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Gold Medal Mettle

Gold Medal Mettle

Plenty of Australian local councils have Web sites. Almost as many deliver services to their residents electronically. But only Victoria's Whittlesea Council has won the federal government's National AAward for Innovation in Local Government two years in a row.

It doesn't matter whether a municipality is a fibre optic-enabled urban wonderland or a handful of dusty homesteads in the remote outback, the fact is all local governments look to the Internet to deliver their services for pretty much the same reasons: to increase efficiency and lower costs. But successfully delivering services electronically isn't simply a matter of a council's willingness to adopt the latest technologies, or even how open its members are with the local purse strings. What separates true innovators from the rest of the pack are timeless qualities like imagination and inventiveness - the ability to make the most of the resources on hand and come up with creative new approaches to old problems.

One such innovator is the City of Whittlesea Council in Victoria. For two years in a row Whittlesea has won the Information Technology category of the National Awards for Innovation in Local Government (NAILG), presented by the Commonwealth Department of Transport and Regional Services, for projects as disparate as using GPS (global positioning system) satellites to pinpoint fire hazards to fitting a video camera on the local street sweeper truck to assist city officials with property valuations.

But for all the "gee-whiz" aspects of its award-winning technology solutions, Whittlesea's achievements are not magical solutions made possible only by the advent of flashy new technologies. Instead, Whittlesea Council's successes can be attributed to good, old-fashioned resourcefulness and a strict adherence to the fundamental principles of effective government, like stretching the public dollar as far as it can go and always putting constituents first.

Whittlesea's officials understand that technology exists to serve the community and not the other way around. Indeed, the council's emphasis of the human over the digital might just be the most revolutionary aspect of its award-winning e-service innovations.

Sandwiched between urban and rural areas on the northern edge of Melbourne, Whittlesea is what's known in government circles as an "interface" council. Covering some 490 square kilometres, the municipality is split into two distinct regions: a well-developed urban sector in the south and a vast rural area to the north, much of which has either already been zoned for future urban development or is currently being investigated for it. The municipality has a population of about 110,000 people, a figure that is expected to balloon to more than 140,000 people by 2011, as Melbourne's urban sprawl gradually creeps northward.

Rated one of Victoria's highest growth areas, it should come as no surprise to learn that Whittlesea's government bodies have spent a long time wrestling with the pressures of rapid urban expansion. In fact, the massive influx of new businesses and residents was what prompted Whittlesea Council to begin investigating new ways of providing government services electronically in the first place, says Neill Hocking, Whittlesea's director of organisational development.

Hocking is responsible for overseeing the City of Whittlesea Council's IT services, including the contract and tendering units, its geographic information systems (GIS), and a recently established unit known as "Organisational Support". Created three years ago, the formation of the Organisational Support department was a direct response to Whittlesea Council's need to redevelop itself in order to cope with the stresses of a rapidly expanding population. "There's a lot of growth in our municipality, so obviously our organisation's workload is increasing enormously," Hocking says. "We don't have a large staff, and one of the reasons for introducing the Organisational Support area was to assist us in researching and implementing better ways of working."

One of the first tasks Organisational Support undertook was to establish a set of guiding principles to serve as the overall framework for the council's planned electronic service delivery model. After much deliberation, council officials produced what they now refer to as Whittlesea's "multimedia strategy". That multimedia strategy, as laid out by the Organisational Support, encompasses three primary goals. u To establish an online presence - one that's both interactive and transactive - for the City of Whittlesea to improve the quality, efficiency and effectiveness of council services.u To facilitate widespread access to the Internet by Whittlesea's community and business.u To develop electronic internal systems for better communication and reporting within council.

In keeping with Whittlesea's commitment to the community, these goals weren't hammered out in closed-door meetings, hidden away from constituents. Instead Hocking and his colleagues at Organisational Support carried out a series of community consultations, even going so far as to establish an e-service community reference group consisting of members of the Whittlesea community - both residential and businesses - who wanted to provide input into the local government's new electronic service initiatives. The group still meets regularly with Whittlesea's e-services team leaders to examine the direction council projects are taking, and now has the added responsibility of performing crucial usability testing on new services in development.

