Local councils across the country are all feeling the pinch as the age of austerity ploughs on in the UK. Budgets are shrinking but services are still needed from these local authorities, leading to debates across the sector around new ways of working.
Brent Council believes mobile technology could be the answer to its future. The London borough council serves around 320,000 people and employees 2,800 to provide services for the local community.
“I think most councils in the UK are struggling with the downsizing of budget control [and] everyone is saying the same thing; we need to work totally differently in the future to be able to preserve services,” said Stephan Conaway, IT director for Brent Council.
“But, at the same time, very few are making a quantum step for real difference and most are reverting back to having to salami slice the budget, taking last year’s budget minus 10% or 20% or whatever the cut is this year.”
The previous chief executive of Brent, Gareth Daniels, laid the foundations for a new attitude towards working four and a half years ago when he announced it would be moving to a new building, but said one of the key factors would be enabling a more mobile workforce.
Very few [councils] are making a quantum step for real difference
Stephan Conaway, IT director for Brent Council
“The thinking around that was we already have a number of smartphones and tablets in existence and we publish a lot of our applications over the internet, putting a lot of field applications [out there] but additionally, we wanted to look at moving away from desktops per se,” explained Conaway.
“The [attitude] was everybody has a desk, everybody has a deskphone, everybody has a potted plant and a picture of their dog on their desk. [This needed to change] into a situation where the desk is there if required but only if required. Your job is not sitting at a desk with a deskphone. Your job is doing the function you were hired to do whether you do that from home, from a library, whether you are mobile or at a hotdesk in the new building, it doesn’t make any difference.”
So a year ago Conaway and his team began looking into new telephony solutions to support this more flexible way of working.
The first step was to sign up for a new mobile provider. Brent chose Vodafone due to an attractive pricing structure that again made for a more efficient use of budget whilst still getting the services employees needed.
“The contract with Vodafone allows us to aggregate both time and data into a large pool so that capacity not used by one member of the community can be used by someone else,” said Conaway. “We are simply buying a pool of time and data.”
“We also don’t pay for individual SIM contracts for individual phones or tablets so if a person purchases a tablet and wants to use it, they can just put a SIM in it at no additional cost. As a result the overall cost of operations is much cheaper and what we can do now is provide mobile services to the users at the cost of the phone rather than the cost of the phone and the additional monthly contract.”
But, integrating these mobile devices into Brent Council meant a new internal network capable of supporting the services.
Conaway went with Avaya, using its one-X Communicator platform to provide a backbone for unified communications, including video services, complemented with Avaya EC500 stations to enable users to transfer calls from their deskphones to mobile devices.
In addition, it chose to use Avaya’s Flare Communicator, allowing employees to embrace UC on their iPads as well as their mobile phones, and Aura Conferencing to turn meetings into an online experience.
Read more about mobile in the public sector
“What we have done on the phone system is taken very traditional technology, a quality Voice over IP switch, in this case an Avaya switch, and a contract with Vodafone as a managed service… asking them to link mobile phones much more closely to the switching characteristics of the desktop,” said Conaway
“It means we can… transcend the boundaries of [traditional voice] and the technology we think is pretty good condition to do that.”
No longer being tied to a deskphone gives employees the option to work from anywhere. But, of course, having the technology available is very different from having them embrace it.
“If you are in talking mode about it then everyone is very enthusiastic,” he added. “If you are in doing mode, then you get the reaction of, ‘you guys were serious? You are actually going to do this? We thought that it was just a discussion.’”
“The public sector is a lot more stayed in its reaction [than the private sector], a lot more committed to process. But it’s a tendency, it is not an absolute. It doesn’t mean that you can’t change the public sector, it just means there will be a lot more foot dragging, it will be a little more difficult and time consuming.”
The system is all ready to go and some divisions within the council are already taking advantage of the potential it brings, especially around mobile applications.
“The technology group decided we should push it out with a few minimal applications and thought that we would have to go back and start working with the users to come up with uses, but they are actually outpacing us and developing a lot more quickly than we would have thought of,” revealed Conaway.
“We put a couple of small applications, like Google Authenticator, so all our remote access is done through a mobile phone rather than a token, PDF forms [and] software for paperless meetings, [but] we are finding is a lot of the field units are beginning to expand on this.”
The housing division at Brent, for example, is using FaceTime on its Apple devices for an inspector to show works on a building to an office-based engineer, speeding up the process of works getting the green light or problems being fixed.
“The big thing with mobility [is] vendors have lagged behind in getting mobile applications out in the field,” added Conaway. “Tablets were introduced three years ago and we are just now beginning to see applications come to market.”
“What they tell us is they go to councils who say yes, we would like to do that someday, but they won’t invest any money. I think councils like ours equipping staff with these devices will mean the vendors will respond a lot more quickly.”
We are not making a statement about Apple, but currently they have far and away the best developed infrastructure
He also believes working with employees on their needs for mobile applications will encourage them to get more involved with the running of the council.
“What we are hoping is people will think differently about their employment and that through time we will get a lot more employee involvement of how we can make changes rather than the traditional top down changes of management dictating to staff what they need to do.”
Currently, employees are provided with iPads or iPhones, but the IT director explained this would progress as the system evolved.
“We have kept all of the phones as Apple phones currently to simplify the development of the roll-out,” he said. “We are not making a statement about Apple, but currently they have far and away the best developed infrastructure and what I didn’t want with a small technology unit is to have to work through 30 different versions of Android, and Microsoft phones, Nokia phones, BlackBerry… so we said right now we will go with Apple.”
“This autumn we will likely open it up and start rolling out some Android devices also.”
This will help grow the numbers of employees using their own devices for work, rather than just company issued one.
“Of the 2,200 mobile phones and 700 tablets online, probably about 110 or 115 are user owned,” said Conaway. “We don’t give any cash incentive for people to use their own equipment, but a lot of people just rather use their own than having two devices or having something they wouldn’t have quite selected to have themselves.”
Conaway is realistic though and believes it will take time after moving into the new building – set for next month – for employees to embrace the new methods.
“How many will actually make use of it in the early days, we don’t know,” he said. “We have a lot of people who have said yes, absolutely, I haven’t used my deskphone is six months anyway so happy to have the functionality of the mobile phone. Other people are hugging their deskphones like they might perish if they didn’t have it.”
“We think it will be six months into the new building before we really know how it settles out. As a technology provider, we are not worried about it though. We have tried to make it as flexible as possible with a little bit of a statement at the end that it is over to the business now to use that technology to be able to support their change towards more mobile working.”