Coeus had been engaged with Southend-on-Sea Borough Council for a year, with the key focus on transforming the IT function, when Covid-19 hit. The crisis caused us to rapidly refocus efforts on addressing various challenges and keeping the systems running for the Council. Services absolutely had to continue and there were some unique and special challenges they were facing. In this blog, we share the lessons learned.
The below is a summary of the discussions at the first Coeus 'Local Authority Change, Culture & Technology Forum in April 2020.
1. Managing Expectations
People these days have high expectations of IT ‘needing to work’. Clearly Covid 19 had a major impact in terms of people needing to work remotely, and we found that users were expecting a similar level of service throughout the period of us responding to the need, and once they started working at home. That needed some managing. We were on a technology roadmap, we knew the infrastructure had some challenges and needed to start leveraging more of the cloud-based capabilities, upgrade devices to Windows 10. The Covid-19 challenge meant we had to do this very quickly; we needed to find quick and tactical solutions. Linked to that, the challenge from the Council and employees was that we would need to be able to find solutions quickly.
2. Operating In A Business Continuity Scenario
Within the Council there was some view of this, but nothing had anticipated such a major change as Covid-19. There’d been a lot of change particularly around people recently, which meant that a lot of knowledge in people’s heads had left and some of that transition hadn’t fully completed. Linked to that, there weren’t clear service levels defined for operating in such an emergency business continuity scenario.
3. The Limitations of Technology
At Southend, typically, most people would come into the office and work - the technology was not set up to support remote working at the scale that was suddenly needed. There were specific performance and technology challenges around the remote access gateway:
- Being able to access the line of business applications from home.
- Licensing limitations.
- Although the roadmap was to deploy a soft phone-based telephony solution for the contact centre, the existing solution in place didn’t support home working.
- Capacity and skills gaps – we know we have some gaps and are looking to resolve this, but knew we needed to make changes quickly and didn’t necessarily have right capacity and skills. Also lacking experience of what Good looks like.
How Did Coeus Meet These Challenges?
1. Managing expectations
It was quite interesting - we thought this would be harder than it actually was. We started taking some specific actions - the users and the broader organisation were very supportive of everything we were doing and were happy to lower their expectations. We focused a lot on communications - we leveraged the central comms team and had a comms plan laid out. We also provided regular updates on progress.
We were open and honest, challenges were called out, certain bumps that were anticipated were called out. There were bumps, we sometimes had to take systems down at very short notice for some quick upgrade work. Working with the Leadership of the Council, we were able to make some very quick decisions: "What’s the risk? What’s the risk of not doing it?" And actually going ahead and making those decisions. Sometimes they took longer than they should have, but there was an agreement and acknowledgement that in order to drive things forward at pace, that is what was needed.
There were various PCP tactical command groups in place, and IT was a core participant in these forums. Firstly, to provide updates, but also to make sure what we were doing was aligned into the organisational priorities at the Leadership Team level.
Something we’ve put in place recently is business partners to really act as single point of contact into the various service areas, and these roles were instrumental in collaborating really closely with the service area to make sure 2-way communications were there. For ICT to be able to provide updates but also take feedback ideas and needs back into ICT.
I think we got that bit working really well and we got some great feedback, they appreciated the pace and pressure we were working at, so when we did get to the outcomes there was some really good feedback on how we got there.
The Run Book
This needed to be put together very, very quickly - not months, but days. It required strong leadership. But what was absolutely critical was the team contribution and ownership. It needed to be something that the team felt that they owned, that they were comfortable with and they felt was going to work. So we spent a lot of effort in a short amount of time, working with the teams, regular sprints to come up with baseline and then iterate, refine and hone to get that to the right place.
There were some very practical decisions we had to make: reducing service levels on certain things, being realistic on what we’d be able to do - and what we weren’t. We introduced email ticket management, which wasn’t ideal. It was something we discussed but the conclusion was that we wanted to reduce the load on our remote gateway and wanted to make logging ticket as easy as possible for the user, and email was the best way.
