Smart working: We've got it all

Looking for a buzz? Looking for a rewarding job? Looking for a chance to make a difference to society? James Rogers has found the...

Looking for a buzz? Looking for a rewarding job? Looking for a chance to make a difference to society? James Rogers has found the place for you, and it's not where you might think.

DPM's diary, which graces the back page of Computer Weekly every week, depicts the humdrum life of the fictional Bogcaster City Council's IT department. A visit to Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council proves that the reality of local government IT is anything but humdrum.

At first glance, the modern, open-plan office of the Information Society Technologies (IST) division looks more like the busy headquarters of a newspaper than the stereotypical IT department. It certainly helps if you can thrive on pressure, according to one member of the team, "It's stressful - but IT people like to be stretched, they like the buzz."

Joe Daniels, Knowsley's community information officer and classic car aficionado, agrees that the work is challenging, although he is keen to highlight the unique rewards that it brings. "It allows for innovation and creativity," he says. "I get to work with a whole range of people."

One area where this buzz is most apparent is on the council's helpdesk. A number of Knowsley ITers take turns on the helpdesk, dealing with an array of queries, from the straightforward to more advanced technical problems.

There is a feeling in the division that it can be healthy to get lots of helpdesk calls, however mundane. After all, as one IT staffer explains, it shows that the technology is actually being used. This can be particularly important after major council IT projects, such as Knowsley's recent roll-out of Citrix thin-client terminals to its social services department.

The overall impression is of an IT department that is extremely committed to both its internal users and the needs of the community as a whole.

Daniels who, when he's not at work takes great pride in showing off his pristine 1979 Scimitar, has worked for the council for 28 years, after an earlier career in both the private and the public sectors. However, he believes that Knowsley is by far the most rewarding working environment he has experienced. "It is all to do with the way that this council approaches the use of IT to support its community. There's a top-level approach to doing that so it gives us a head-start in delivering electronic services using the latest technology."

According to Daniels, Knowsley has one of the most advanced networks in Europe, which is built using fibre-optic technology and serves more than 160 sites. "We have also pioneered learning technologies and digital TV technology," he adds.

The ability to handle several tasks at once, however, is key to working in the IST division. A number of the council's IT staff are expected to fulfil the role of programme managers for a range of initiatives. Daniels, for example, could be overseeing 10 or 11 schemes at any one time, ranging from helping to develop regional e-government strategies to the key task of extending computer access to all sections of society.

The digital divide is felt more acutely in Knowsley than in most other parts of the country, with the council serving an area with high levels of social and economic deprivation. According to figures released earlier this year by the Office of National Statistics, unemployment in Knowsley stands at 8.7%, nearly three times higher than the national average. A trip to this corner of the north-west underlines the fact that e-government is about much more than just deadlines.

As part of his job, Daniels works closely with a range of community-based IT projects, such as the Westvale Resource Centre for people with learning disabilities, which is based in the neighbouring town of Kirkby.

Having hands-on involvement with initiatives like this may seem a world away from the standard view of an IT career, but Daniels would not have it any other way. "It is all about providing opportunities for people who otherwise wouldn't get a chance. We provide an opportunity for the vulnerable and socially excluded to participate in our information society."

Projects such as the Westvale Resource Centre illustrate how technology can make a difference in peoples' lives. The centre has built its own Web site and last year users worked with Liverpool John Moores University to develop a CD-Rom entitled Lifeskills: 24 Hours a Day, to help people with learning difficulties to cope with everyday situations. It was a finalist in last year's Health and Social Care awards run by the Department of Health and was also nominated for an Emma award - the new media equivalent of an Oscar.

Such is the success of the Lifeskills CD-Rom that it is now being distributed nationally. "We have now made this generally available throughout the country via a distribution chain - this project is all about sharing ideas, resources and best practice," Daniels says. The CD-Rom won praise in the Scottish Parliament and earlier this year, for example, representatives of the Irish government came to look at the work being undertaken there.

Elsewhere in Knowsley the IT department is involved in any number of projects to help bridge the digital divide, from one-stop-shops to public IT kiosks called i-plus points. Schools, libraries and resource centres in the borough have access to about 4,500 computers at more than 160 locations, all with free public access to the Internet. Indeed, the borough's central library has one of the country's largest public computer suites, with 40 PCs and a team of resource tutors.

