Even fire can't stop a well planned implementation

When disaster struck Bankstown City Council in the form of a fire in the council chambers, a wonderful document management opportunity rose from the ashes. David Hovenden reports.

Even fire can't stop a well planned implementation

On July 1, 1997, Bankstown City Council's Civic Centre caught fire and was badly burnt. With damages exceeding $30 million, the fire made headlines as a rescue mission swung into motion that saw the council back up and running in a limited capacity almost as soon as the fire was put out.

From a document management point of view, however, it was as much the ground work that had been carried out prior to the fire that saw the council's records management system quickly rebuilt better than ever before.

"We had to re-assess our IT strategy and basically fast track it," said Maria Cabrera, business manager information services, Civic Information Services, one of seven business units of the commercial arm of Bankstown City Council (BCC), the Civic Services Group.

BCC is currently operating out of four separate leased buildings. The logistics of connected these four buildings via a wide area network is still being worked out. A decision is yet to be made as to what to do with the old Civic Centre.

BCC was as lucky as could be considered given the huge damage bill. Firstly, no-one was injured in the fire and secondly, many of its records were not destroyed in the fire. Water damage was quite extensive and records needed to be sent to a company in Victoria, which dried out the paper records.

Perhaps more significantly, the proprietary mainframe system's onsite storage tape was not destroyed in the records. This system contained the property data of all of the council's residents. This is the information from which the council's major source of revenue, land rates, are drawn. To access this information the council had to import a similar mainframe from France, "because the system was so old there was nothing similar in the country", said Ms Cabrera. Once the system arrived they were able to extract the information and incorporate it into the new property solution.

The corporate data or corporate memory for BCC is data owned by council in the execution of its business and will be logically split into BCC and Civic Services Group (CSG) from July 1997. The recorded history of BCC prior to July 1997 will be maintained in archival documents. According to Ms Cabrera, even though its library records management system was hopelessly out-of-date and BCC "had very bad disaster recovery planning", the fact that BCC had already started examining its IT systems and strategies meant that the actual disaster recovery has so far gone very well.

As Image & Data Manager went to press, the SAP financials and human resources, library, property, GIS, the data and voice network systems were at different stages of implementation. The Educom-supplied DOCS Open document management system was in its pilot stage of implementation.

Timely strategy

Bankstown City Council appointed a new general manager in 1995, Mark Fitzgibbon. His vision for council of better government for the city is built upon four objectives:

* being better at the way it planned for the city's future and making it happen;

* more customer focused in the way it produced and delivered services;

* more efficient and competitive; and

* being a great place to work with emphasis upon teamwork, learning and excellence.

The result of this was splitting the council into two entities within one corporation. The Civic Services Group was created as a separate entity stressing council's move to split operational and policy functions. Under the new structure, Civic Services consists of seven business units including information services.

The IT strategy to emerge from this structure involved a much more dedicated plan for the council's future as per the council's four-point mission statement. IT's focus would address the changing needs of management and user requirements. It would use consistent, common management information with an effective and efficient structure, maximising the return on investment. To achieve this it would ensure that there would be a clear separation of planning and service provider roles. Also, the plans called for an interface with suppliers, improved data integrity from data entry and costing of information. Finally, the strategy called for flexible staffing arrangements to deal with the technology changes and to facilitate data sharing.

Given the above strategy objectives, Civic Information Services set about implementing these. In general, the implementation process was to be based on a client/server architecture, the systems were to be open and they were to be total, planned solutions. The implementation process would also involve emerging technologies, there would be planned upgrades as well as process documentation and training.

According to Ms Cabrera, this process had several milestones. In October 1996, the upgrade strategy was approved. December 1996 saw the library system tender issued and the system was selected in February 1997. The financials and human resources request for information (RFI) was issued in December 1996 and the system was chosen in July 1997. The property/GIS system tender was issued in June 1997. July 1997 saw the most significant milestone, the disastrous fire. Following the fire, there was a re-assessment of the IT strategy in August 1997. Voice was included with the IT strategy in August 1997. The document management and records RFI was issued in August 1997 and the system was selected in October.

CIS chose DOCS Open after using a selection criteria in line with the Office of Government Information Technology's (OGIT's) Shared System Suite records management panel.

Ms Cabrera said that DOCS Open met with CIS's objectives. "As far as we could tell, DOCS Open was the only solution that met all of our requirements," she said.

For the document management implementation, Civic Information Services' objectives were simple. In partnership with its main partner, BCC, Civic Information Services had to ensure that legal requirements in information access, distribution and retrieval were met. Increase the competitive advantage of users by ensuring that information is shared and reused with ease. Organise information effectively, protect the corporate knowledge, easily manage volumes of information, control access to secure information, track multiple versions of documents, track all activity on a document for management reporting, cost recovery and allocation purposes.

Chris Bullock, group manager for Civic Services sets the scene for the emerging business. "We are totally focused on meeting the needs of our largest customer Bankstown Council. The fire has, by necessity, accelerated IT renewal plans forcing a compressed implementation timetable. We are essentially implementing over months a three-year strategy for two separate organisations."

Nothing sounds too extraordinary in this entire planning and implementation process if you exclude the fire. Just a well planned and ongoing upgrade of information management technology. With the fire, however, the fact that the process was underway meant that a disaster was overcome in a very smooth fashion.

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