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.
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Coeus Consulting are currently shortlisted in the 'Change & Transformation in the Public Sector' category of the Management Consultancies Awards 2020, for their - see more here.
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