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Collaboration tools

Collaboration is a critical part of our work and organizational philosophy. There are a variety of tools to support our teams’ collaboration and communication needs. While some tools are used often within TTS, working with an external partner may necessitate the use of a different tool that’s best for the partner team and their internal IT policies.

References to specific products or organizations are for information only and don’t constitute an endorsement of the product/company.

Using TTS tools

Software must be approved

It is safest to assume that you cannot use any software/sites/apps that require installation or an account until you know it’s approved. Ask in #infrastructure if you’re not sure.

Below are our the tools we use internally at TTS and potential tools to help your team and partner collaborate.

For each tool mentioned below, we include links to:

  • a setup handbook page
  • a Tool @ TTS guide
  • an admin handbook page when applicable

Instant messaging

Slack is an instant messaging tool that uses themed chat rooms (called channels) to help teams quickly communicate on a daily basis, in an open, collaborative way. The 18F team will create a channel for your project in our Slack workspace, which you can access from your web browser. It may be useful to read about what managers need to know about social tools when getting started.

Compliance and records considerations
  • Slack is ATO’d for use in GSA, and has a FedRAMP Agency Authorization at the LI-SaaS impact level. Slack operates within the AWS public cloud.
  • All communication in Slack are considered records and conform to GSA’s record management policy.

Here are some common barriers to using Slack with partners and workarounds to try:

  • IF partners are too overwhelmed by other things to check (such as email), THEN use email to message instead.
  • IF blocked by firewall/security issues, THEN use email to message instead. Sometimes Google Hangouts Chat is an option, at least for GSA partners.
Other instant message services to consider or ask your partner about
  • Skype: Skype provides instant messaging and video teleconferencing capabilities within a partner network.
  • Google Hangouts Chat: Google Hangouts Chat is the instant messaging service within the Google G Suite, and typically integrated with Gmail, Calendar, Drive, and Sites.
  • Microsoft Teams

Video conferencing

See meetings and meeting tools.

Sharing files

Google Drive is a storage and collaboration platform for spreadsheets, slide decks, and text documents. Documents on Google Drive are not public, but can be shared among team members. 18F can give your team access to our Google Drive so everyone can collaborate.

Compliance and records considerations

Here are some common barriers to using Drive with partners and some workarounds to try:

  • IF the partner doesn’t have a government Google account, THEN create GACA accounts for partners, or share files via services below or via email.
  • IF they’re blocked by firewall/security issues, THEN try options below.
Other file sharing services to consider or ask your partner about
  • Microsoft SharePoint: a browser-based collaboration and documentation management system, similar to Google Drive. Recent releases of SharePoint provide allow teams to rapidly create internal websites (like Google Sites) and collaboratively create and manage content in documents, spreadsheets, and slides.
  • Max.gov: a government-wide suite of advanced collaboration, information sharing, data collection, publishing, business intelligence, and authentication tools and services used to facilitate cross-government collaboration and knowledge management.
  • DOD SAFE, (Secure Access File Exchange): SAFE is a service to exchange unclassified files that are too large to share via email. SAFE can handle files up to 8.0 GB.
  • Intelink’s: IntelDocs, allows users to share unclassified files. The service has a file size limit of 100MB and folder limit of 1GB.

Tracking project tasks

Trello is a project management tool that organizes information into lists. Teams often use it to track specific tasks through different stages (such as backlog, in progress, in review, and done). Trello boards can be private or public.

Compliance and records considerations:
  • GSA Tech Portfolio is working on a FedRAMP application as of January 2020. Members of TTS can use it and will be notified if anything changes.
  • Trello boards should be considered records.
Trello alternatives
  • Airtable
  • GitHub Project Boards: Not recommended from usability/UI perspective, as the interface is basic without the richness of other planning systems or the simplicity of Trello. Compliance/records considerations are the same as for GitHub.
  • Jira: The GSA IT Jira instance is not recommended. Like ZenHub, it integrates with GitHub and provides higher-level scoping and linking (e.g., epics and dependencies). It’s pretty difficult to grant access to outsiders, and it’s pretty heavyweight and difficult to configure. Contact gsa-jira.support@gsa.gov for more information.
  • Microsoft Azure Devops Boards: Bundled with Azure, but not within FedRAMP services in scope.
  • Smartsheet
  • ZenHub: Works within GitHub and provides higher-level scoping and linking (e.g., epics and dependencies). Unfortunately, we cannot expand use at GSA.

Here are some common barriers to using Trello with partners and some workarounds to try:

  • IF not part of partners’ daily workflow/practices, THEN discuss task progress in sprint ceremonies or via email.
  • IF blocked by firewall/security issues, THEN build a board using whiteboarding or visualization tools like Mural, Google Slides or Powerpoint.

Viewing/scheduling calendars

Google Calendar is the calendar tool that comes with gmail and G Suite. The Handbook has guidelines and requirements for providing partners with access.

Compliance and records considerations

Here are some common barriers to using Google Calendar and some workarounds to try:

  • IF G-suite is incompatible with partners’ available tools, THEN have partners schedule meetings, try Max.gov calendar, or use email, phone, or Slack to align on meeting times.

Development and Documentation

GitHub is an online code storage and collaboration platform. 18F will create a repository (commonly called a repo) for the project and use it to store both documents and code. By default, 18F’s work with your team on GitHub will be visible to the public. Your 18F team can tell you more about the benefits of working in the open. Teams may also use GitHub, as well as browser add-ons that complement it, to collaboratively track project tasks.

