The advantages of delivering services online might be easy to identify but they're much harder to achieve - especially if you're one of Australia's cash-strapped rural governments, many of whom don't even have a decent telecommunications infrastructure to build on. From Queensland to Tasmania, CIO Government found three local councils who've learned how to make the Internet yield benefits without the vast budgets or technical resources their big city brethren take for granted.
Australian councils have been quick to recognise the Internet's usefulness as a means of promoting their communities, an acceptance that's reflected in the high number of councils with a Web presence. According to recent statistics from the Australian Local Government Internet Network (ALGIN), more than 66 per cent of councils in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania have established Web sites.
Just as the Internet has reinvigorated many businesses, so too have local governments across Australia been eager to reap the benefits of getting online, such as lower operating costs and the ability to offer 24x7 access to council information. Often such endeavours must face obstacles that corporate entities rarely have to contend with, such as poor telecommunications infrastructure and the requirement to provide equal access to all. But not only have local councils persevered with online initiatives, many have succeeded wildly, creating virtual communities for their residents and local industries that could teach their counterparts in the private sector a thing or two.
The Rural Disadvantage
While all local governments are starting to feel the pressure to deliver services electronically to one degree or another, metropolitan councils are undoubtedly feeling the most pressure. This is for two main reasons: adequate telecommunications infrastructure usually exists in urban areas and a reasonably high percentage of the population is already connected. In rural areas, the pressure is no less intense, but the users have different needs, and the local infrastructure is often inhospitable when it comes to promoting wide-scale Internet use.
"Larger regional councils are feeling the pinch because most farmers are connected, and in a lot of cases it's much more convenient for them to contact and conduct business with councils electronically," says Lance Oswald, manager information services for Inverell Shire Council.
Located on the Macintyre River in north-eastern New South Wales, the Shire of Inverell serves some 15,000 residents, of which about 10,000 live in the town of Inverell itself, with the rest dispersed widely over the shire's 8600 square kilometres. The region consists largely of grazing land and tin and sapphire mines (the region is one of the world's largest sources of the gemstones), and like many rural areas, suffers from poor telecommunications infrastructure.
"Because we're a reasonably small community, it's difficult for local people to get the type of service and advice that they require, like you could in Sydney," Oswald says. "We've got a situation here where if you go five to 10 kilometres out of town, you're lucky to get 9600 on your telecommunications lines," Oswald says. "Out here we've got to deal not only with putting the services online but making sure that they're actually usable on lines of that quality."
Such circumstances didn't deter Oswald and his colleagues from creating Inverell Online, the shire's community Web site, which last year was awarded the National Award for Innovation in Local Government as well as a Government Technology Productivity Gold Award.
According to Ken Beddie, director corporate services for Inverell Shire Council, the origins of Inverell Online go back five years, when he and other council employees were first exposed to the Internet. "Within council - especially senior staff - we use this stuff every day," he says. "For the last four or five years we've had an ongoing awareness and usage of these products and we've also seen how our local businesses can adopt them to their benefit. We saw how the doors of hundreds of thousands of businesses worldwide had been opened to Inverell. So we had a talk to our business people and said all these businesses are opening their doors to our community, but what are we doing?'"First StepsInverell Online was commissioned and developed in conjunction with local business and the community. A project committee was formed to put the site together, consisting of Oswald, Beddie and three local businesspeople, who were already using Internet technology on a regular basis. It was this group that outlined the objectives for the new site: to provide a centralised Web-based business and community directory, to promote the uptake of Internet-based services by local businesses to enhance local economic growth, to promote the Inverell area as a tourist destination, and to provide equity of access to the Internet for local community groups and organisations. In addition to establishing these goals, the project was broken down into two stages. The first stage, now complete, was the development of the core Inverell Online Web site. The second stage, currently under way and slated for completion in 2002, is the expansion of Inverell Online into an e-commerce trading hub for the sale and purchase of local goods and services and the development of e-council services.
Oswald says that the committee realised early on that for the site to be successful, several core factors had to be put in place in the town. At the top of the list was the need to improve the telecommunications infrastructure, a goal the committee achieved by convincing Telstra to install new fibre-optic lines. "One of the wins we had in that area is that our entire CBD is now cabled with fibre optic," Oswald says. "When we redeveloped our CBD we worked with Telstra very closely and it came to the party and re-cabled it with fibre for us."
Equally important was the need to make the community and local businesses aware of the technology and the ways it could be used to their advantage. If Inverell Online was going to be a success, Oswald and Beddie saw that they had to encourage locals, many of whom were new to the Internet, to get hands-on with the technology. As a result, the project team went out of its way to keep the media and the public informed about what was happening with Inverell Online every step along the way, attending council meetings, community group meetings and taking the time to answer questions from all sides. This approach also helped quell community fears that putting government services online would replace government jobs.
"We overcame a lot of that stuff because we were out there talking to the community all the time," Beddie says. "It was a very public affair - we were out there increasing awareness by educating users and by developing a well-defined support infrastructure."
Equity of access was another important goal. "We wanted community groups and local businesses to be able to have some sort of online presence, regardless of their size or financial status," Oswald says.
