Public sector IT: The County Council looking to the cloud

Ahead of this year’s Interop London IT event, guest speaker Will Fensom, Head of Architecture, Security & Configuration at Essex County Council, explains why the organisation’s IT modernisation programme was named Enterprise Mobility Project of the Year at the British Computer Society’s annual Excellence Awards.

In 2012, Essex County Council embarked on an ambitious project to facilitate ‘any time, any place, anywhere’ working for its 10,000 employees across 160 council-supported locations.

As one of the largest local authorities in the UK – and one of the first county councils in the UK to attempt such a massive mobility project – this was no easy feat. Shrinking IT budgets also meant that, as with many public sector projects, cost was a high priority throughout.

Previously, working from home or one of the many county-wide council offices using a dial-up connection had been an extremely laborious and time-consuming process, as well as being expensive to facilitate in terms of hardware and software licenses.

To overcome this challenge, an IT modernisation programme was introduced with the objective to enable all council staff to work anytime, anywhere and over any medium.

One of the biggest challenges in realising this vision was the requirement to migrate from a large-scale legacy platform spanning 10,000 people over 160 locations and deliver new fit-for-purpose, standard equipment for users. Like most other large organisations, Essex County Council also had to get to grips with demand for user choice (or ‘BYOD’) and overhaul existing user devices that were not delivering the value they needed to.

User-focused approach

As a public sector organisation, realising the objective to deliver seamless access for any user from any corporately-owned device was not a straightforward process.

When determining which devices to offer its users, the IT department had to justify the business requirement and ensure that it provided the appropriate security protection in accordance with the Government Security Classifications set out by the Cabinet Office.

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Moving from a legacy Windows XP platforms to a mixed Windows 7 and Windows 8 estate, providing all users with a choice of large, regular and lightweight laptops and giving them the option to use a Windows 8-enabled tablet were all key parts of the programme. As well as having the flexibility to access applications and documents from any location with a network connection, IT also had to provide fast, cost-effective internal collaboration.

To achieve this, the internal telephone system was replaced with virtual telephony from Microsoft Lync. In place of the previous legacy solution, a managed multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) service now connects all of the 160 different sites while an identity-controlled managed print service ensures that security is not compromised due to documents being left on printers.

Better relationship with the business

As a result of the project, approximately 90 per cent of employees now have a laptop that is enabled with Windows Direct Access, enabling them to securely connect to the corporate network in the same way they would from the office environment.

Having enabled users to take their device and work from wherever they can get a network connection, Essex County Council has been able to introduce a full flexible working policy, which has in turn contributed to a significant space saving. Employees now ‘hot desk’ while also being fully-equipped to work from home, which has dramatically cut down the many thousands of miles they would have travelled to and from office locations.

Before the organisation embarked on the wide-reaching project, engagement with IT was at an all-time low. By equipping users with new desktops and laptops and fixing some of their fundamental IT issues, employee satisfaction with IT services has now rocketed, which is consistently reflected in high user satisfaction ratings.

Cloud-enabled pathway

From the outset, delivering value to users was at the forefront of the IS Modernisation Programme. In turn, the IT department hoped it would increase credibility and trust. As a result of the project’s success, IT is now seen as an important enabler to in the organisation and regularly approached on all types of strategic projects.

Although the IS Modernisation Programme is now complete, it is by no means the end of the story for cloud-enabled IT at Essex County Council. Rather, the migration to the standardised end-user computing (EUC) platform has been an important first step in a process of future improvements to IT systems and solutions.

This process has also been facilitated by changes to the way Government information is classified, which now allows public sector organisations to use cloud services for anything up to and including official-rated information.

Recently, Essex County Council’s own Information Governance Team has also agreed that, while the organisation does hold official and sensitive data, it does not hold any secret information which would prevent it from putting data into the cloud.

As a result of this decision, the biggest barrier to a wholescale move to the cloud has been removed. Having already moved a number of smaller functions, plans are now underway to use the flexibility which the cloud offers in the public sector space to deliver other important cost-saving and value-driven initiatives.`

Will Fensom is head of architecture, security & configuration at Essex County Council.