As soon as Whittlesea's Organisational Support unit and its e-service community reference group had agreed on a strategy, the next step was to run the new plan past the Business Process Management Review (BPMR) board, the official body charged with reviewing the council's business processes and coming up with ways in which technology might be used to improve service levels or reduce costs.

Fighting Fires With Laptops

According to Hocking, BPMR originally identified a whopping 420 organisational processes to be improved via new technology solutions. Those areas were then prioritised according to a range of criteria, such as the volume of customer interactions or amount of the cost savings that might be achieved, before the original 420 business processes were whittled down to 13 key areas. It was this review process that led to Whittlesea's first award winning project, a fire prevention program which uses satellite navigation and computerised mapping to generate hazard notices.

Under legislation Whittlesea must inspect all vacant properties annually. Unfortunately, many of these properties are in rural areas, where borders aren't easy to discern, forcing council workers to rely on maps and fences to determine their location. "When we were undertaking a review of that enforcement program with our BPMR team, they identified this as a very time-consuming and inaccurate process," Hocking says. "They scrawled the details on paper, brought it back in and we had people here who worked at inputting that information and interpreting it into notices to be sent out to property owners. That often was inaccurate, because workers weren't always sure of the difference between a property fence and a paddock fence."

The result was that many properties were being incorrectly identified, often prompting the council to issue notices requiring cutting or clearing of land to the wrong owner. With the new system, staff are now equipped with laptops linked to Whittlesea's property information database. Workers also drive vehicles outfitted with GPS devices, meaning that when fire inspectors arrive at a property that they feel requires fire hazard removal, all they have to do is look at the screen to see exactly where they are. Then, using a link to Whittlesea's GIS database, inspectors can bring up ownership details and any other relevant information on the spot.

A simple system of dropdown menus allows council employees to enter the details of the hazards that must be cleared. A digital photo is also taken and linked to that specific property's entry in the Whittlesea property information database. At the end of the day all information gathered in the field is brought back to council offices and downloaded into the main system. Any fire prevention certificates that are required are produced automatically and mailed out to property owners immediately.

According to Hocking, the new system saves weeks of staff time and tens of thousands of dollars, while also eliminating the errors that occurred with the old method of using maps and [paper] notebooks. "We issue some 8000 fire prevention notices each year; it now takes us days to do what used to take weeks," he says. "The satellite system that we're using with our GPS offers us accuracy down to one metre. That means our officers have the right property every time and can have the details on their screen in the field within seconds."

Hocking claims it also improves the quality of service the council provides to its residents. "People used to ring us and say: ‘My property doesn't need clearing', and in the past, our admin staff would have to wait until they could get a hold of officers who originally inspected the property and get them to check their memory," he says. "Now we can click on the property's link and the system brings up a photo and the inspection details, and we can be quite certain about the status of that property."

The fire prevention program was Whittlesea's first mobile computing project involving GPS and GPS technology, and earned the council its first NAILG award in 2000. Whittlesea has since extended the program to include a variety of new services, including weed mapping (which involves tracking rural properties with noxious weeds and taking appropriate action for the eradication of those weeds), as well as identifying graffiti, vandalism and abandoned cars.

Hot Property

Whittlesea earned its second NAILG award in 2001 with a video property inspection project that uses a camera fitted to a street sweeper truck to replace visits and inspections by the city's property valuers. As with the fire prevention scheme, Whittlesea's Video Property Mapping (VPM) project got its start in the council's Business Process Management Review board. During the evaluation Whittlesea's property valuers said they needed additional resources. Specifically, they wanted instant access to data about the properties that could assist them in their valuations.

"Initially we said to them: ‘What if we have someone go round and take a photo of these properties, would that be sufficient?' And they agreed," Hocking says. "But when we took the project to our GPS mobile computing team, they said: ‘You'll still have to send someone out in the field to take those photos, which isn't very efficient. We've already got a street sweeper [truck] that traverses the municipality regularly. Why can't we get images from that vehicle?'"As a result, Whittlesea property valuers now rely upon a video camera mounted on the local street sweeper to obtain images of most properties in the area. The camera records about six seconds of each building the truck passes during its routine patrol, and then the video is stored on computer and linked with satellite mapping and property ownership details housed in Whittlesea's GIS database. Property valuers can then access that information from their desktop.

