Plagued by rates increases and budget cutbacks, local councils across Australia are banding together to increase their buying power and deliver services more efficiently.
Local councils have never been known for working in packs, tending instead to pursue independent IT strategies built on the introduction of various non-integrated applications. Ron Posselt knows this, but he is not letting it stop what may well be the most ambitious IT infrastructure consolidation in local government history.
As group manager of operations with Lake Macquarie City Council, Posselt will head the introduction of a standardised, hosted IT infrastructure that is being constructed around Oracle e-Business Suite to manage all administrative and operational issues at the council. The environment, to be hosted on HP infrastructure from a data centre in Sydney, will replace a slew of AS/400-based administrative systems that have finally had their day after 15 years serving the council.
Most remarkable about the environment, however, is the fact that it will also be available to four other councils — Hornsby, Wyong, Parramatta and Randwick — that will also access the system through an outsourced arrangement. The project working group, which includes representatives from all five councils, is being guided by Cap Gemini Ernst & Young (CGEY) and includes 10 subcontractors that will together deliver the $100 million project.
“The common situation in local government is to go down the path of individual applications, and almost to a person they come into problems with integration,” Posselt says. The integrated approach, he adds, “allows us to utilise the technologies to interconnect all of the other applications in the suite, and [combining forces] allows us to enter the market with enough size and scale to get the big players interested, whereas we couldn’t do that individually”.
Aggregating their buying power allowed the councils — allied in a syndication known as Councils Online — to approach the vendors as a single logical council with more than 2500 users servicing 750,000 ratepayers — much larger than Lake Macquarie, for one, which has about 500 employees serving just 190,000 ratepayers. As the infrastructure is bedded down, the councils will be able to leverage the suite’s capabilities to shift their service delivery online where possible. CGEY will eventually turn its attention to attracting more councils into the scheme, theoretically reducing costs for other councils to get involved.
The 10-year Councils Online contract began with an 18-month design process last year, which will shortly give way to a three-month implementation that is expected to see the first services online by March 2004. Just how well it goes after that remains to be seen, but the endeavour will be closely watched at all layers of government to see if it can avoid repeating debacles such as the Commonwealth government’s failed cluster-based outsourcing plan.
“It’s a testament to the need to work collaboratively,” says Carney Soderberg, vice-president and head of CGEY’s Public Sector business, and the man responsible for the project’s success. “The environment has got to be right; you’ve got to have councils that want to work together in a syndicate. The unique thing about this is that it enables councils to still be legally separate, autonomous entities, but bound together for the purpose of sharing IT and service delivery. This is the best example of organisations that are not known for being collegiate, finding a common reason to work together and trust each other.”
Not that they necessarily have a choice any more. Local governments have felt the call of IT for years, but with ageing administrative systems and a chronic lack of serious funding, the most common approach has been to extend systems’ life through bandaid upgrades or to introduce new applications meeting niche requirements.
This approach has just so much life before it runs out of steam. With rates increases and budget blowouts now common across the country, a push for more efficient use of finances is driving councils across Australia to find new ways of operating smarter and sleeker. Unsurprisingly, online service delivery is being targeted by many as a common way to make this happen — but without the proper planning and infrastructure, such initiatives run the very distinct possibility of falling flat on their faces.
The Bandaid Approach
Introducing significant internal change takes time and money, so in the meantime many councils have opted for far less dramatic change by introducing new services that meet specific needs or break new grounds in service delivery.
That was the thinking behind the City of Botany Bay’s decision to begin Webcasting council meetings last year. Calling it “a new era of transparency” upon its launch, Mayor Ron Hoenig said the decision to broadcast monthly council and fortnightly committee meetings would “ensure that our meetings are more open to our residents”.
Usage since the service’s launch has supported the decision to invest in the $50,000 streaming setup, which uses voice-activated cameras in council chambers to broadcast Windows Media Video-based streams over a 128Kbps ISDN link commissioned exclusively for the service.