In addition to enabling the council to extend its services to the local community, Knowsley's IST division is also involved in forging links with the private sector. The department is closely involved in developing the Knowsley Community Tradenet, a Web portal linking local residents, the council and small- to medium-sized businesses in the area.

Awarded more than £500,000 of government funds, Tradenet is designed to bring the benefits of e-commerce to local businesses while at the same time tackling the issue of social exclusion. As well as bolstering the local economy, it will provide an online shopping and information service to all sections of the community, including elderly and disabled people.

The council is extremely keen to use the private sector to boost the services provided to the local community. Liverpool Football Club, for example, chose to build the much-publicised football academy for its future stars in the borough, a decision which must have been greeted with delight by the red half of the council's IT division. The academy is the the largest in Europe, and the site has attracted other businesses to the area.

Typical of Knowsley's approach to services, however, the academy will prove as much a benefit to local residents as it will to the nation's budding Michael Owens. "We are working in partnership with private sector supplier Granada Learning to provide an e-learning centre attached to the academy for local community access," Daniels says.

With initiatives like this it comes as no surprise to discover that Knowsley's most recent Beacon status award was for "fostering business growth".

Ultimately, however, it is the people in the IST division that are the engine-room of Knowsley's services. The head of the department, Nottingham-born Rod Matthews, says, "I have worked at a number of local authorities before here but the level of understanding and ability at Knowsley is about the best that I have ever seen. It's not just about working hard - it's about working smart as well." People in the IST division are engaged in the council's whole agenda, he says.

Moreover, the IST division has gained the respect of other council staff as a result of its work. "The level of trust placed in the IT staff by the rest of the organisation is very high," Matthews says, "Because of that we have been able to propose corporate change programmes such as customer relationship management and e-procurement that are then embedded in the council's modernisation and organisational changes."

With a string of awards, the IST division's efforts to improve the council's services have already been acknowledged on a national level, notably at the Improvement and Development Agency, the government body set up to foster best practice in local authorities.

"Knowsley is one of the leading exponents of local e-government in the UK, integrating electronic service delivery and citizen participation into the mainstream of its activities through its community information programme," says Martin Ferguson, e-government consultant at the agency. Vision and leadership have been translated into e-government projects to support services, to pay bills online and to offer a range of access through one-stop shops, community centres, libraries, the home and the workplace, he says.

Local MP George Howarth also praises the work of the council's IT staff. "As the awards that they have achieved underline, Knowsley have been very much to the fore in blazing a trail in e-government. The emphasis is on accessibility to the public and they go the extra mile in making sure that this happens."

Where is Knowsley?
Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council is one of Merseyside's five metropolitan districts and is home for 153,094 people. It covers an area of about 86.506 square kilometres, two-thirds of which is green-belt and includes the urban areas of Huyton, Kirkby, Stockbridge village, Prescot, Whiston and Halewood. In addition, there are the villages of Knowsley and Cronton and the rural area of Tarbock. According to figures released by the Government earlier this year, unemployment in Knowsley stands at 8.7% - nearly three times the national average.

Recognition for services to citizens
Based in Huyton on Merseyside, Knowsley's Information Society Technologies (IST) division has the tough task of providing support to the council's 8,000 employees while at the same time forging one of the country's most innovative e-government programmes.

Knowsley is firmly established as one of the UK's e-government trailblazers, having been awarded Pathfinder status by the Government and named a Beacon Council on three occasions.

Both the Pathfinder and Beacon Council initiatives aim to identify leading local authorities as centres of excellence for other councils to learn from, and Knowsley is keen to underline its status as an e-government pioneer.

With more than 50 staff permanently based in the building, the IST division also has about a dozen other people working in the council's eight departments and the chief executive's office. Each year the division deals with an IT turnover worth millions of pounds, and plays a key role in how the council delivers services to more than 150,000 local residents.

Glittering prizes
Knowsley's IST division has played a key role in a number of the awards the council has won over the past few years.

  • 1999 Named IT team of the year by Local Government Chronicle magazine for their work in supporting the council's services
  • 2001-2002 Awarded Pathfinder status by the Government for the development of electronic forms system and life-episode mapping on Web site
  • 2001-2002 Awarded Beacon Council status by the Government for accessible services
  • 2001-2002 Awarded Beacon Council status for regenerating through culture, sport and tourism
  • 2002 -2003 Awarded Beacon Council status for fostering business growth.

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