Giving out the gongs to grass roots government

14 Apr 2003

Last week at the Newpark Hotel in Kilkenny, Kevin Monaghan, head of information services at Westmeath County Council picked up the big gong at the Local Government Computer Services Board (LGCSB) Intranet Awards.

Judged to be the best of the 19 councils that submitted entries, the event might have lacked the glamour of some over-hyped national technology events, but Kevin was lost for words in the great tradition of Hollywood superstars on Oscar night.

In truth, the awards were not about backslapping but a focal point for driving through a national strategy to enable grassroots government.

I was one of six judges who spent two days assessing the merits of the entrants. The case for councils using an intranet — an internal version of the world wide web accessed by staff using web browsers — soon became clear, but not to everyone, apparently.

The degree of management ‘buy in’ to a technology project is crucial. Within five minutes of each candidate’s presentation you could tell how much or how little support they were receiving from their organisation.

Arguably, this is the biggest battle they have to fight because more hazardous issues, like choosing the IT platform, have largely been alleviated by the LGCSB.
Perhaps its biggest decision was to adopt a single platform, based around Microsoft’s SharePoint web tool, which provides the basis for the majority of the intranets in terms of content and hosted applications.

The rewards for such a strategy are not only a uniformity that makes it easier to rollout add-on applications across a ‘generic intranet’, but it also gives each authority the opportunity to develop applications which it can contribute to the group. Collective development is the goal, eradicating the need to cough up for hefty third-party solutions and the subsequent dangers of a piecemeal national infrastructure where no two councils are doing the same thing.

“What is now in place and coming down the track is easier to describe than the lengthy process of investigation, technical checking, application development and public tendering through which we all went to get here,” explains Tim Willoughby, assistant director at the LGCSB.

And what the intranet awards specifically provides is an incentive for authorities to participate and an opportunity for the LGCSB to benchmark the rollout of the strategy.

What it would have found particularly encouraging was the people-focus that many of the IT departments had applied to their projects. Management buy-in is one issue, but making the intranet accessible and inclusive to as many staff as possible is another big challenge.

“Staff focus was the main priority,” said Ray Bell from Laois, right at the top of his presentation. “An intranet only makes sense if knowledge is retrieved easily.” It ran its intranet centrally, but rolled it out across remote offices, reducing costs and increasing efficiency. Laois would go on to win the Best Innovation Award.
An extensive training programme was taking place in many of the authorities to teach staff in different departments how to upload data, transforming paper processes to the web.

Typical content would include a contacts phonebook, human resources (holidays and sick leave), as well as departmental document libraries that spanned everything from elaborate geographical information systems projects to uploading all you ever needed to know about dog licenses and car tax.

Some councils, notably Dublin South, seemed to have more pages than Google with an apparently infinite virtual vault, bursting with every conceivable kind of local council documentation – all available for online staff to search and retrieve. Cork had an impressive system developed by Sun and Horizon Technologies, complete with an online staff-training programme.

Ironically, the council paid a price for the early adoption and fell foul of the judging criteria that needed to see systems with transferable applications based around SharePoint.

Donegal won the Best Application award and was commended by the judges for its outstanding use of cutting-edge technology. Water towers and water treatment centres were managed remotely using telemetry, while a 3D-graphic package took planning proposals off the page and into convincing virtual landscapes. A striking example was plans for a wind farm (pictured) that looked like a surreal background for a PlayStation 2 game.

As he handed out the prizes, Willoughby summed up the event: “We do have something we can show and we are moving everything forward.”

Other organisations, in the private as well as public sector, might do well to take heed. There are lessons to be learnt here.