Capital intensive work

29 May 2003

Running a capital city is a big enterprise and even after the Greater Dublin area has been divided into four local authorities, Dublin City Council has over 7,000 employees and 200 physical locations to serve 450,000 citizens.

Its computer network serves over 3,000 users, which is a big network by any standard and rendered even more complex by the number of sites.

The IT systems in Dublin City Council have now reached a level of efficiency and sophistication that is professionally admired by local authority managements here and abroad. They represent the fruits of nearly a decade of consistent investment and development, with an annual spend that is recently of the order of €7m, of which about half is new or forward looking — equipment, software and developing business systems.

One major clue to the success of the council’s systems is the rollout by the information systems department of internal service level agreements with its client departments that will cover all of the internal activities by the end of the year. “Everything we do has to be governed by the business needs of our clients in the various departments,” says IT executive manager Brian Curtis (pictured), explaining the philosophy of his own department, “and the technology decisions always have to be based on the better delivery of services — internally and to the public, which often comes to much the same thing in practice.”

As is the case in many large organisations, a feature of Dublin’s IT systems until recently was that a variety of specific solutions and islands of information had grown up in different areas. The challenge at the end of the Nineties was to integrate all of the information and processes while building a smart, unified IT infrastructure going forward. In the case of a local authority, the sheer range of functions is daunting.

Curtis points to the example of billing systems that range from commercial rates to planning objections to housing rents and running on platforms from a mainframe to a standalone PC. Over the past few years, Dublin City Council has implemented a surprising range of major IT projects. One of the most significant is the deployment of a Citrix solution (essentially, a thin client system where the computing is mostly done at server level) for over 2,000 users in City Hall and the council’s main office locations.

Everyone has a standard set of 34 desktop applications based on Microsoft Office and a TeamWare communications and collaboration system tailored to the organisation’s specific working processes. “After much analysis we have identified and catered for just over 500 separate business functions in the council,” explains Curtis. “The whole approach has been to refine our own business processes and procedures across all departments. That’s the key thing, not the technology. When there’s logic and clarity in the business processes is when we design and deliver the systems to support them in delivering the services.”

In doing so, the council has chosen managed services as a tactical solution to some of its requirements. So ITL manages the Citrix implementation while Cara looks after the hardware platforms and for the past three years Xerox looked after the entire print function by on a cost-per-page basis. “Imagine, we used to have several hundred printers and at one count 47 different models. Now we have 75 powerful printers, strategically located, and 95pc of our total print requirement is centrally managed,” Curtis reveals.

The next major project is an integrated accounting system using Oracle Financials and HR, also to be implemented by Fujitsu Services, which is budgeted at €3.5m. “We are also looking to a customer relationship management system for the whole organisation including a centralised contact centre so that we have a unified view of each customer and our customer-facing services can easily access information and act as a single point of contact for any enquiry,” he explains.

While having nothing but praise for the professionalism of the top-level consultants he has dealt with over the years, Curtis is sceptical about the general standard of service in the Irish IT sector. “During the Y2K and euro scramble we all saw evidence of people involved who did not see the need for specific standards. Jobs got done, but the final professional elements such as thorough documentation slipped. Now that the market has cooled down, to say the least, I think clients look to evidence of high standards as the differentiator in choosing services.

“In some ways I think the Irish IT services industry is a bit immature, still a little too casual. There’s always more to it than just ‘getting the job done’. You also get the feeling all too often that people are learning on the job at the client’s expense. In fairness, there has been a lot of staff churn in the sector. Yet we have one supplier, a very small company, which is a star turn and ultra-professional, so it’s demonstrably not a question of requiring the resources of a big firm to deliver really quality assured service,” he adds.

Career path
Brian Curtis (pictured) graduated from University College Dublin as a civil engineer and worked in private construction before joining Dublin Corporation as a ‘temporary graduate engineer’. He worked in a number of departments and the move across to IT came about on foot of a major computer modelling project for the city’s drainage maintenance and planning that he initiated and led. He moved over to IT in 1992, becoming assistant IT manager at just 29 years of age, and gained a business qualification through the Henley Management Diploma. After a year’s sabbatical in a dotcom start-up he was appointed head of the information systems department in 2000.

By Leslie Faughnan