The third area was around technology. Some key themes here that we did very rapidly with the technology to facilitate remote working:
- First, around Office 365 email – the project was already underway but as soon as it was clear that Covid-19 was going to become very real, we accelerated that migration and that was a real big win for the organisation in terms of providing a more resilient email solution, but also a better user experience as well.
- The second area as around the remote gateway. We didn’t have enough licenses so quickly had to procure them. We also didn’t have enough bandwidth, meaning that the number of users who could connect into our corporate applications was limited to about 300 (out of a total of 2,000 users). Clearly that wasn’t enough and very quickly that became a key issue. We did a couple of key things. Firstly we upgraded the bandwidth and upgraded the licenses, we leveraged vendor resources – both our SI partner that was working with the council. But also leveraging our remote access capability and getting those resources landing quickly was absolutely critical to getting that work done.
- We implemented access to web-enabled applications via proxy servers which reduced the load coming in via the default gateway. We also provided guidance on being able to use Outlook web access for email. Both those 2 things reduced the traffic to come down our remote gateway – again, providing better performance for our remote users.
- We rolled out Microsoft Teams, we also rolled out the mobile version – for practical reasons. Some users had Windows 7 on their laptop and performance of Teams on Windows 7 isn’t brilliant – so for those users, mobile was recommended.
The Telephony Solution
This became a very critical area once we’d sorted out the F5 and the remote access, the telephony for the contact centre staff became absolutely key. We designed an interim solution which enabled the phones to be able to be configured to work off people’s home network. We enabled that to work and that solution is currently being delivered as we speak.
Capacity and Skills Gaps
The key thing here was around rigorous prioritisation. We had to be absolutely clear and focused on what could land and what couldn’t. Some projects had to stop, some conversations were had with our business colleagues to say "Look, we can’t do this". We really had to prioritise some of the big impact items and get our resources really focused on that.
We also had to prioritise what our resources were working on. We had some people in the Applications team who had to come and sit on the service desk for a bit, to take some calls. Moving people around and people being flexible was absolutely key.
Motivation and recognition
This sounds relatively obvious but was important for keeping people’s motivation and morale up – people were working long hours and positive feedback was instrumental in keeping the morale up but also from the Leadership Team there were continuous positive messages being replayed but also encouragement for people to take down time when it was required.
The final point is around engagement. It's very difficult to stop people using certain tools, but a way around it is really to work proactively with those users and educate them as to what is possible and really help them get the most out of the tools.
Key Lessons Learnt:
1. Real focus on priorities Be realistic on what you can do.
2. Flexibility and an adaptive capacity We had people taking on additional roles and had to bring on additional resources. A focus on suppliers and supplier relationships was key to that.
3. Reducing throughput on the remote gateway and looking at innovative solutions to solve that.
4. Iterative improvement Start with the basics and build out.
5. Teamwork and motivation Keep the IT focused and energised so we could land those deliverables quickly.
6. Corporate alignment Communication and working really closely with the organisation. The key stakeholders but also with Leadership – getting that support. We knew there would be bumps on the road and the organisation had to work with us on that journey.
Q&A with the Panel:
Host: Keith Thomas, Head of Public Sector; Simon Reynolds, Change expert; John Gorrell, Sourcing expert; Sandeep Thakrar, Public Services expert.
Q: What’s the current situation at the Council? Do you need to do more?
Sandeep Thakrar: "All this activity and quick delivery has delivered more excitement from the Council about what’s possible. E.g. Remote telephony solution - there’s a lot of demand asking for the same solution. MS Teams – we want more of this functionality. One Drive – we want to use that too!
On a more technical side, Azure capabilities around the Application proxy. The next part of the journey is always on VPN connectivity which we are looking at is well. A number of activities to really advance our transformation agenda.
