‘In my early career, I had to fight to get champions on board with digital change’

14 Feb 2020

Image: © kanuman/Stock.adobe.com

Cork City Council’s Ruth Buckley discusses her role as CIO and why it’s much easier to discuss digital change now than it was 10 years ago.

Ruth Buckley is the chief information officer at Cork City Council. Her role involves navigating a complex ecosystem that serves both staff and the residents of the region across a range of public services.

Here, she discusses digital transformation, the changing concept of smart cities, and how she and her team recovered from a cybersecurity breach under “thorough public scrutiny”.

‘It is much easier to have conversations with colleagues around digital transformation in 2020 than it was in 2010’

Ruth Buckley is smiling into the camera against a white backdrop.

Ruth Buckley. Image: Cork City Council

Tell me about your own role and your responsibilities in driving tech strategy.

I am CIO for a large urban local authority – Cork City Council – employing 1,500 people across 40 staff locations including three fire stations, 10 libraries, several depots, cemeteries and many office locations.

My role is to develop and implement an ICT strategy change programme while simultaneously providing safe, robust and secure services to the residents of Cork, the internal organisation and to 31 elected members of council. The variety and complexity of the environment is significant with such a diverse user group and it’s one of the reasons the job never gets boring but is continually evolving.

My role is probably more satisfying now as smart cities and digital transformation have become accepted and understood in all boardrooms. In my early career, I often had to fight to get champions on board with a digital change agenda, but that is no longer the case. Digital transformation is ubiquitous across all sectors.

Are you spearheading any major products or IT initiatives you can tell us about?

Our site is very varied and complex, with over 170 separate applications. We have the usual ERP [enterprise resource planning] systems and a large number of national and bespoke systems for housing, road licensing, pay parking and planning, for example, and there is always a demand for new enhancements or replacements. Our ICT environment must cater for both the internal organisation and the residents of Cork city.

In-house, we are looking to expand the use of mobile devices for our outdoor workforce and expand the reach of Microsoft CRM from 270 licences to 400. Our litter wardens have been using handhelds since 2015 and our ambition is to connect our people on the ground with real-time requests from the public, which come through our CRM suite. The customer service unit takes over 650 calls from the public daily and we continue to develop this offering through a public self-help portal, among other services.

All our newly elected members of council last year were enrolled in an online meeting management system and now access all council documentation online via Sharepoint and tablets, which they use over an extensive Wi-Fi network in the city hall complex. More services for the councillors will be conducted online as per our climate action plan.

In quarter one of this year, Cork City Council’s digital strategy will be launched. This was developed in consultation with over 80 city stakeholders who participated in several public workshops. The goal is to improve public services through the integration of technology and public infrastructure, enabling open-data harvesting and publication including new digitally enabled services and many other innovation initiatives, such as MaaS (mobility-as-a-service). This will spin off a large change programme across all areas of the organisation and city.

How big is your team? Do you outsource where possible?

I have a team of 23 people in-house and our core skills are network management, project management, business analysis, digital communications, procurement and vendor management.

We couldn’t manage such a diverse and complex environment without partnering with several external suppliers from providers of security services and software development to the local government management agency, which provides and manages many national systems.

What are your thoughts on digital transformation and how are you addressing it?

It is much easier to have conversations with colleagues around digital transformation in 2020 than it was in 2010. The new city development plan led by our director of strategy will govern how the city develops over a five-year period, and will recognise the need for smart buildings, alternative connectivity options and how to attract to Cork the much needed talent which our cyber, pharma and tech clusters depend upon – the ‘digital nomads’.

The appetite for tech talent is huge and because of the extreme under-representation of women working in STEM, I founded the IWish not-for-profit with Gillian Keating and Caroline O’Driscoll in 2015. This year, IWish hosted 6,000 young transition year girls at Cork City Hall and the RDS.

Four IWish campus weeks were also hosted by Cork Institute of Technology, University of Limerick, Trinity and University College Dublin, and their popularity continues to grow.

What big tech trends do you believe are changing the world and your industry specifically?

The concepts of resilient and smart cities are already here, but will change the way cities are designed and managed significantly. More and more people will live in cities in the future. This urbanisation trend, combined with innovation, is fuelling the actualisation of the smart city.

Many European municipalities have spearheaded the adoption of digitalisation to enhance the lives of their residents. Many Irish cities have been working on the smart city agenda for years, with cities like Cologne, Barcelona and Stockholm pioneering smart solutions for their traffic, waste, pollution and overall congestion problems.

Smart-bellied bins are deployed in Dublin. These solar-enhanced chips enable bins to alert staff when they need to be emptied. In Cork, new flood defences will include sensor technology to provide some migration solutions. This is a very exciting and challenging time for cities.

In terms of security, what are your thoughts on how we can better protect data?

I attended a recent cybersecurity event in the RDS and the overriding message I took away was the need to involve the whole of the organisation in mitigation steps against cybersecurity breaches.

Many of the most successful breaches which are perpetuated depend on social hacking, where employees inadvertently facilitate a breach by providing invaluable insider information or are convinced by a very clever and plausible email (phishing). Ongoing training and upskilling of staff are an essential part of the cybersecurity programme.

In 2018, our organisation suffered a very public cybersecurity breach. One of our service suppliers of an online public parking service informed us of a breach on the Wednesday and the following Monday I had to brief a full session of council with a packed public gallery (my daughter’s entire primary school happened to be there for a planning vote on the new school) while Paschal Sheehy of RTÉ News covered the event in full on the national Six One News.

I learned the true value of having a comprehensive cybersecurity insurance policy (we had), combined with a full and timely public disclosure (we did), all of which enabled the organisation to recover relatively quickly under thorough public scrutiny.

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