Tasman District Council (TDC) had just embarked on a project to go digital when the COVID-19 lockdown hit. With just a fraction of its people equipped to work from home, TDC stepped on the accelerator. With tech partner Information Leadership’s help, not only were they able to keep essential Council operations going through lockdown, and keep residents of the District safe and supported, they moved forward a couple of decades into the bargain. The newly digitised Tasman District Council is working more productively, managing resources more effectively and collaborating more easily than ever before, and that’s great news for residents too.
New Zealand may be a small country, but there are more than 75 named district councils across the nation, not including all the various city and regional councils that oversee our day to day lives. Each one plays an equally important role in overseeing the people, resources and infrastructure of its (mostly rural) area. District councils are large and complicated with lots of staff, large workloads, strict regulatory requirements and a huge amount of responsibility. Whether it’s the Far North District Council bringing a wastewater project to life, or the Queenstown Lakes District Council deliberating over a new housing development, district councils play an important role in helping the entire country grow.
So, what happens when a district council is battling to deliver the best outcomes for its residents because its technology has become obsolete and outdated?
Tasman District Council (TDC) performs the functions of both a regional council and a city council, which means it works across a broad scope of activities from dog licensing to sewerage systems. Each of these areas of work makes use of large data sets and is governed by many different regulations.
But as recently as 2019, some of TDC’s key processes, including resource consents, were still paper-based, which made it difficult to keep track of activity and data. Even those workflows which were digital ran on an ageing intranet system. This was slow and unproductive for the Council and its workers, and meant it was unable to present its data to stakeholders in a useful way that allowed them to make fast but informed decisions.
“In some respects, we might have described ourselves as being 15 or 20 years behind modern organisations,” says Steve Manners, TDC’s CIO.
TDC reached out to Information Leadership for help to replace its ageing infrastructure and transform its operations. As an organisation with valuable experience creating digital solutions for Government and public sector organisations, Information Leadership was the natural choice.
However, the project had only just started when the country found itself in Level 4 lockdown. This could have presented a major roadblock. Only one in five TDC employees was equipped to work from home, so even business as usual was difficult, let alone a major systems transition. Instead of putting the project on hold, TDC realised it needed to move even faster to support its residents during lockdown.
“There was huge temptation to say, ‘the timing isn’t right,’ and that would have been a huge loss of momentum for us,” says Janine Dowding, Chief Executive of TDC. “We decided we really needed to take the plunge and jump in boots and all, so we actually increased our investment.”
A plum solution: DORIS
Information Leadership developed four key solutions to streamline the process, built on different aspects of the Microsoft 365 stack. The first was to consolidate information in a way that ensured compliance while increasing productivity and providing workers with more ways to collaborate. TDC’s existing intranet was migrated to a new modern environment in M365, affectionately known as DORIS (Digital Office Records and Information System). This was a truly enormous task that required moving more than 750,000 documents.
Once the documents were in their new home in DORIS, staff were able to find all the documents they needed quickly and in one place. For example, a digital property search in the new system can locate all the content related to a single property, from building consents to animal control issues, in one view, and since the old systems have been shut down, staff are accessing an average of 4,500 documents a day, instead of looking through paper records.
“Staff are often surprised at how useful the results are,” Peter Darlington, IS Manager, says. “As if by magic, the document they want is at the top of the queue.”
The second core solution was the rapid deployment of Microsoft Teams, which was deployed at the start of lockdown. Information Leadership created a clear framework to organise all the information in Teams so staff could find all the information easily as well as the people they needed to deal with. Teams is now a key part of the way that TDC staff communicate; they even conduct 300+ person Town Hall meetings over Teams, where all staff receive live updates from the leadership team together and can respond in real time. Getting everyone together in one place had never been possible happen before Teams was introduced.
Bringing everyone up to speed, fast
The third part of the solution was change management, ensuring that the project wasn’t just a changing of computer systems, but also of the ways TDC staff will work and behave going forward. Information Leadership supported training to ensure that staff were up to speed and any concerns were addressed quickly. More than 300 staff attended an Expo event, which created broad buy-in. Mentors were used as part of fast-tracking the Teams rollout in lockdown, and video training sessions were delivered over Microsoft Stream to 360 staff. This technology is still being used for staff training today, such as te reo pronunciation guidance during Māori Language Week. Delivering training online not only saved the Council money, because content remains available in Teams for use at any time, it remains a useful resource for staff to refer back to.
Empowering residents and workers
The final aspect of Information Leadership’s solution made use of Microsoft’s Power Platform to empower TDC’s business analysts to solve problems and enable them to share important information with residents in an easily digestible visual format. One key area where this has been useful is water management. The Tasman region is heavily reliant on irrigation, so good management of water resources is an important part of TDC’s role. A system using Power BI was developed, which shows real-time water levels and water restriction information on the TDC website. “Being able to easily feed that information in a graphical, organised manner for our ratepayers to see and understand was really valuable,” Steve says.
Power Automate has been used to streamline and manage the process of registering external contractors. “Previously the Information Services (IS) team ran around nagging people, asking if they’d signed this and that piece of paper,” Steve says. The new system means that contractors can go on a website and automatically generate a form that heads to the right person to sign off their application.
This project has allowed for massive gains in productivity and efficiency, as well as a significant reduction of organisational risk.
It’s also a great example of Information Leadership’s ability to move quickly, which earned them second place for the FastTrack Project Award at the ALGIM (Association of Local Government Information Management) Awards in 2020.
The transition will ensure that TDC’s systems stay current into the future, no matter what, says Steve. “By doing away with a couple of decades’ worth of legacy on-premise systems, we’ve shot forward a decade in time and will continue to keep up with the times because of the way the Microsoft 365 environment is designed. It’s fantastic.”
The TDC experience is a role model for all 77 other district councils. Cloud-based platforms like Microsoft 365 that enable remote working and insights and automation tools such as the Power Platform can create major benefits for public sector organisations, allowing for much greater responsiveness, collaboration and efficiency. They also allow all-important compliance measures to be put in place that take the hassle out of manual monitoring and follow-ups, making it easier for government organisations to focus on delivering better services to New Zealanders."
- Emma Barrett
Public Sector Director
Microsoft New Zealand