With an average of more than 150 residents tuning in for a typical meeting, the council’s manager of information technology, Martin Simunic, says the project has been deemed a success. “It’s not a huge expense for the benefit that we’re getting,” he explains. “It’s just been fantastic, and residents are getting more involved. Each time I look at the usage statistics it’s better and better. We’re slowly putting a lot of things on the Internet.”
In Botany Bay’s case, the goodwill and community involvement generated by the project has more than justified the cost of the investment. In many cases, however, intangible benefits are only one part of the value equation; councils must also apply adequate net present value analysis to ensure they are not just going online for the sake of it.
Because councils are running on such tight budgets that are always subject to intense scrutiny, IT-driven budget blowouts can quickly become fiascos in their own right; if expectations are not managed appropriately, offline critics may question why the money for such initiatives is not being spent to improve footpaths, public transport and local roads, and social services.
Hornsby Council, which will come on board with the Councils Online project once the Lake Macquarie pilot is under way, anticipates long-term cost savings from its decision to install an online bill presentment and payment system using technology from CommSecure, which last year entered into a deal with Westpac to market its payment solution to the bank’s customers.
The system provides Hornsby’s 52,500 ratepayers with an eighth method of paying their rates, application fees and other council charges, either through the council’s own Web site (www.hornsby.nsw.gov.au) or using Bpay View services through their normal Internet banking service.
Although conceding the new system increased the council’s costs — “every time you introduce a new method of payment it increases your collection costs, because you still have to keep the others going” — a council spokesperson says online billing is expected to pay for itself over time. More than 1000 ratepayers have been using the system since it went live early this year, but as numbers continue to increase, the system is eventually expected to save the council up to $70,000 annually on the cost of issuing rate notices and receiving payments.
Doing Infrastructure Right
Projects valued in the tens of thousands of dollars are small change compared with the tens of millions of dollars spent on IT within state and Commonwealth government agencies, but in local government even small changes can make a difference when used effectively.
At many councils, however, the decision to take a broader perspective on online initiatives has forced the planning of more far-reaching infrastructure upgrades. And while the Councils Online project is an extreme of this, other councils are undergoing a more measured modernisation effort that focuses on getting applications right now, then moving into online services. It may cost more than the quick-hit services of some councils, but getting homework done properly will lay the right groundwork for more ambitious online plans down the road.
For Cairns City Council (CCC), a strategic review of the council’s IT environment confirmed that a new server infrastructure was necessary to support a desired upgrade of Oracle e-Business Suite, which handles financial functions and is tightly integrated with Civica Authority, which manages administrative affairs relating to the council’s 120,000 residents and 60,000 rateable properties. The council also uses separate payroll, geographical information system, documents, records management and other systems.
CCC recently implemented a Linux-based cluster of commodity servers running Oracle’s 9i RAC database — an approach that manager of information services Cynthia Crane says will reduce costs and pave the way for future expansion.
“We were spending a lot of money in supporting quite significant, multiple environments,” Crane explains. “By virtue of going to a cheaper architecture, we saved ourselves a significant amount of support over time. Eventually, we’ll have one consistent platform for all of our applications. We have some simplistic online applications now, but this upgrade will give us an environment that better lends itself to online services.”
With the new infrastructure in place and application migration well under way, CCC is currently deciding just what those online services will be. Standalone solutions like the current online library system have been very popular with residents, but future services — which Crane hopes will start coming online by Christmas — will take a more integrated approach, addressing issues such as online rate payment, customer service requests, registrations, lodgment of building applications and so on.
Once the right technology is in place, the possibilities are endless, as Marrickville Council, which services 70,000 residents living in inner-western Sydney, found after it began in early 2001 to plot out a strategy that was initially meant just as a Web site upgrade.
Discussions with various stakeholders made the council realise that it needed to approach the upgrade with an open mind, and before long it was clear that the potential of online services required a much bigger investment in time and effort. After months of planning, the need for a more integrated solution became clear.
