Government: Northern Beaches Council
They say ‘prior planning prevents poor performance.’
Yet for Northern Beaches Council, which straddles much of Sydney’s most beautiful coastal locations, it seems they might be the exception that proves the rule when it comes to managing major digital transformations.
“The digital transformation now evident and active within Northern Beaches Council was effectively built from the ground up without much in the way of any existing plan,” chief information and digital officer, Naren Gangavarapu tells CIO Australia.
This year’s winner of the inaugural CIO50 Best Government Project Award, Northern Beaches Council was formed in 2016 through the amalgamation of Manly, Pittwater and Warringah Councils.
Gangavarapu notes, somewhat understatedly that the merger presented “typical challenges”. But the scale of project belies that, with he and his team charged with harmonising several legacy enterprise bargaining agreements, more than 200 “complex pay rules”, over 50 unintegrated rostering systems and legacy payroll systems. There are also more than 600 manual time sheets and over 60 other manual forms with many manual processes around human capital management ranging from recruitment to retirement.
At the same time as Gangavarapu and his senior peers at the council were contemplating how to rationalise all of these systems, it occurred to them that this was an opportunity to develop entirely new systems and approaches that would contribute to making staff better connected, understood and supported, and therefore better at their jobs.
“The new entity was challenged to purposefully shape organisational culture and leadership and management approaches,” he notes. “It was challenged to develop an EVP (employee value proposition) to attract competitive talent pools and importantly develop accountability and customer-centric behaviours in the new entity, the foundational and continuing hallmarks of our culture.
Thus, Peoplecentral was born; an employee experience platform designed, in Gangavarapu’s words to deliver genuinely “omnichannel experiences for employees”.
Peoplecentral brings together a number of technologies spanning AI, communications and document management to provide a one-stop self-service shop for the council’s employees and managers. Everything from recruitment to hiring, setting and measuring goals, learning and coaching to engagement with external networks is handled within the platform.
“Council quickly realised that if employees are empowered to deliver great experiences, then it has an impact on uplifting customer experience, [translating] to improved satisfaction and ultimately brand advocacy,” Gangavarapu recalls.
One of the most disruptive effects of COVID, and to a lesser degree the massive storms that hit the Northern Beaches, on the council was the immediate fall in revenues, Gangavarapu says.
“[This] meant that there was additional pressure on the project to deliver on efficiencies on time or early," he says.
Non critical projects were put on hold with priority given to those that improved the council’s ability to better serve its customers. This required some tough measures by the chief executive and were supported by the councillors.
Gangavarapu says the project delivered more than just “digital optimisation” leading to improved revenue and productivity, but a genuine digital transformation supporting completely news ways and systems of working in addition to new revenue models.
Ensuring adequate levels of employee uptake and engagement was another particular challenge facing Gangavarapu and his team, given so many of the council’s staff are on frontline and/or outdoor workers.
Gangavarapu and his team developed digital adoption tool which helped achieve more than 90% uptake. This has resulted in customer satisfaction rising from 71% in 2019 to 88% in 2022, while employee engagement rose 9%, wellbeing by 13% and progress up by 18%. Further, the council has achieved a 30% saving on time, while payroll accuracy is now at 99.9%.
Not only was the project delivered during successive waves of COVID and resulting restrictions, but the Northern Beaches area also faced some of the most violent and destructive storms in history.
“COVID-19 resulted in the need for the project team to work remotely adding complexity during a critical program time. Many of the staff were furloughed or working part-time which made communication and collaboration more difficult."
In response, Gangavarapu and his team adopted virtual technologies and “creative approaches” to keep the project moving at the required pace, building confidence to experiment and regularly adjust the deliver approach.
“All this was placing a huge demand on digital services and the digital team,” Gangavarapu notes. “Yet they managed to move forward in deploying a large organisation-wide digital agenda that has totally transformed the employee experience and has uplifted customer experience”.
And this despite relatively low levels of digital literacy amongst many staff.
“The majority of our staff are frontline workers, and this was a big change for them, [while] digital adoption was going to be a challenge as digital literacy wasn’t an area of focus earlier. We used a combination of change agents and digital adoption tools to make this as frictionless as possible resulting in great success," Gangavarapu explains.
Adding another dimension to the already considerable challenges facing the council, many of its partners were struggling to find staff, unable to tap into cross-boarder resources due to COVID and travel impacts.
No plan for success
With the pandemic placing more pressure on government services and communications than ever before, Gangavarapu is proud of the fact he and his team helped the council to be 24/7 responsive, connecting several hundred people on the ground and ensuring the community had the most up-to-date information with critical support agencies providing real-time data on services, floods and other unfolding events.
“The new system modules provided us with the ability to redeploy our staff who could not work in face-to-face roles during lockdowns and workplace shutdowns due to public health orders. This initiative and success story has changed the way the council operates now," he says.
It’s remarkable for a digital team and wider organisation that they managed to achieve so much after initially walking towards the storm – literally and figuratively – without any real plan.
Instead, they’ve all been developed retrospectively; something which many CIOs might do well to take note of, especially those seeking to deploy solutions that are more flexible and adaptable in unpredictable situations.
“From a starting base where there was no defined digital strategy, we have developed digital blueprints and roadmaps that describe the pathways we plan to take, the strategies that will shape them and principles we will follow to achieve the digital maturity uplift required to meet and future proof the horizons of our community strategic plan,” Gangavarapu explains.
He adds that while the success of these blueprints and roadmaps is “obvious”, this has been in no small part due to CEO and his team’s ability to bring the broad Northern Beaches Council organisation along with them on the journey.
“We have established an operating model that is focused on partnering and strategic alignment, which has been endorsed by the executive team, while ensuring that the digital team has a seat at the table across each business group, augmented into executive leadership teams and strategic planning groups.
“This has resulted in digital thought leadership being able to seed transformation opportunities within strategy discussions and driving confidence across my peers that digital has a business leadership role to play and that their challenges and priorities are being considered," he says.