Labour of Love
Not surprisingly, Oswald also says that resources were a major concern. "The biggest issue that I had was to manage the project within our finite resource budget," he says. "We're not a big council by any stretch of the imagination. Basically, I and one other person in the IT section had to continue doing our normal day-to-day tasks as well as this project."
Inverell Online was completely funded by the local council. While the council did enlist the help of an outside company called Balance Design to design the Web site, Beddie insists that the project was "totally local".
"We got no external funding at all, which is a bit of a sore point for me," he says. "But we made do with what we had, and we didn't let that limit the project. We never quantified our time or the in-house resources that we put into the project."
Oswald agrees that the Web site was very much a labour of love, but he insists that's the way things happen in local government. After all, nothing motivates a person to work hard on a community project more than being a member of that community. "A lot of local government projects, especially in smaller communities, tend to put the community first, as opposed to other areas, where people might say I won't do it unless I get paid'," he saysEnter E-commerceLater this year Inverell Shire Council plans to launch Inverell Online version 2.0, which will feature electronic commerce capabilities that make it possible for businesses in the town to perform common B2B transactions like electronic invoicing and online processing of product orders and rate payments.
"The first model was somewhat of a stopgap measure," Oswald says. "We didn't have the infrastructure in place to do what we really wanted to do with it. As a site it was pretty good, but for version 2 we've done things like take it into a Lotus Notes environment, which gives us a lot more functionality with things like workflow and approval processes."
Oswald also maintains that the updated site will benefit from research conducted on the original site. The council has been gathering detailed statistics about the Inverell Online site since it was first launched, and most of the new content for version 2 has been built around this data.
"When we first started the site there was a lot interest in the business listing area of Inverell Online and, while interest in this area hasn't dropped, what we've found in the last six months is that the tourism area has almost doubled," Beddie says. He also stresses that such knowledge translates directly to financial benefits for the community. "We know that as a regional community, every tourism dollar spent in our district also means business dollars in our community."
Beddie maintains that he and Oswald learned "bucket loads" from bringing Inverell Online to completion. One need only look at how today's site differs from the one the planning committee originally envisioned, he says, to get a sense of how such projects are a constant learning process. "We're in the same ballpark, but there were a lot of unknowns that we faced - things like how businesses would take to it and the impact it would have locally."
Oswald agrees, and suggests that other communities would do well to learn from Inverell's example. "Talk to the community first," he says. "Find out what they're interested in and how they're thinking. What does the community want from the council? What do they want from a community Web site?"
"And don't make it a council' Web site," Beddie says. "A lot of communities say they're going to do a great community' Web site and it ends up being just another council Web site. With Inverell Online, council services are only one small component of the whole site. To call it a council Web site pigeonholes it before you start."
Most importantly, however, Beddie and Oswald both agree that the best way to learn is by doing.
"Just get out there and do it. Give it a go. Lance and I have been all over Australia talking to councils after we picked up the national award, and some councils have been proactive and followed on, but many are still sitting on their hands," says Beddie.
"Some of the councils are sitting back waiting to see which is the best way to do it," Oswald says. "What we found is that you can't really know until you put something out there and start getting feedback and statistics about what people are doing on the site."
Located in Queensland's Granite Belt region, The Stanthorpe Shire Council serves a population of just over 10,000, of which about half live in the town of Stanthorpe itself and half in surrounding rural areas. GraniteNet, Stanthorpe's "virtual online community", was created using funds from the federal government's Networking the Nation initiative and much like Inverell Online, it was established to make it easier for residents, community groups, and local businesses to communicate with each other and exchange information electronically.
Much like other rural councils, economic development manager for the Stanthorpe Shire Council and project leader for GraniteNet Tom Knobel knows only too well how difficult it can be to provide government services effectively in areas where the telecommunications lines were never intended to be used for Internet traffic. Stanthorpe does have fibre-optic cabling running through the town itself, but as soon as you head west of the town, Knobel says, it's a different story. The surrounding area is a high lightning-strike zone, causing much of the wiring to crystallise over the years. The result is that line quality is very poor, too poor even to conduct telephone conferences.
"Teleconferencing on a phone is absolutely bloody terrible out here, so we had to look at any new technologies that could help us communicate, because in a big region like this travel costs are horrific," he says.
Thus GraniteNet was born. The plan was to create a site that would cater to the needs of residents, community groups and local businesses by giving them easy access to the information they needed most. Residents and tourists now visit the site to find shopping guides, trade directories, weather updates or roadwork announcements. Community groups, on the other hand, use the site to keep local residents and their committees up to date on forthcoming events and meetings, as well as to maintain an online database of all past community and committee information.
"The idea was to get community groups to go to a portal and for them to work as group to do all sorts of things in the modern world. It had to be a better means of communicating than racing off to meetings," Knobel explains.
Knobel says that one of the biggest obstacles that he and the rest of the project team faced was convincing local groups to change their established routines. It seems not everyone in Stanthorpe Shire was eager to make the leap into the information age. In many instances, it was extremely difficult to persuade community groups to alter the way they'd been conducting their affairs for decades.
