Small council team setting the IT benchmark

By John Maslin

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Jason Simons, council's chief information officer, says the Whanganui District Council is regarded as a world leader in terms of local government IT. Photo/Bevan Conley
Jason Simons, council's chief information officer, says the Whanganui District Council is regarded as a world leader in terms of local government IT. Photo/Bevan Conley

A small team of specialists working at Whanganui District Council headquarters continue to set the benchmark when it comes to information technology (IT).

Earlier this year the council's information services group won the public sector IT award at the New Zealand Excellence In IT awards. It was one of eight awards recognising achievement within the country's IT industry, including local government.

The award was given on the strength of Whanganui's Top 7 Intelligent Community status, its collaborative work with central government on the development of online election processes, as well as its work with online public services and shared data services for councils in the Whanganui-Manawatu region.

Jason Simons, council chief information officer, said being part of the awards involved vetting by a judging panel and then face-to-face questioning by the judges.

"It was probably the most rigorous questioning I've ever been subjected to," Mr Simons said.

But the software and hardware in place at the council offices in Guyton Street means the council is regarded as one of the most advanced local government bodies in the world.

"Whanganui's a small community and what we're doing our local peers would regard as the norm. But we're being judged against international benchmarks which raises it to another level," Mr simons said.

The IT improvements staff have implemented have been a key to the district continuing to be rated as one of the top intelligent communities in the world for the past four years.

Mr Simons said the council had a "very tight" IT budget so it was matter of maximising that spend.

"One thing we do better than most is look over the whole gamut of council operations.

"While solutions for a particular problem can be purchased each time, we simply can't afford to do that, so we've looked at maximising our investment to handle any solution.

"It's working very well and it means we're keeping ahead of the curve by ensuring we have the software and hardware we need in place."

A growing number of council services are already available online and building consents is the next cab off the rank.

Mr Simons said council IT services were focusing on the customers so services were available at a time they want rather than having to come to the Guyton St office during business hours.

Tom Fraser, North Island territory manager for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, said the company had been involved with council since late 2014 to help "refresh" its server and storage infrastructure.

"It was about providing a future-proof system and making it easy for them," Mr Fraser said.

"One particular area where we had a strong focus was on delivering a disaster recovery capability, to make sure the system operated in a times of civil emergency."

He said the success with the council system was now used to showcase what was being done in IT at a local body level.

"We're excited with the work we've done with Whanganui - the fact it's now recognised worldwide is fantastic."

Mr Simons said the platform created meant staff could "fire up" new IT environments and functions from their desktops.

"It's all done through their keyboards. We can deliver systems so much faster, in minutes rather than weeks or months."

Being able to build incrementally on the existing system meant it could expand without huge expenditure: "Based on a good foundation, we can maximise what we have."

Mr Simons said the bank of servers and their mass of data in the council building had a back-up replicated in the Palmerston North City Council office. Call it a form of electronic insurance if Whanganui loses its information.

There's a diesel generator at the council building to provide power in case of an emergency, but to guarantee the service is maintained there is also have a bank of batteries in the IT department which can provide eight hours of power if needed.

Mayor Annette Main said it was "really positive" to have council staff regarded so highly among the country's top technology professionals.

"We have a great team whose innovative work is helping us to develop as a digitally savvy and globally connected community."

- Wanganui Chronicle

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