Interview: The dream is to enable 100% of services online: Wanganui council

Jason Simons, IT executive and program management specialist, Wanganui District Council, spoke to Computerworld NZ on the council's work with relation to Smart 21 and its dreams of enabling 100% of council services online

On the sidelines of a recent end-user event, Jason Simons, IT executive and programme management specialist, Wanganui District Council, spoke to Computerworld NZ on the council's work with relation to Smart 21, its journey with Commvault's Simpana solution, and its dreams of enabling 100 per cent of council services online.

Q: How big is the IT team at the Wanganui council?

I look after 19 people. That encompasses four system engineers, one help desk – so five in classic IT, two and a half DBAs, two and a half GIS team. We have one archivist. We have one person involved in back-scanning of historical information. And then we have three records staff, looking after all inwards correspondence, records management, retention and disposal.

IT strength has become leaner. In terms of staff numbers, we have been down two through the four years I have been there, purely through attrition. We were 21 in IT.

In the next couple of years there will probably be a status quo. One thing that is going to be changed, and it has been talked about quite heavily, is the shared services. In terms of our group, there are two large councils and five smaller ones. The smaller ones, in terms of the IT environment, are not sustainable. So they literally have one or two IT people supporting exactly the same things that I support, which is exactly what the Auckland Council supports.

So by necessity they need to outsource a lot of that because its more expensive than what it needs to be. So in terms of collaboration discussions that are literally live right now, I foresee us supporting more councils, possibly incremental staff, possibly not. That will play out in the next couple of years. The discussions are very active right now.

In terms of moving forward, I think the governance is going to stay within each council's boundaries, or the council laws, and possibly policy type people. But in terms of classic overheads, like IT, finance and HR, there will be much more sharing of those resources.

Jason Simons, IT executive and program management specialist, Wanganui District Council
Jason Simons, IT executive and program management specialist, Wanganui District Council

It is one of the remaining black arts of IT, GIS is, and having access to those people is quite difficult.

Q: How do you see the evolution of shared IT services between the councils?

Within IT, the world is ours. Everything can be shared. The classic discussions that we have right now is GIS for instance. It is very hard to get GIS expertise. Those people are really sought after. It is one of the remaining black arts of IT, GIS is, and having access to those people is quite difficult.

We are supporting quite a few councils in that area. We are pleased to do that. What makes it easier for us to do that is not only a common GIS platform but more importantly the same GIS platform. So rather than us having a product, and another council having the same product, we actually chose one product.

We moved to a cloud-based GIS two years ago. A bold move, but it has been worthwhile. A lot of councils in NZ have taken up the same platform. We can actually extend that to cover our neighbouring councils very easily. There is very minimal impact on licencing, and almost zero impact in terms of staffing.

Q: Can you talk a bit about your inclusion in the Smart 21, the steps you took to benchmark yourself and identify gaps?

Last year was the first year that we applied to ICF's (Intelligent Community Forum) Smart 21. We got accepted. It was a long shot to go for the top 7.

This year we are a lot more confident about getting to the top 7, but it is still quite a long shot.

The biggest things for us is what are the important things, or what are the things that ICF is looking at doing. It is about taking those benchmarks and accepting that, yes we can get information on items 1,2 and 3, but we can't get any information on 5 or 6. How do we go about getting that info?

We are finding gaps in information that is collected centrally by the central government, or ourselves, or from our industry suppliers. This relates to information with regard to exactly the penetration of various technologies in the community. Who has Internet access, which is broad, but who has Internet access at home, what schools are doing what in what particular areas? The details are missing.

When we ask those questions, it raises the flags. People that we ask might realise they don't know this information. This leads to questions like, why don't they know it? Are they doing things or are they not doing things? So it is very enlightening in that area.

Also when we find the answers, if there are gaps, the answers can be quite negative. So other questions arise like, why are they negative? What is the impact on having that negative response and how is it linked with different areas?

We have established a Wanganui Digital Leaders Forum. One of our key missions is to provide 100 per cent connectivity. There is the aspect of the digital divide. We have quite a varied social economic band in Wanganui. We are very conscious of it. We don't want that digital divide. If people don't have telephone lines in the house, because they can't afford it, therefore they can't get access to fixed broadband. That limits access to services, and that is unacceptable. How can we deal with that? So we actually actively provide free wireless broadband.

