CIO50 2022 #5 Naren Gangavarapu, Northern Beaches Council
Early in his career, Naren Gangavarapu was a perfectionist. A lot of work wouldn’t get past him without major tweaking.
“I didn’t realise how this would impact people and outcomes,” he tells CIO Australia.
“Several years later, an LSI 360 review highlighted my personality to be a perfect bow tie. This was a watershed moment for me as I had to understand what it meant to me personally, how it impacted my career growth and the impact it had on my team.”
Gangavarapu says his team was too afraid to give feedback although he was putting pressure on them to improve the quality of their work to live up to his expectations.
“I had to get myself a coach and mentor to address the issue and during the process, I realised that I put others under pressure, but it had taken a toll on my health and career and I hadn’t realised it. Since then, I have applied simplicity over perfection, pursuing goals over executing project plans, understanding the problem over thinking of solutions, and end-user needs over stakeholders’ opinions.”
Gangavarapu notes this change in thinking has meant he can now create high-performing teams that enjoy a safe and trusted environment and enjoy working with him, ultimately leading to happier customers.
These days, as chief information and digital officer at Northern Beaches Council in Sydney, he and his team, have delivered a five-year, post-merger digital and IT strategy for the council, educating the executive committee and council on technology trends, debt, and priorities.
This led to an increased capital investment of more than $20 million in customer service technologies, human resources systems and cybersecurity tools, as well as a $3 million reduction in operational costs in the first year.
Gangavarapu also led the delivery of a 24/7 security operations centre and implemented a cyber security strategy and roadmap with Cyber NSW and the Australian Signals Directorate. This collaboration was recognised by the NSW Auditor General’s Office as leading the way in local government.
A truly digital council
Gangavarapu and his team have delivered several key innovations. An Emergency Preparedness tool, available on the council’s website, helps the local community understand threats from storm-related events so they can better prepared, respond and recover from emergencies.
“This enabled us to provide a 24x7 response with several hundred people on the ground, ensuring our community had the most up-to-date information and our support agencies were provided real-time data on flood levels,” he says.
The team also implemented a modern workplace program, which is a collection of tools and processes that has allowed council staff to work from anywhere, including during COVID. These collaboration tools save information workers four hours per week on information sharing; frontline workers save 45 minutes collaborating with colleagues; while the number of weekly meetings between the 1,800 staff across the council has been cut by 20%. Further, the council expects to save $9.72 million over three years.
Smart Waste Management dashboards are used to reduce waste and transition towards a circular local economy, Gangavarapu adds.
“More than 12,000 people participated in waste management and education campaigns. For the first time, our community produced less than 400kg of waste per person over the year. We’ve also diverted more waste from landfill, up from 49% of domestic waste in 2018/19 to 66% in 2021/22".
A smart city
Gangavarapu and his team have also delivered several smart city initiatives: smart beaches that include GPS sensors for monitoring weather and water conditions. Bin and amenity use sensors assist with cleansing, smart parking infrastructure, managed IoT networks for sports field irrigation and soil monitoring, energy monitoring and measurement drones for managing bushfires and more.
Smart beach apps assisted lifeguards and volunteer lifesavers to improve the surveillance capability of patrols.
“Staff have also recovered 30% of time that they lost due to inefficient processes, which resulted in a customer satisfaction score shift from 71% in 2019 to 88% in 2022".
Data and asset protection is a priority for council, but cyber resources are in short supply and are expensive, Gangavarapu notes.
To deal with the problem, the council rolled out AI and machine learning tools to protect internal systems and uplift its ASD Essential 8 to the highest maturity level.
“We have been able to augment our non-cyber resources with these tools to protect our assets. We also rolled out AI engagement, wellbeing and productivity nudging tools to uplift capabilities of our employees in their respective areas,” Gangavarapu says.
A Gartner benchmarking exercise this year assessed the council’s overall cyber controls maturity against the industry standards of 539 international organisations. The council scored higher than the other businesses.
Each month on average, the council deals with more than 150 ransomware attacks, 4,000 bot attacks, 172,400 attack requests, and has blocked more than 950,000 bad emails.
Gangavarapu says his responsibility as a CIO is to influence councillors, council staff, the CEO, community members, partners and suppliers.
“Understanding that they have different needs and they determine the value of the consumer services we provide is key. I have to think like a consumer, listen to what they want and understand that my team delivers value when we positively impact customer needs and business outcomes,” he says.
Gangavarapu recognises that not everyone understands or is comfortable using technology and the ‘fear response’ to using technology tools is normal and can be triggered in different ways for each person.
“I build a value narrative with a message map that identifies who my audience is, who do they care about most, how IT impacts what they do, and the priorities that matter to them,” he says.