Cities prepare for post-election IT workloads

Municipal IT departments can plan ahead for many events, but the number of new councillors and their entourage following elections isn’t one of them.

That means by mid-November every four years, city IT staff can find themselves scrambling to integrate a host of new people into city systems.

At the City of Toronto, for example, there are seven new city councillors and one that is switching wards.

That might not sound overwhelming in comparison to other large corporations that see staff coming and going on a daily basis. But according to Winnie Li, director, council and support services in the city clerk’s office, the potential number of new staff and the combinations thereof can be dizzying.

“Each has a staffing budget equivalent to three full-time staff,” she explains. “They (councillors) can choose to hire three staff or can have a different combination — they can hire more staff at a lower wage and job title. It’s up to them.”

However many come on board, all need to be set up in the City of Toronto network to be able to access corporate applications, such as Word etc., as well as Groupwise, the corporate e-mail system.

To add to the complexity, individual councillors can decide how to set up the Groupwise system for their office: each councillor has both a generic and a personal Groupwise mailbox, while other staff have a personal mailbox.

“How they decide which staff has access to the generic mailbox might differ from office to office, so we would need to discuss how it should be done,” says Li. IT can recommend certain setups, but, she says, “in the end they can (do what they want).”

As well, some councillors might decide to have a constituency office outside City Hall on private property, which would also need to be set up. Then there’s access from home to take into account, which requires the city to issue a password-coded remote access key fob.

But wait. There’s more:

Councillors also have the option of purchasing through the city’s suppliers PDAs such as BlackBerrys and Palms, all of which also have to be set up to synchronize with the city’s systems, says Li.

That’s just the e-mail access part. Then there are the in-office applications to help councillors and their staff track all the calls and the issues they are dealing with that have to be set up – and mastered.

Even standard software usually has to be customized to a certain extent.

“This system is a little different for each councillor depending on their requirements,” says Li.

To get newbies up to speed, the city is holding several information sessions in December. One of them will teach users how to manage their Groupwise e-mails, such as how to archive them.

A huge issue is learning how to manage the spam – which they will get in abundance because their e-mail addresses are publicly posted — so they don’t screen out a lot of the constituents’ e-mails, says Li.

“A lot of the e-mails will be (coming from) the sympatico.ca type of addresses so it will be more difficult for them than, say, for me as a city staff, because most of our e-mail would be internal,” she says.

In Mississauga, where incumbents were apparently popular, there are only two new city councillors, both of whom are being moved from the Region of Peel as a result of boundary expansion, says acting IT director Rekha Jethva. New staff and elected officials get sent to IT boot camp to get up to speed on the city e-mail and its ACT! contact management system from Sage Software, she says.

IT manager Steve Draper notes that the councillors work collectively as a city but they often run their offices as their own business too. “The skill sets across the councillors vary and are augmented by support staff,” he says.

But incorporating new councillors is just a fraction of the IT changes both municipalities are experiencing.

In Mississauga, for example, the entire council chamber is being renovated to incorporate a Viewcast Corp. video communications system, which will enable councillors to vote electronically as well as follow proceedings on individual screens at their seats and see who’s queued up to speak next. Clerks will also be able to display proposed bylaw changes for everybody to see, instead of having to circulate pieces of paper.

“In the council chamber itself this is the first time they’re going to do touch-screen voting,” says Jethva. “The screens are built into the furniture. Before it was all very manual, but now you can enter your vote, it calculates it and shows the clerk right away how many people voted.”

The Viewcast implementation coincides with Rogers Cable’s plan to put in a fixed camera to transit Mississauga council proceedings, rather than send out a truck every time.

“It just seemed like the timing was right if we were going to get the drills and jackhammers out to deal with it once,” says Mississauga IT manager Steve Draper.

Toronto city council already uses an electronic voting system in council chambers. But councillors will have to adapt to other changes driven by the city’s new governance act, says Toronto’s Li.

“There is a voting system in council they will need to learn, which is basically a button-based system,” she says. “But the whole city is going through quite a few changes because there is a new governance model with new standing committees, there is a new City of Toronto Act and a new procedures bylaw on how council makes their decisions, so for all councillors there are going to be quite a few changes.”

As well, the city is rolling out am automated meeting management system next year to track all council and committee decisions.

The current method of tracking council decisions and meeting minutes is document-based, but the new system will be a database that eventually will be fed by the electronic system used in council chambers, Li says.

The system, which is being built in-house, will be launched internally in city clerk’s office first, but councillors will be using it in a year or so.

For people who run for city hall, the amount of IT they need to learn – which continues to grow — could be somewhat daunting. Some, obviously, are fairly advanced in their capabilities, with Web sites and e-newsletters they use to communicate with constituents.

“We have some councillors that have really embraced the residents in terms of if they feel they have topical areas in the wards they’ll survey people on their Web page to get that involvement,” says Draper.

Others are less enthusiastic or proficient in new media and prefer to stick to the tried and true, such as paper-based newsletters and phone calls.

That’s where IT has to step up, says Draper.

“We see ourselves as enablers for them to do the job because at the end of the day, if they do a really good job, they’re representative of us, so it’s seen as a good job all around and that’s what we’re in business for,” he says.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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