Singleton Shire Council
Any council IS Manager, or for that matter any Director of Corporate Services, will tell you agendas and minutes are not the sexiest, the most challenging or interesting aspect of a council's administrative processes. They are more likely to cite financial management or DA processing. Yet dig a little deeper and you find a recognition of the critical role played by whichever process brings to councillors' attention the issues which need to be tackled and the jobs which need to be done, and then records Council's decisions and instructions.
The processes involved in the writing of departmental reports, the collation of agendas and the recording and publication of minutes can smooth a council's progress towards the attainment of its goals. Slow, inefficient, inconsistent and labour intensive business papers processes can produce any number of errors and general stuff-ups, not to mention indigestion, ill will and poor communication.
Until its world was turned upside down by the explosion of frenetic coal mining activity generated by the minerals boom, Singleton Shire Council had got along okay with its own version of manually processed business papers. The inadequacy of these processes quickly became all too apparent when Council's workload expanded so rapidly.
Location and issues
Singleton is located in the centre of the Hunter Valley region of NSW, about 200 km northwest of Sydney and 80 km inland from Newcastle. The town and its council were caught unawares when the requirement for change was forced upon them.
A medium sized council, employing about 180 people, Singleton Shire Council was faced with new and demanding issues, including infrastructure challenges, wine grower and market farmer hostility towards the ever-encroaching mining activities – there are now 18 coal mines around Singleton – and dramatic new demands on council processes and procedures, including the management of agendas and minutes, with all the flow-on effects these can generate.
Business papers processing was totally manual, with no consistent formatting of reports, and with the three responsible secretaries – for the General Manager, for Corporate Services and for Operational Services – using different process each had devised over time. Progress through the reports/agenda/publish/minutes/ publish cycle was slow and labour intensive, with reports and subsequently agendas and minutes from the various departmental meetings being so different they had to be printed on different coloured paper for ease of identification. The coloured sheets were then brought together by one of the secretaries for physical collation and photocopying. There was no overall system controlling or guiding report filing. Neither was there one document for emailing or posting to the web. It was all rather haphazard and inefficient.
Recognising the need for change
The Manager, Information Systems was fortunate to have, in the then new General Manager, someone computer literate and IT friendly. He was receptive to suggestions that a more efficient and consistent system was needed, and said, in effect, "We need to be doing this". Heaving a great sigh of relief, the IS Manager got on with the task of seeking and procuring a system which would, from a historical viewpoint, be revolutionary.
Council considered four proposals for the introduction of software to manage business papers electronically. One seemed overpriced and another was also quickly eliminated. The choice came down to Infocouncil versus another product which was more expensive, but where the additional 'features' seemed to be overkill, attributes going beyond "what we were aiming at". The IS Manager had also rung several councils already using Infocouncil and the product had been given "good wraps". The decision was made to purchase Infocouncil.
Council decided to retain the original structure within which three secretaries looked after three distinct areas of council activity. That is, there was to be no overall administrator. The secretaries were happy with the forms developed by Infocouncil for their specific purposes, and all reports could easily be collated into one agenda document. With the introduction of standardised structures and formatting, report writing was greatly streamlined and rationalised.
All councillors have been provided with laptops, and the final agenda is emailed to them one week before the meeting, with Infocouncil also controlling publication of the agenda to the web. The IS Manager describes the Infocouncil-generated web publishing facility as "beautiful". Many of the agendas are extremely large, running to 200 pages and more, and Infocouncil's ability to quickly recompile the agenda after any required changes, automatically repaginating, has calmed many an ulcer.
Using their own laptops, the secretaries take the minutes live, so by the end of the meeting they are ready for submission to the relevant authorisers, and thence for emailing and publication to the web. Directors and managers have expressed their admiration for the speed and efficiency, the despatch, with which each step in the process is achieved.
The Action Sheets module has been in use for the past six months. Administrators email action sheets to report writers and monitor progress. Managers are kept informed by report. In future releases, this part of the system will be opened up so that managers can access and review action memos submitted by their staff.
Integration with the EDMS
The IS Manager says the integration with Trim is "almost totally seamless, bullet proof".
When asked how easy it is for managers and supervisors to get what they want from the use of Infocouncil, the IS Manager said "Quite, no, very easy". Because its use has tidied up the entire business papers process, he gives Infocouncil, out of 10, "a solid 8 or 9. It's a good system, it works really well." The rating would be a definite 9, he says, if the customary process of having only one administrator controlling the total process were to be adopted.