Penrith City Council
How Infocouncil transformed the mini-world of business papers
There are tasks around town which, although mundane, are absolutely essential to the smooth and happy running of a community: one of these is garbage collection. When this activity is performed properly, nobody notices, but if it is neglected or poorly done, all hell breaks loose. Think Naples.
Similarly, managing business papers well is essential for Local Government. A small Council can get by using nothing more than Word templates, but as soon as the demands increase with the size and complexity of Council's activities, inefficient, unreliable and error-prone agendas and minutes can lead to endless and unnecessary difficulties and electronic crashes.
At the start of the new millennium Penrith Council found the management of its business papers in a total mess. A satellite city in the Sydney basin, Penrith is close to the foothills of the Blue Mountains, and is the seventh largest Local Government Area in NSW. Council is responsible for the administration of 35 suburbs.
Council's original business papers process, designed by a software company to utilise macros in MS Word, was a disaster from day one. Cristy Stevens, the Administration Officer – Policy and Council Support, in charge of business papers, says the initial program was supported but unreliable, and "every compilation crashed, with much yelling and screaming." Before long, she says, the supplier refused further support, "and we had to cobble it all together, with the human element always causing errors."
Recognising the need for change
Penrith Council takes the whole business papers process seriously, recognising that errors in agendas flow right through the organisation and take much time and labour to reverse. Ms Stevens says Council took one look at their problems, "and said, in effect, here's the money, go and fix it." No-one was hanging out for the retention of the status quo. Ms Stevens says: "Everyone was behind a change because we all hated the old system so much."
Some time previously, Council had installed a well known electronic document records management system (EDRMS). There had been some pressure within Council, from outside the relevant administrative sections, to purchase that supplier's business papers module, but in the event this was strongly resisted by the users. The agendas and minutes module was not highly regarded in its own right, and staff found the EDRMS rather confusing to use for most purposes. As for Infocouncil, Ms Stevens says its main attraction for Councillors was that "the new system was customised so the business papers looked exactly the same as before."
A success story
The introduction of Infocouncil in 2004 completely transformed the entire process of agenda and minutes compilation and publishing at Penrith. The users could not be happier with Infocouncil. Reliability problems are a thing of the past, and, according to Cristy Stevens, the system is so simple to operate, "our users don't need training or paper work." To get a business paper out by Wednesday evening they used to start work on it at midday on the prior Monday. "Now", she says, "we can start at midday Wednesday if needs be."
Furthermore, although some Councils feel business papers must integrate with the existing data management system, this was found to be completely unnecessary at Penrith. Since its introduction there, Infocouncil has been used as a stand-alone system within Council's administration. Managers have simply adopted the system as it is, and even those who have avoided getting involved with the process use it occasionally. [Please see the footnote relating to this topic].
Training and efficiency
Ms Stevens has greatly improved her own work efficiency by developing, in each department, a system champion, to whom report writers and others can turn if they find themselves in difficulty. She says "they show the new people how to do it and there's no problem." She can leave it to them.
Support and service
On the occasions where pressing issues arise, Council is particularly appreciative of the service offered by Infocouncil in support of Infocouncil. Ms Stevens and Infocouncil's technical team have worked out a system of priorities, whereby pressing issues are dealt with immediately, while others wait their turn. An example of the latter was where a (false) error signal on compiling indicated that the agenda had failed to save, when in fact it had. Cancelling the error statement was a small action, but the event was an irritation. This was, with agreement between Ms Stevens and Infocouncil's technical officer, adjusted by email within a few days.
Ms Stevens says: "If I've had any problems we've had instant help over the phone, or a new version. We've never been held up in getting a business paper out."
When asked to summarise how Infocouncil has changed things overall, Cristy Stevens said: "We don't yet use all the functions, but of those we are using it would have to be a 9 or a 10 out of 10."
In 2014 Penrith City Council became the first council to start using the Infocouncil export to TechnologyOne ECM.