean Startup Approach. https://www.govtech.com/pcio/Governments-Take-a-Lean-Startup-Approach.html

  2. Office of Information Policy. (July 4, 1966), Freedom of Information Act. https://www.foia.gov/

About the Author

Ryan's FaceRyan Mahoney is the director of technology for the customer-facing technology department of state of Massachusetts’ public transportation agency. He has spent the past two decades leading engineering teams as a founder, director, manager, and tech lead working with brilliant engineers that make positive impacts with their work.

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