Hocking claims the new system saves the council around $30,000 a year. And it now looks set to save the city even more money in the future, with new regulations requiring councils to inspect 50 per cent of all properties as part of their regular valuations instead of the current 20 per cent - requirements which the new system is capable of meeting easily.

Management Buy-in

For all their recognition, the aspect of these successful projects that Hocking is perhaps most proud of is the support he has received from Whittlesea's Council and its corporate managers - no mean feat when you consider how public accountability and limited resources are part and parcel of conducting business at a local government level.

How did Hocking get such good support for these projects from Whittlesea Council? The answer is by having project leaders work closely with council, involving elected representatives in the projects early on and enlisting the support of Whittlesea's CEO and corporate team by making them aware of the benefits.

"Our CEO and corporate team regularly review the status of these projects and have many discussions about how they should work. The corporate team is involved in the prioritisation of projects as well, so there's knowledge of those projects not only within the units that are undertaking them, but at a council and a corporate management level as well," Hocking says.

Nevertheless, he admits they've had to take some risks, "because there is a risk even in the development cost and the research cost - remember, not all of our projects come to fruition". Much of the energy put into Whittlesea's IT projects during these early stages is aimed at offsetting exactly these risks. Before any new project can be given the go-ahead, it must first be subjected to a rigorous cost/benefit analysis. And despite the municipality's successful track record, all e-service projects must first prove they can deliver benefits, either in service delivery, improved customer relations or financial savings.

Hocking insists that it is the "innovation culture" that council members have fostered within the organisation that has played a big part in the region's technological successes. "We do run a cost/benefit analysis over each of our projects, but our councillors have also encouraged an innovation culture here that we've worked to develop within the organisation," he says. "The idea is simply to have people think of different ways of working - different ways of applying what, in many cases, are existing technologies to ongoing local government processes."

The Human Element

According to Hocking, Whittlesea Council has learned many things from its award-winning e-services projects, but the most import lesson has been that electronic services cannot be developed in isolation from the people who are going to use them. The human element always comes first, he says.

"One of the keys to our approach to electronic service delivery has been to offer it as an alternative service option," he says. "We're certainly not looking to direct people to only using electronic service delivery. We're still maintaining face-to-face contact, both in and out of the office, as well as the traditional forms of service delivery."

When it comes to e-service solutions, technology is only half the equation; the people who use the systems must not be overlooked. The detailed analysis and lengthy planning that goes into Whittlesea's projects also includes a careful consideration of the workers and council employees who will eventually use the systems on a day-to-day basis.

"We've implemented a lot of new systems here and what we've learned from these is that if you don't involve all the teams from the start, you just won't be able to hand over those systems successfully," Hocking says. "You can't just say: ‘Here they are, now use them.' The people who are going to use those applications need to be involved, both in the selection and the development. That's been critical to the process." According to Hocking, Whittlesea's fire notices project is a perfect example of this principle in action.

"We were working with people who hadn't used technology before, who hadn't used computers at all really," he says. Many of the people destined to use the new system lacked confidence that they'd be able to work with such complex technology and so were initially reluctant to adopt the new systems. Others were more concerned that the technology was being brought in to replace them.

"Initially there might have been some concern about how the new technology would affect jobs, but the way we've introduced it, involving staff all the way through the program, alleviated that," Hocking says. "Our GPS mobile computing team actually works out in the field with these units, so they've been out with the people doing the fire notices and introducing people to the technology in a hands-on way while out in the field."

Hocking claims that any anxiety workers felt about how technology might disrupt their existing routines disappeared as soon as they gained confidence using it and, more importantly, saw first hand the benefits the new systems had to offer. After all, council employees could see their workloads were expanding as rapidly as Whittlesea's population. In such an atmosphere any tools that could help them get more work done in less time were very welcome indeed.

"The staff know that we've got to cope with an increasing workload here, and that's certainly a good incentive to find the best way of undertaking work or delivering services," Hocking says.