Compliance and records considerations
Additional documentation support
  • Github Wiki is a section of GitHub that some teams use to store supporting documents. Each GitHub repository has its own wiki, and anyone on your team can edit the wiki. A wiki is a good place to store documents that the team will refer back to throughout a project such as design principles, research results, or a project roadmap.

Remote Whiteboarding

Mural is an online collaborative whiteboard tool. It allows teams to collectively generate ideas with sticky notes and sorting them around as if they were in the same room. You don’t need an account to participate and you can access the tool from any browser.

Compliance and records considerations
  • Mural is hosted on Azure commercial public cloud. It has a GSA ATO but doesn’t have a FedRAMP authorization or anything in process.
  • Mural generally wouldn’t be used to store “records” but instead to organize information for discussion purposes. GSA Records Officer has determined that “this product likely creates a number of record types. However, the specific types of records created will depend on the context in which this product is used.” As such, be sure to export and archive information from Mural periodically.
  • Truly low-impact: Mural shouldn’t be used to store anything confidential or authoritative. Instead, use it for ephemeral organization of information and production visualizations. Non-GSA participants are invited to use the service anonymously.
  • IF all the participants are on a Google Meet (or at least have Google/GACA accounts), THEN try Google Jamboard.

Feedback Collection

Qualtrics is a feedback collection tool that helps with creating surveys. These surveys can be distributed in a variety of ways including on websites like usa.gov; and used to create data dashboards. Any TTS employee may use this tool for free. The Qualtrics Handbook page has detailed information on how to request a license and use the tool.

Compliance and records considerations
  • Qualtrics has a GSA ATO and FedRAMP authorized.
  • A System of Records Notice (SORN) is related to the Privacy Act. SORNs are under the Chief Privacy Officer’s jurisdiction and are posted in the Federal Register for review. Qualtrics is covered under SORN GSA-CIO-3.
  • Qualtrics should be used if you’re collecting feedback that is directly helping GSA; not another agency. For example: if you’re working with NIH, you cannot collect data for NIH using GSA’s Qualtrics account.
  • Please use Google Forms if you’re collecting feedback from people with GSA emails.
  • Per GSA’s Survey Order, OCE is “responsible for ensuring survey materials distributed to recipients outside of GSA and/or across all of GSA meet agency standards.” Meaning that all Qualtrics surveys need to be approved by OCE before distribution.
  • More information on Qualtrics and GSA’s feedback collection efforts

Setting up tools with partners

Before the project even begins, the project’s Account Manager should begin the discussion of collaboration tools in pre-flight calls with partners. The goals at this stage are to:

  • Understand what collaborative tools are already in use at the partner agency and whether they’ll meet our needs
  • Test whether the partner can access the tools often used at 18F
  • Identify any potential barriers to the shared use of collaborative tools, so they can potentially be resolved before the project begins

Early in the project, 18F and the partner team should agree upon a basic suite of collaboration tools to support team activities. Consider these general strategies:

  • Meet clients where they are. If a partner already has a tool they use regularly to accomplish the same goal, it’s likely worth it to make use of established workflows, even if the tool doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as another tool that 18F staff uses.
  • Trial and error. It may take a few cycles to figure out which tools work best for 18F and the partner team. Working through any issues with different tools in a Sprint 0 can be an effective way to set up the remainder of the engagement for success.
  • Troubleshoot with others. Ask in Slack to see if your teammates have faced similar challenges. Collectively, we’ve overcome many blockers to collaborate over the years.

If your partner agency is reluctant to use collaboration tools, learn why. Is it a security question? Is there a burdensome technology approval process? Is there another tool already in place to achieve the same goal? Discovering the root causes to their reluctance may help inform your project and ensure productivity.

If you’re going to use a partner’s tools, see the information below.

Lastly, don’t wait until the end of an engagement to think about transitioning documents, code or client accounts from the tools that you use to collaborate. It’s important to have a partner-owned account or alternative in order to avoid creating blockers at the end of an engagement.

Helping partners make the most of these new tools

Here are some recommendations for how to level up our partners’ skills:

Provide a training or learning materials

Learn by doing/watching/failing

  • Introduce product features as needed on calls.
  • Let the partner play around with the tools in a low-risk environment—let them fail and “break” things. It’s a great way to learn!

Develop shared conventions with your partner

  • Consider creating a “how we work” document detailing your team conventions (e.g. task labels, how you title a story, etc). It’s a lot easier to remind folks of the process when you have a document to point them to.

Helping partners transition off collaboration tools

  • Important! Don’t wait until the end of a project to think about this!
  • If the partner is using 18F tools during the project, the team should advise the partner on how to gain access to their own versions of those tools or comparable alternatives.
  • The TTS Handbook details processes for offboarding partners off our own tools, like Slack (account removal and exporting), Github, and Google Drive. The Account Manager will facilitate this offboarding, including providing ample warning to the partner.
  • If the team has been using the partner’s collaboration tools, be sure to capture any documents or artifacts before we lose access.

Using partners’ tools

Per the IT Standards policy, section 2(e):

Collaboration with another agency through software or cloud services which they use for managing non-GSA data (either data owned by that agency or public data) does not require security or Section 508 compliance review, as that responsibility is assumed by the providing agency.  Other policies which may restrict the use of GSA Enterprise Accounts or the release of GSA-owned data may still apply.

In other words, it is generally fine to use a tool authorized and maintained by a partner agency. If you’re not sure, ask.

That said, only approved software can be installed on GSA machines. This often means using web-based versions, where possible.

See also

Questions?