“Back then, people were still after pretty things jumping all over the screen,” says information systems manager Troy Green. “But it’s come a long way since then. Our vision when we first sat down, compared with what it was six months after that, was much different. We were much more focused, because if the site isn’t practical it’s not going to be used on an ongoing basis. People now want to get on, pay their rates, and go enjoy their lives.”
Working with partners like Tower Software and Technology One, the council was able to move its core document management and council administration systems online, then combine them with functionality from other applications to produce a comprehensive site that now gives citizens access to some 66 council services, completely online.
Over time, that number will increase: the council is expanding the range of planning documents offered through the site, offers a 24-hour call centre that searches the Web site on customers’ behalf, and will soon allow residents to submit development applications and get their 149 certificates instantly. Council also recently inked a partnership with MapInfo, which will allow it to replace its static PDF maps with Web-based maps that let citizens explore the council much more readily.
Although technology is important for driving council change, internal issues also needed to be addressed. For example, the council initially set up workflow procedures that empowered staff to publish documents to the Web site — but then realised that can be a bad thing without some sort of filtering to ensure content consistency. The solution was to take on a dedicated Webmaster. Green is in the process of hiring.
But don’t bother applying if your background is mainly technical. “What we now consider to be a Webmaster is an English graduate with computing skills,” Green says. “We see the Web site as a communication and service delivery tool, not as a technology tool. Three years ago we might have had a Webmaster who was an IT person and couldn’t string three written sentences together, but we need someone with a [writing] and technical background to deliver what we want — and then to liaise with the IT section to deliver that.”
Planners in the Lurch
Infrastructure does not exist in a vacuum, however. Many councils face additional challenges such as the lack of broadband, which has forced both councils and their residents to find new ways to deliver services regardless of the limitations of their environment.
For Greater Shepparton City Council, this problem presented some very real issues: around 40 outlying council offices and depots, including 20 childcare centres that were running four different applications for historical reasons, were unable to access council systems.
The problem was finally resolved by using Citrix Metaframe thin-client software to deliver corporate applications, including Geac Pathway and Great Plains financials, to the outlying sites. “Out here, the infrastructure is quite poor for communications,” says Rod Apostol, the council’s manager of information systems. “The applications we’ve had until now have been very data-intensive and haven’t been able to be deployed across the WAN link. Now, we’re able to get a wider scope of what’s happening, and can deploy the software much more easily: we put it onto the Web page and people can get to it from there.”
Regional councils are having such problems dealing with their internal communications, but the situation with reaching end users is even worse — whether in the country or the city. To meet their broadening commitment to delivering online services, local government councils have to think — and invest — far more proactively in initiatives for improving customers’ online experience.
If the findings of the Hiser Group are anything to go by, councils have a long way to go. In an evaluation of Web sites at various levels of government, the firm found that most were hard to navigate. Furthermore, design inconsistencies meant that skills learned on one site could not readily be transferred to another site.
“It’s really about structuring sites in terms of the way people do their tasks, as opposed to organising by who’s providing the service,” says Hiser Group managing director Susan Wolfe. “There’s an absolute mandate to put content on, but a lot of government organisations are following the letter of the law but not the spirit. They’re not solving any real problems, and the whole e-government experience isn’t quite happening the way they envisioned it.”
If sites are not designed to make government interaction simple and painless, councils could well find that their goal of pushing services online backfires. Users may try to do something online, but end up ringing the call centre in frustration if sites are not well-designed and appropriate services are not accessible. Similarly, misreading the desires of a particular demographic — for example, investing too heavily in online initiatives when citizens really want the money pushed into infrastructure — can become a difficult lesson in community relations.
With such a range of initiatives already under way, the best direction for councils is to identify areas where single initiatives can deliver quick process improvements, then weigh those areas against the relative costs and merits of a more comprehensive infrastructure upgrade. Such an upgrade may be inevitable, but careful planning and citizen involvement will determine the best path for councils to truly move online.