Q: How have you enabled free Wi-Fi for the public?


We did this about three years go. Again, it is about working smarter. Lot of municipalities provide Wi-Fi coverage for their own use. So for our situation , we had fibre and CCTV in the streets. We were one of the first communities to have street CCTV for security.

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The next phase was that it was becoming too expensive to put the fibre as the cameras moved further and further away. Then we thought why don't we do Wi-Fi? That way you can have Wi-Fi security cameras over Wi-Fi. So we provided a Wi-Fi umbrella for our security cameras.

Of course, once you do that there are other uses. More importantly, and this is something we had to explain first to our internal people, the traffic profile of our CCTV is very much information coming in one direction – from the camera to a central location. Nothing is going the other way.

Internet access is all going the other way. So we can actually use an existing infrastructure to provide capability of Internet access flowing the other way. It doesn't cost us anything extra to do.

So who do we provide this for? The public.

Q: How have you tackled last-mile connectivity?

Because of Wanganui's geography, it literally is in a river basin. We have got three very key high points. We have got a fantastic water tower.. You can see the entire city from those three points. So last mile is if you can see the water tower you can get broadband access.

Q: Have you been tracking changes to the digital divide with the availability of Internet connectivity?

We have been tracking that. In terms of the end-user devices for customers, we provided those for free. We got some public funding for that. And the uptake there was fantastic. There were literally lines at the door when we announced it and said that it was going to be available. There were lines at the door and they went immediately. People could buy access points after that.

We literally ran the service for 18 months. And then we partnered with a commercial ISP and we transitioned from the council running the service on a best-efforts basis, to a commercially provided service, that offers a free portion and a paid-for service. That is the freemium model. You can get this for free, but if you are a bigger user then you pay for it.

But it is on a commercial basis, so actually maintenance and service, are proactively monitored as part of the ISP's service. And literally we provide that across all of Wanganui. We are expanding the hot spot areas. We are expanding where you can actually use your smartphones, laptops and smart devices.

The first place was our river front. We have got a stunning river front. And literally a lot of our travellers head there. So that is somewhere we provide free Wi-Fi access. Travellers can move around with tablets and netbooks all the time. It is amazing to go down there. We provide some Internet terminals but most of them have their own devices now. It is phenomenal.

Our focus is providing greater coverage in the future. This would be hot spot coverage, focusing on tablets and smartphones. They are so pervasive. We want to provide coverage in all the public areas – that would be malls, public parks, meeting places.

We are doing everything we can to make sure that people have access to the Internet when and where they need it. We have got very early adopters for fibre. All our schools have access to fibre. Then it is about providing fibre to businesses, and these public spaces, along with Wi-Fi often.

Q: How long have you had a relationship with Commvault?

It is coming up to four years. Day one for me was about finding a backup solution. Very key to the CIO role is that you are looking after your information and governance. You have to make sure that you are getting it right, that you are setting right backup failures, and preventing them from affecting users.

Then there was a presentation by a local VAR or reseller, that gathered a lot of enterprise customers together for the presentation on this thing called Commvault Simpana. Even though backup was my initial requirement, I did have requirements for e-discovering, for archiving and I was thinking of a way out. Backup was my first priority.

Then there was the way Commvault's Simpana did it. We were just about a 100 per cent virtualized. We have a couple of physical machines, but around 150 virtual machines at the moment. And the Snapshot technology blew me away. The fact that you could have your snapshots literally within seconds. You can restore a complete server in five minutes.

Our biggest limiting factor is bandwidth – between switches we have got 1Gigabit. That is our limiting factor. At the next refresh I am going to look at 10Gigabit. It is the just the smart way it does it.

We looked at other solutions. You go from your classic solutions that scale out to 10, 20, 30 servers, which is the environment we have. Then you also go into enterprise-class solutions. But then they are very much single silos, single point solutions, which are great. If you want a backup solution, it will do this. I can't afford to that. I would love to, but I can't afford to do that.

