Interview: The dream is to enable 100% of services online: Wanganui council

Jason Simons, IT executive and program management specialist, Wanganui District Council, spoke to Computerworld NZ on the council's work with relation to Smart 21 and its dreams of enabling 100% of council services online

On the sidelines of a recent end-user event, Jason Simons, IT executive and programme management specialist, Wanganui District Council, spoke to Computerworld NZ on the council's work with relation to Smart 21, its journey with Commvault's Simpana solution, and its dreams of enabling 100 per cent of council services online.

Q: How big is the IT team at the Wanganui council?

I look after 19 people. That encompasses four system engineers, one help desk – so five in classic IT, two and a half DBAs, two and a half GIS team. We have one archivist. We have one person involved in back-scanning of historical information. And then we have three records staff, looking after all inwards correspondence, records management, retention and disposal.

IT strength has become leaner. In terms of staff numbers, we have been down two through the four years I have been there, purely through attrition. We were 21 in IT.

In the next couple of years there will probably be a status quo. One thing that is going to be changed, and it has been talked about quite heavily, is the shared services. In terms of our group, there are two large councils and five smaller ones. The smaller ones, in terms of the IT environment, are not sustainable. So they literally have one or two IT people supporting exactly the same things that I support, which is exactly what the Auckland Council supports.

So by necessity they need to outsource a lot of that because its more expensive than what it needs to be. So in terms of collaboration discussions that are literally live right now, I foresee us supporting more councils, possibly incremental staff, possibly not. That will play out in the next couple of years. The discussions are very active right now.

In terms of moving forward, I think the governance is going to stay within each council's boundaries, or the council laws, and possibly policy type people. But in terms of classic overheads, like IT, finance and HR, there will be much more sharing of those resources.

Jason Simons, IT executive and program management specialist, Wanganui District Council
Jason Simons, IT executive and program management specialist, Wanganui District Council

It is one of the remaining black arts of IT, GIS is, and having access to those people is quite difficult.

Q: How do you see the evolution of shared IT services between the councils?

Within IT, the world is ours. Everything can be shared. The classic discussions that we have right now is GIS for instance. It is very hard to get GIS expertise. Those people are really sought after. It is one of the remaining black arts of IT, GIS is, and having access to those people is quite difficult.

We are supporting quite a few councils in that area. We are pleased to do that. What makes it easier for us to do that is not only a common GIS platform but more importantly the same GIS platform. So rather than us having a product, and another council having the same product, we actually chose one product.

We moved to a cloud-based GIS two years ago. A bold move, but it has been worthwhile. A lot of councils in NZ have taken up the same platform. We can actually extend that to cover our neighbouring councils very easily. There is very minimal impact on licencing, and almost zero impact in terms of staffing.

Q: Can you talk a bit about your inclusion in the Smart 21, the steps you took to benchmark yourself and identify gaps?

Last year was the first year that we applied to ICF's (Intelligent Community Forum) Smart 21. We got accepted. It was a long shot to go for the top 7.

This year we are a lot more confident about getting to the top 7, but it is still quite a long shot.

The biggest things for us is what are the important things, or what are the things that ICF is looking at doing. It is about taking those benchmarks and accepting that, yes we can get information on items 1,2 and 3, but we can't get any information on 5 or 6. How do we go about getting that info?

We are finding gaps in information that is collected centrally by the central government, or ourselves, or from our industry suppliers. This relates to information with regard to exactly the penetration of various technologies in the community. Who has Internet access, which is broad, but who has Internet access at home, what schools are doing what in what particular areas? The details are missing.

When we ask those questions, it raises the flags. People that we ask might realise they don't know this information. This leads to questions like, why don't they know it? Are they doing things or are they not doing things? So it is very enlightening in that area.

Also when we find the answers, if there are gaps, the answers can be quite negative. So other questions arise like, why are they negative? What is the impact on having that negative response and how is it linked with different areas?

We have established a Wanganui Digital Leaders Forum. One of our key missions is to provide 100 per cent connectivity. There is the aspect of the digital divide. We have quite a varied social economic band in Wanganui. We are very conscious of it. We don't want that digital divide. If people don't have telephone lines in the house, because they can't afford it, therefore they can't get access to fixed broadband. That limits access to services, and that is unacceptable. How can we deal with that? So we actually actively provide free wireless broadband.

Q: How have you enabled free Wi-Fi for the public?

Easily.

We did this about three years go. Again, it is about working smarter. Lot of municipalities provide Wi-Fi coverage for their own use. So for our situation , we had fibre and CCTV in the streets. We were one of the first communities to have street CCTV for security.

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