I think this has really whetted the appetite within the Council around what’s possible. From an ICT perspective its generated a lot of energy and enthusiasm as well, as you know ICT people like solving things – the buzz and excitement for moving things forward in a very rapid timescale."
Q: Is all of the focus still on making sure the business is running – have you had any time to think about what comes next, how do we move back to what we had before, and would you be moving back to the same thing?
Sandeep "We are still focused on keeping the systems running, its still early days. As we start to think about a recovery, there’s going to be a lot more focus on End User Computing, more focus on accessing any application, from any device, anywhere. Its going to start driving more conversations around Cloud computing, getting W10 rolled out more quickly and so on."
Q: Simon Reynolds, in the Private Sector, where might we end up after we have come out of the COVID-19 situation and do you think the working environment might have changed?
Simon Reynolds: "I think it’s more a realisation of what can be achieved in this kind of situation. Everyone seems to be surprised by it. So if you consider the VPN with one of our large Utilities clients, where we were trying to roll out RAS for them some time ago with a new supplier, it took them about 9 months for them to get that done.
With the urgent pressure to get 60,000 users working from home, they’ve managed to improve VPN performance in 2 weeks. They’ve put in a crack team to help and support issues. Coming back to the Exit Strategy question: it’s a case of making sure any organisation thinks about what they can learn from this, what they can take forward, where it is correct to accelerate and run things in this way. This is proper agile working, but people spend too long trying to put a methodology and put their arms around it – rather than looking at ‘actually, this is what happens when you do deliver a minimal viable product’ – or just look at ‘what is needed in the current situation’. I think that’s true in Public and Private sector."
Q: John Gorrell, how can organisations make sure they are responding as effectively as they can?From a suppliers point of view, from what you have seen, are organisations getting the support they need from different suppliers, are they enabling them to make all these rapid changes that they’re hoping for?
John Gorrell: "I suspect in Sandeep’s case, I imagine that the contract with your supplier wasn’t ready to get them to react as actively and dynamically as they have, and this is likely to pan out commercially.
I was talking to a very large Telco during the week and they were talking in a general sense about technology forcing more and more cross-supplier collaboration. It’s got to be the way of working because there’s a reducing number of one-stop shops. I think it could accelerate that trend, and I think it could mean that suppliers need to sign up to agreements where its outside their comfort zone and their immediate span of control and accountability (whether that’s got a commercial consequence I don’t know).
But I’d like to understand from Sandeep how the supplier has reacted and whether the commercials have been left til later."
Sandeep: "The supplier was on the ground, delivering, so it was a bit easier to engage them on point needs and get resources very quickly. The contractuals and commercials were one point, but what really made a difference was the relationships in place between the Council and Supplier. Sometimes this is overlooked but those conversations that were happening with ICT leadership and supplier leadership were really wanting to work together for the benefit of the council. So I think there’s some huge learnings there."
John: "Going forwards, when it comes to selecting the next supplier, and public procurement rules have forced the lowest cost answer, Councils may think again and say we need to move more off the price and more onto the quality and things like relationship, culture – and get those acknowledged."
Sandeep: "I think what these events have shown its not only about price – although its important – it’s about outcomes, quality of resources, quality of engagement, its about flexibility and adaptability - those are the things that make a real difference."
John: "There’s a trend towards customer experience being at the fore, and I think this has really brought that into sharp focus – that ultimately, keeping people working is what matters and therefore customer experience matters – and not abstract measures of that, which you can sometimes get with suppliers – the classic sea-of-green badge when users aren’t happy. This is flushing all of that out, in a way."
Keith: "It's very much bringing that into sharp focus and encouraging people to drive change much more quickly than they would have been doing before we were in this situation. That’s going to drive a lot of positivity and show up a lot of cracks, things that start creaking and issues will start arising in the next few weeks and months. I am sure the outcome is likely to be something that is more positive in the long term in that there will be lots of good learning from this."
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