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CIO interview: John Hunter of Council of Europe takes cloud route to document management

John Hunter, CIO of the Council of Europe, describes how his team has modernised the human rights organisation’s document management in the cloud

John Hunter, CIO of the Council of Europe, is intensely proud of the IT profession for its work during the pandemic, and of the organisation for which he works.

Indeed, the demonstration of the value of IT is one of the few upsides he is prepared to identify from the Covid-19 pandemic. “There’s not that much in the way of upside,” he says, “but it has helped IT departments show to the business how hugely important what we do is. It has also helped us to push our IT strategy. One of the big success stories was that the business switched overnight to everybody working from home.”

And Hunter is proud to work for the Council of Europe. Founded in 1949, the council comprises 47 member states, 28 of which are members of the European Union. It promotes human rights, democracy and the rule of law through international conventions and makes recommendations through independent expert monitoring bodies. Its major bodies include the Committee of Ministers, Parliamentary Assembly, European Court of Human Rights, the Commissioner for Human Rights and the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities.

To manage and store its wealth of documents, the council had been using Microsoft public folders, shared drives and SharePoint. Hunter recounts how this created security and compliance issues as documents were being stored in nine different repositories. It was also extremely difficult for staff to find out where the final versions of documents were located.  

He says it became his team’s aim to “store all working documents in a single, shareable DMS [document management system] that can be directly managed in terms of security, access and folder structure by the different departments within the organisation”, adding that “having a central DMS to store documents means we will be able adopt common working methods and best practice”.

“Having a central DMS to store documents means we will be able adopt common working methods and best practice”

John Hunter, Council of Europe

Since March 2020, the Council of Europe has been using a cloud-based DMS, NetDocuments, to enable documents to be discovered, accessed and shared remotely from offices in more than 23 countries and by over 6,000 external users. The plan is to have all the users on the system by June 2021. 

NetDocuments has migrated up to 40 million documents to the system. As part of this process, it has helped the council move its data outside the UK and into a new datacentre in Germany.

“Brexit meant our data was going to be stored in the UK, and so outside the EU, and we got slightly concerned about data protection issues,” says Hunter.

“NetDocuments accelerated the process of rolling out [the system] from its German datacentre. We waited six months for that to get up and running, but I think we made the right choice at the time. As IT director, I was a bit concerned that maybe the British government would change its data protection [regime], and we just felt it was much safer to store our data here [in the EU], after some legal advice.”

Democracy, human rights, rule of law

The Council of Europe’s main assets are its knowledge and expertise in the domains of democracy, human rights and the rule of law in its member states, says Hunter.

“It’s a complex organisation,” he says. “We have directorates and lots of sub-entities. For example, there’s the CPT – the Committee for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. And they can go and visit any person in any of the 47 member states at any time to check up on them. We’ve got a lot of other monitoring mechanisms, such as Greta, which is about action against human trafficking.

“It’s a very multicultural, multifunctional organisation. We’ve got 47 different nationalities. We’ve got Russians, Irish, British, French, Polish, Ukrainian, Azerbaijanis, and so on.

“I would say that human rights and the rule of law is extremely important in our society, especially after Donald Trump. There are a lot of bridges to be built, there’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world,” adds Hunter.

The Council of Europe’s main working processes all involve producing documents, email management and collaborating with internal and external parties. At the end of this process, a final document is produced – a report, recommendation, study or judgment. The documents are, by their nature, highly sensitive, containing vital information on human rights topics. They also need to be accessed remotely from offices in over 23 countries and by more than 6,000 external users.

The council’s use of Microsoft public folders, shared drives and SharePoint to manage and store documents resulted in those documents being stored in nine different repositories, which presented security and compliance issues. Also, some of the council’s field offices were not directly connected to the organisation’s main repositories, which meant files were being saved on local servers.

This resulted in a lack of version control, which made it difficult for staff to search for and determine where the final version of a document was located. Also, having several disparate documentation systems made it very hard for the organisation’s infrastructure and security teams to guarantee a full and comprehensive data backup.

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The final three candidates for Hunter and his team were iManage, edocs and NetDocuments. “We chose NetDocuments because we just felt it had the most advanced plan for us, in terms of current technologies,” he says. “But we were very careful to ensure that our users were involved in the choice because, in the implementation of IT systems, the whole change management aspect is so crucial. It is so damn crucial.”

They spent at least a year researching the technology choice, and got the shortlisted suppliers to present to “over 60” users as well as the IT team. They then proceeded to a proof-of-concept stage with the prospective suppliers. “It was a tough decision,” says Hunter.

“When I came to the council, I introduced the idea of proof of concept. You cannot make a decision until you actually try the system out. You also have to talk to other customers. I’ve rung customers in the past who’ve said: ‘Don’t touch this’. It might look good on paper, but until you’ve trialled it with the users, and sold it to them, it is just that.”

“NetDocuments will ensure every document we manage, store and share is fully protected and secure. The platform will become one of the main pillars of our IT system, helping to enhance productivity and contributing to our aim of enhancing human rights across Europe”
John Hunter, Council of Europe

Hunter’s team selected Tikit as the implementation partner for the project. “The level of expertise and support demonstrated by NetDocuments and Tikit really stood out during the tender process,” he says. “At a product level, NetDocuments’ heritage in cloud and security was very convincing.”

Tikit has worked closely with NetDocuments on a phased implementation that will see 35-40 million documents migrated to the new cloud-based DMS, which includes the headache of mapping a huge amount of unstructured data.

The first phase of the implementation saw NetDocuments rolled out to 1,400 users comprising the eight major administrative entities – for example, the Parliamentary Assembly, Directorate General I and Directorate General II. And this happened during the pandemic. Tikit adapted its regular on-site “floor walking” training programme to provide expert virtual support to the Council of Europe’s IT department change management team. The council’s IT department also provided extensive change management, support and regular communication to its user base. 

“After extensive testing, we successfully deployed NetDocuments to over 1,500 under exceptional circumstances where 90% of staff members were teleworking due to the coronavirus crisis,” says Hunter.

“NetDocuments will ensure every document we manage, store and share is fully protected and secure. The platform will become one of the main pillars of our IT system, helping to enhance productivity and ultimately contributing to our aim of enhancing human rights across Europe.”

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