Abstract: for many Councils technology is seen as an expense, not an investment. A problem, not a solution. One mid-sized South Australian Council is breaking out of that mindset. Adelaide Hills Council Finance Director, Tim Piper, explains how.

Turning technology into part of the solution...

Make an honest assessment of your organisation's plans for, say, the next three years. Is technology a part of the solutions you are offering, or a part of the problems you are trying to solve? I suspect that for many South Australian Councils it is the latter. Why?

Technology in Local Government

There is no doubt that the local government sector got off to a good start with IT. The ability to organise everything and manage vast amounts of detail appealed greatly to the local government psyche. Several bespoke management systems have been developed which offer great benefits to Councils. In South Australia we seem to have formed several distinct tribes, each using one of the premier Council management systems on the market. All have their disciples and all can demonstrate a strong track record.

There is, however, a darker side to technology. Computers don't generate less paper, they generate more. Once you commit to a system, you can quickly become locked in. Your dependence on one main supplier soon limits your flexibility and your agility. They can provide a seamless solution, but often at a cost which is more than just financial. Years of in-house development and over-specialisation can combine with, in IT industry terms, a lack of capital to keep pace with latest developments. In practical terms this means that organisations often have to do what their software will let them do, rather than what they want to do. For example, if your core system cannot interact with the latest generation of Microsoft products then you will quickly be left behind.

Foundations, Flexibility and Futures

At Adelaide Hills Council (AHC) we adopted a three year strategy called “Foundations Flexibility and Futures” in 2010. Like many Councils, we had built up a slightly disparate patchwork of software and licensing arrangements, installed on ageing hardware which had mostly been selected for price. IT staff fought a running battle to keep the network and systems operating, and few people saw technology as an enabler within the organisation.

So we set about restoring a firm foundation. We upgraded our Microsoft licensing to ensure that everyone always had the same and most current version of software. We standardised wherever possible, and upgraded our remote access from Citrix to VMWare so that all users enjoyed “independent” access.

With large offices in both Stirling and Woodside, AHC was spending $5,000 every month on a high-speed copper connection between the two. By constructing a communications tower at Woodside, we switched to a microwave wireless link which transmits all internal traffic via the Mount Lofty communication towers. The new link is ten times as fast, offers ten times the capacity and has paid for itself in less than three years.

Mr Hardware and Mr Software

One key distinction applied very early was to treat ICT (Information & Communications Technology) and IS (Information Systems) as separate but connected disciplines. We appointed a manager to concentrate on each (quickly dubbed “Mr Hardware” and “Mr Software”) and began to build our flexibility.

Using VMWare allowed us almost to eliminate pc’s from our offices. Most staff use thin client terminals, usually with twin monitors, and even the most sceptical have been quick to recognise the benefits of the extra work space on screen. We also introduced iPads for elected members and management at the beginning of 2012. These have proved highly successful, saving not only 11 trees’ worth of paper each year through virtual meeting agendas, but also many hours of staff time each week. As people learn how to use pdf documents and to annotate and search them electronically, the iPads have grown even more popular.

"We're not salmon - we don’t have to swim upstream!"

We assessed our suite of software and, in particular, our dependence on our core management system. We looked at how to improve our monitoring and reporting. Our websites, both internal and external, were struggling to meet the demands placed upon them, and we had no consistent approach to relationship management or case management.

Looking around at developments in the commercial sector, we realised that solutions to many of our problems had already been developed and were widely in use outside local government. Off the shelf Microsoft products existed which could help to integrate and stabilise our disparate systems. Clustered around our core management system was a gaggle of supporting programs which reflected and reinforced a “silo” mentality about things like asset management and records.

The first step was to introduce Sharepoint 2010 (the first SA council to use that version) and provide an easy to use intranet called Workspace. A range of team-sites and a central bulletin board helped to boost internal communication and eliminated "All Staff" email traffic overnight (designing and building Workspace was the easy bit. Training and persuading all staff to use it is more challenging, but we are finding that success quickly breeds success).

The next step was to use Microsoft XRM to build a case management (and customer relationship management) system. This keeps an accurate record of incoming requests and tasks, but it also feeds the information into other systems as required. Already it interacts with Outlook (email and calendars), and eventually it will combine with the Lync VOIP telephony system to allow “call popping”. As calls come in, the system retrieves the caller’s details and case history on-screen immediately. The Lync telephony system has transformed both internal and external calls. Your extension can follow you from desk to desk, incoming call details appear on screen, and voicemails arrive as an email which can even be checked via laptop, ipad or smartphone if away. An instant chat messaging system has further reduced internal emails and, once the NBN arrives next year, video conferencing will also be available when required.

Embracing the Digital Age

The NBN is coming to Stirling and AHC has already secured three Federal grants to assist with preparations. A Digital Hub now operates in the Coventry library, Stirling and has been buzzing since it opened at the beginning of the year. Santa Claus appears to have delivered a lot of iPads to our residents last Christmas, and iPad training is currently the hot ticket. Of even more significance to Council, however, is the Digital Local Government programme, and AHC is in the middle of designing a new external website specifically engineered to take advantage of broadband.

The majority of Council websites are structured like Council. If you know how Council is organised, you will, or at least may, quickly find the page that you need. It is apparent from our customer feedback, however, that most visitors do not know (or care) how Council is organised. With expectations raised by lightning fast and intuitive commercial websites, they do not like our more traditional approach. The AHC Online project will use Google or Siri type logic to identify what the visitor needs and take them straight there. It will allow for a great many routine council transactions to be completed online and unaided, and by interacting with the Lync VOIP software it will be able to feed straight into audio or video phone calls if required.

So how did AHC shift technology from a problem to a solution? By separating ICT from IS, by learning from other sectors, and by stepping outside the traditional Council comfort zone for IT. Can your Council do the same?