"When you get a group together under GraniteNet and you get them to use the tools to communicate, it's a real change in culture," he says. "You've got professional groups that are protecting the way they've done business for many years."
More importantly, however, Knobel insists that the introduction of GraniteNet has forever changed the nature of community group and government meetings in the shire. As he explains, "The days of trundling along to a committee meeting just to get information are over. Now we expect people to go to meetings to achieve an outcome."
Nevertheless, the introduction of the virtual community has brought with it a new set of challenges. For instance, the lack of face-to-face contact brings with it a new pressure to provide not only more accurate information, but also to articulate that information better.
"You can't just put anything on the agendas on the Net," Knobel says. "You've got to be fairly articulate in using this tool. You can't leave anything to chance when it comes to how others comprehend the English language. Everything has to be precise so there's no misunderstanding."
In mild contrast to his colleagues in Inverell, Knobel emphasises caution in the development of similar online projects, and says that local councils, with their limited resources, stand a better chance of success if they adopt a methodical approach to delivering services to their community via the Internet.
"Hasten slowly," Knobel says. "Sometimes it's better to lag a bit, because regional councils don't have the resources to buy every you beaut' product that's released. Better to be careful and watch what's happening with a product's development. It's a matter of doing your homework and not just accepting the first salesman who comes through your door with a product."
A Different Approach
Burnie, a port city on the north-west coast of Tasmania, adopted a different approach to providing council services online. Unlike many local councils Burnie also provides information technology services on a commercial basis to four other Tasmanian local governments - Latrobe, Waratah-Wynyard, West Coast and Circular Head councilsLike many local government entities, Burnie City Council was quick to recognise the benefits of putting council services online, first establishing a presence on the Web in 1997. According to Andrew Beswick, IT manager with Burnie City Council, who is responsible for managing the authority's IT business unit, the advantages of providing services electronically were obvious very early on. "There are benefits in providing better service to the community and better access to services in a 24x7 way, but we also saw that there would be cost savings in doing that, which gave us a pretty compelling reason to get the project under way," he says.
This arrangement soon attracted the attention of nearby councils, most of which could not afford to employ IT specialists themselves. Before long they were looking to Burnie for assistance. The result was a resource-sharing arrangement between Burnie and the surrounding councils to provide IT support and services.
However, according to Beswick, the shortcomings of this initial resource-sharing arrangement soon became evident. When decisions had to be made about the IT services to be provided or the replacement of hardware, no action could be taken until all the parties involved reached an agreement. "That inhibited the ability of the IT people to make a decision and get on with the job," Beswick says.
In 1999, that ability was ceded by the other councils to the IT business unit of Burnie City Council. At the same time, another decision was made to gradually migrate to an application services provider (ASP) arrangement. The reasoning behind this move can summed up in three crucial words: service level agreements. "Now we can make those important decisions ourselves, as long as we perform to the service levels specified in the service level agreements," Beswick saysAnother benefit? The cash-strapped councils don't have to rely on outside contractors for IT support. "We've been able to maintain a small group to work with our councils in the local area, and not be reliant on external people, who often would have to come from Melbourne or further afield," Beswick says The current ASP arrangement is done through Fujitsu, specifically the company's 2000Plus suite of applications for local government. With Fujitsu's tools, Burnie is now in the process of rolling out such applications as financial and asset management, property and land information and development approval. So successful has Burnie's model been that the council has received a grant from Networking the Nation to extend its ASP service to a further eight councils (making for a total of 13 out of Tasmania's 29), to be completed over the next two years. A vital part of that assistance is $762,000 in grant funding, most of it allocated for new microwave radio communications infrastructure. But first Beswick and IT staff must contend with a common problem encountered by other rural governments: insufficient bandwidth.
Traditionally, the area has relied on ISDN lines from Telstra, which according to Beswick offer insufficient bandwidth compared to the cost. "We've received this grant to extend the radio network so we'll be able to supply services to those councils far more effectively and able to extend the types of services we offer," he says.
Burnie has also received a separate grant from Networking The Nation for another $665,000 to build a pilot fibre-optic network in the area. "The reason NTN funded it is they see it has potential as a model for broadband service delivery in the region. There's no reason we can't use our links with other councils as a backbone to build similar networks in the other centres we provide services to," Beswick says.
Beswick states that he has already been contacted by a number of local government authorities in other states to ask about the benefits the Burnie model provides in terms of service and savings. Nevertheless, his goals for the council remain the same: to deliver broadband telecommunications services to Burnie's residents, and more importantly to its businesses and industry, both as an enabler to existing industries or a means of attracting new businesses to area. However, as Beswick is keen to point out, any success the council's achieved so far is the result of working hard to gain the confidence of the many different government entities involved.
"The ASP arrangement we use now is far superior to the initial resource sharing model that we started with," he says. "While it would've been good to have gotten there quicker, in a sense that delay was necessary because that trust was only put in our IT people after our councils had had a positive experience. If we had asked for that amount of control upfront they probably wouldn't have conceded. We had to earn their trust first."
Join the CIO Australia group on LinkedIn. The group is open to CIOs, IT Directors, COOs, CTOs and senior IT managers.