Whittlesea's recently-earned reputation as a technology leader in local government circles had at its share of unexpected benefits on the human resources side of things as well. Now that Whittlesea has gained a reputation for being a technology leader, Hocking and his colleagues are attracting some of the country's brightest young talent to work on the municipality's upcoming projects. Whittlesea's current crop of IT project officers and other tech workers now count many of Australia's top graduate and PhD students among their ranks. In particular, Hocking is very pleased with the strong links the council has been able to develop with some of Australia's best universities.

"We bring in very little specialist support, so in the main [Whittlesea's ties to universities] has enabled us to develop a lot of skills within the organisation," he says.

Winning government awards two years running hasn't hurt morale any either. After all, Hocking points out, rare is the employee who doesn't perform better after being acknowledged for doing exceptional work.

"A number of people have been involved in the projects that have received awards or celebrations, and that's an extremely positive thing for any organisation - to see that the staff who actually do the work are recognised for it," he says. "Our people have now been recognised quite widely for these projects and the skills they have - to such an extent that some have been invited to go on speaking circuits where they're involved in discussing the projects at conferences and workshops."

In fact, so favourable has the response been to Whittlesea's endeavours that the municipality now hosts its own electronic service delivery conference, which draws together experts from around the country to examine practical ways of making information technology work for local communities. "We've even been approached by other councils wanting to purchase some of the systems that we've put in place," Hocking says, "so we're starting to explore that now, too."

While other councils may be eager to purchase Whittlesea's solutions and adapt them to their own needs, Hocking says the future of Whittlesea's e-service endeavours is likely to be more inward-looking, rather than motivated by external factors, or even profit.

Not content to rest on its laurels, Whittlesea Council is taking what it has gleaned from its initial e-services successes and learning to apply them within the organisation itself, using GIS and other systems to streamline project management and empower workers in the field. A program to introduce electronic document management is already under way. Dubbed the "electronic plan route", it involves taking all of council's hard copy plans and putting them into electronic form so they can be accessed by workers in the field.

"What people in our organisation are asking for now is to have the information they need to do their jobs out in the field," Hocking says. "Our work is about delivering services to the community, and to do that many of our people have to be out there, working in the community, whether issuing fire prevention notices or caring for the aged. It's all about getting the information they need to them out in the field rather than at a desktop." vWhittlesea's Next Award?

Food safety Web site FoodSmart (www.foodsmart.com.au) is the latest innovative e-services project to emerge from the City of Whittlesea's Organisational Support division, a sort of home-grown think-tank that's charged with identifying more efficient ways the local council can provide services to residents.

Last year, the government of Victoria introduced legislation requiring all food businesses to lodge safety plans on an annual basis. Local governments were given the responsibility of ensuring that those plans were submitted and properly audited. The problem? The government's message simply wasn't getting through to food businesses in Whittlesea, which found the new requirements confusing and time consuming - a problem compounded by the fact that many of the food proprietors in the area are among the nearly 54 per cent of Whittlesea residents who come from non-English speaking backgrounds.

"Rather than take a heavy-handed approach and look at prosecuting them, we took the problem to the state government and presented it with the concept of creating an online knowledge-base for the development of food safety plans," says Neill Hocking, director of organisational development for the City of Whittlesea Council.

"At first there was some question whether small businesses would have time, or that the proprietors would actually get online and develop these safety plans," Hocking says. "But we tested the concept in focus groups with some of our small businesses here and it was very well received."

The Victorian government also liked what it heard. So much so it helped Whittlesea secure additional funding from the federal government to get the project off the ground. The result is FoodSmart, a Web site that assists food proprietors in developing a safety plan and submitting it electronically. The project has been so successful that Whittlesea has handed it over to the Victorian government to manage.

"We'll be handing it over to Food Safety Victoria to manage because it's not just for Whittlesea," says Hocking. "It's a state-wide product that can be used by businesses all around Victoria - and we hope nationally."

Hocking says the federal government's Business Entry Point program managers have approached the council about replicating the program nationally. FoodSmart has also been nominated for a spate of technology-in-government awards. Could it be the next winner for the City of Whittlesea Council? Watch this space.

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