It also doesn't make sense because you have got finite resources in terms of your system engineers. They are precious as gold. Having them involved in the bread-and-butter of how the backups work or why didn't they work everyday is an absolute waste of their time.

Having something that works, and is reliable and you have got a high confidence level internally that it is working is vitally important. And the fact that this roadmap of services that I need to provide, in terms of backup, archiving, e-discovery, search, the fact that with one solution I have got all of that, even though I am not ready to roll all of them out yet.

I am not kidding. It was a no-brainer to go with an enterprise licence for that even though it would be a year until I was going to roll this out. At the moment for instance, I don't backup end-user laptops. I can. The number of laptops that we have is still in the 10s and 20s, but it will be this year that we will start to have backup agents on laptops. Everybody knows that people save information locally even though it should be saved on the server. So we will be actually deploying that at no extra cost. I don't have to do anything else. I just have to tell the systems engineers, 'right, now we are rolling this out, test it and install it'.

As for BYOD, right now, we are installing Citrix. We are installing a (mobile device management) MDM element on their device. So if someone is bringing in to our environment and want to use it, one of the quid pro quos is that we install an MDM agent on their device. And part of that will be – we are testing it at the moment – will be a backup agent for corporate data.

Backup agents will be on laptops in this financial year that finishes in June 2014. So that will be March to April time-frame.

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Q: How has the roll out been in the last four years?

From Commvault we implemented backup straight away. We then implemented email compliance, so that was 100 per cent backup of all emails that were coming in and out of our systems.

We then implemented archiving. E-discovery was at the same time as backups. So those were the four things that we have done.

My desire is that in the next twelve months time we will have enough infrastructure at our DR site to stand up our entire environment.

Q: What are your planned IT investments in the next fiscal?

There will be our server refresh. This December is when we make those decisions, and it will be starting July to August. That will be the big one.

Part of that decision process will involve our disaster recovery site as well. So we are grandfathering our production systems into our disaster recovery environment. We can't afford two at the same time. So we will be grandfathering systems that were implemented in previous lives. It seems to work very well.

The disaster recovery site is in Palmerston North. Full mirroring happens in terms of Commvault solutions, so presently we have an environment in Wanganui. We have a Commvault media server there. We have the exact same thing replicated in Palmerston North.

We have a reduced server capacity in Palmerston North for central service. My desire is that in the next twelve months time we will have enough infrastructure at our DR site to stand up our entire environment.

At the moment we can only stand-up a limited environment. But Commvault is completely duplicated.

Q: How does your budget and planning cycles work?

Our budgets have been finalised for next fiscal.

Local governments have three cycles. One is a 10-year planning cycle and that gets refreshed every 3 years. Its currently called the long-term plan (LTP) and the next LTP cycle is coming up next year. And they literally have to plan out 10 years.

We currently also have a three year planning cycle and then we also have an annual planning cycle. So getting more granular in terms of the detail each time you come down.

One of the big things that the central government has focused on is, especially since some councils in NZ have failed, literally gone bankrupt, needing investigation. We had a presentation from Audit NZ and one thing they had identified when they go back in time, they can actually see the pattern happening when you look at multiple years.

When you look at the annual planning cycle everything looks good. When you look at the 10-year planning cycle, which is way out in the future, everything looks good. When you look through three and four years together, then you can start to see the patterns. And that is why there has been a change in direction from Audit NZ.

Q: Do you think you have reached your goal in terms of services that are offered to the public?

No. We have got a long way to go in terms of what we could do. It is very much about providing access to transactions in 2014. We do have a roadmap in terms of what we offer to the public and when we can afford to offer that to the public. Our next focus is transactional. So by next March-April, we will be able to offer access to financial transactions online.

Our ultimate desire is 100 per cent of services, consultation, voting on issues, voting on public interest issues, to be offered online. My personal desire is elections, the democratic process taking place online.

People had a very good experience with the census this year. A vast majority of people did that online, it is so easy, straightforward, people had a high confidence level about the security.

So by the time we come around to the next public body elections, which will be in another three years time, we will be in a very good position to actually offer that as a service that they can choose to vote online.

Wanganui has a huge turnout rate for local government elections, something like 68 per cent, which is phenomenal in the NZ environment. That could improve with the availability of services online.