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A Christmas Carol
By Mark Denvir, Director of ICT, Auckland Council
5 years into my job in Council with the last two years as the ICT Director has given me pause for thought. I only have a few minutes, so it is probably a good idea to commit a few of my thoughts to paper. In the first instance, let me say that this is my first role in Local Government. I have had a wide and varied career with a variety of different roles within a variety of industries and some equally interesting non-ICT roles. To be honest, I am still not sure how my role at Auckland Council and Local Government captivated me into staying. I can say that the journey has been one of the most fulfilling though it has been equal measure of reward and frustration. So what has kept me on in my role? The Council like many other Local Government organisations have a long list of challenges that are never-ending and yet many that have practical ICT solutions that deliver great satisfaction to the various customer groups. Since the amalgamation we have achieved the incredible through a merger of the equivalent of 8 medium to large organisations into a single entity. They all came with their own baggage and technology sprawl which we have simplified and rationalized to a high performing, cost saving, reference-worthy environment. This included moving to a single SAP instance.
The second part of this current journey started with my appointment as the ICT Director on the back of a difficult re-organisation programme. This saw us adopt a new model of working, a new structure, new appointments to the Lead team. We lost a large part of our delivery capability and had to build vendor panels to help us deliver the projects and change that were on our pipeline. Trust was at a low point and we needed a lot of concerted effort to start rebuilding credibility and our brand.
Looking back over this period, it is hard to imagine the amount of change and positive traction that the ICT Team have delivered. A few key callouts for us that got the rest of our peers within Council and our sector taking notice were:
• Engagement and Culture – stayed very high despite ongoing change which was a result of a continuous programme of staying in touch with the wider team and strong communication.
• Trusted Partner status – improved significantly through a concerted effort to engage, stay on top of business needs and delivering the highest quality of service.
• Digital delivery is another major, including a huge effort to complete the digitization of our records and a number of projects to enable internal customers and ratepayers to access information relevant to their own services and relationship with Council.
• Transparency and open sharing through engaging the market to get a view on the best approach to what we need to do. We acknowledged that we had been difficult to work with in the past but have been bold and shared all the information around our strategy with vendor partners to ensure delivery of the best outcomes. This move was a surprise to the market and a complete change in government engagement.
• Innovation is a major pillar of activity for us with several streams of activity underway from Smart Cities to methods of Accelerated Delivery of Value. Some of our efforts have been helping us to deliver savings and also assist other CCOs and the wider Local Government community.
• Award winning projects were something we aim with each of our deliveries, but we had not put up our hand to be judged.
You don’t need to re-engineer the whole organisational governance model to get the benefits of agile
This year marked a number of entries and award wins across ICT signaling that we are in a place where the years of hard work was starting to pay dividends.
• Another area I am passionate about is returning value to the ratepayers of Auckland. One of the easiest ways to demonstrate this in ICT is through sharing of investments and we had developed several Shared Services with our CCOs with yet more on the cards.
While these have carried us so far, the next steps of the journey are going to be even more significant and built on the strong foundation we have already established.
In this journey, the key themes that will take a front seat are delivering faster, driving down the cost of services for current services and new projects while moving away from a monolithic COTS architecture to one built for speed and agility and recognizing the value of data. One area of focus for us as mentioned earlier is Accelerated Delivery for our projects and change. A key prop for this is Agile. The word Agile summons many thoughts through the mind even for me after all these years of being involved with technology and Agile. So, I am going to dwell on this topic which is of great interest to a number of our colleagues.
Firstly, let me set the record straight here; I know that Agile comes in many forms if that is the right word for it.
To my mind, it is a risk management model that ensures the ability to adjust response as new insights are gained. This can lead to pivots at many levels;
• Strategy: an entire organisation’s strategic focus can shift when a new market opportunity opens up
• a software development team can adjust its deliverable as a result of feedback from demonstrating features to the end user
• a product development function can adjust feature priorities to align with an emerging go to market strategy
Agility however implies uncertainty, there is no pivot if you had already planned to deliver that capability in a particular way.
This is at odds with established governance structures, culture and priorities in many organisations. What sets the ultimate constraints on how flexible you can be is the business outcome you are aiming to achieve. If you need to deliver software solutions to allow a particular process change to be put in place, you need to deliver a product that allows that to happen; leaving critical features in the backlog is not an option. However, early testing and creative responses to new feedback is definitely an option and certainly a good idea.
The key lesson here is to recognise your constraints and implement agile processes wherever these are possible and that is right level for your organisation; the outcome will be a more business aligned response. You don’t need to re-engineer the whole organisational governance model to get the benefits of agile. In Council that would be a near impossibility given the role the governing body, the Auckland and Long Term Plans along with the timeframes required to consult on these plans.
I always like to work with a clear idea of success criteria in any undertaking, so here are a few thoughts on Agile.
• keep the decision right to pivot close to the ultimate accountability. Agile has always been about eliminating layers of communication.
• In a product delivery organisation, whoever has the accountability for revenue should be very close to the decisions.
• in the case of a change to support new process, keep the stakeholder who has to manage the change once in production at the centre of your decision making.
• be very transparent, if you are providing the business user the decision rights, make it clear they are accountable for those decisions and always keep a good audit trail or the chickens might come home to roost with you.
• Take time to explain difficult to see implications, our stakeholders can’t always see what can seem obvious to the technical teams
• Lastly as a trusted partner, stay in for the long haul. Remain actively engaged with the stakeholder right through to when the outcome is embedded in the business and all niggles are resolved. It’s too easy to wind down after go-live. This is always when issues emerge i.e. when real people have to adopt and adapt to the change
So, in closing, my thoughts on the topic are that Agile has the potential to offer great value but be aware that one size does not fit all. Take the time to work out how it best fits your organisation and make the most of it.
I hope you have all had an excellent Christmas and I take this opportunity to wish you a very Happy and successful 2019!!