City of Ottawa used centres of expertise model in integration efforts with goal of providing a single point of service

You’re integrating the infrastructure of 12 municipalities – seven formal IT organizations and five outsourced IT arrangements, with staffs that vary widely in knowledge and responsibility – and you’ve only got a year to do it.

Quick: What’s the biggest challenge?

Ottawa, which went through a provincially mandated amalgamation process beginning in 2000, has some insights into the issue.

According to City of Ottawa director of IT services and CIO Janet Harris-Campbell, it’s the human side of change management, not the technology that poses the biggest challenge. Harris-Campbell described the experience in a GTEC session called The City of Ottawa Experience: A Single IT Services Branch for the Enterprise.

Golden handcuff

Case in point: When the transition board was overseeing the amalgamation of 11 municipalities and one regional government, staff were offered lucrative voluntary exit packages to avoid redundancy in every department except two: human resources and IT. Reducing 1,400 business applications to 400 actually required more IT staff rather than less in the short term. “In the early years, the FTE (full-time equivalent) savings weren’t there in IT,” Harris-Campbell said. IT staffing peaked at 425 in 2002, up from a 2000 roll of about 375. It wasn’t until 200 that staff was reduced.

In the meantime, attractive settlement packages were being doled out in all the other departments. For the sake of continuity, IT was exempt. Harris-Campbell said that, while it was a strategic win, “it was an absolute dog from a change management perspective.”

No golden parachutes – IT got “the golden handcuff,” she said, while the public sector was aggressively recruiting IT talent.

The City also had to harmonize job descriptions, job titles, work practices and collective agreements that varied widely. Meanwhile, there were more than 500 active IT projects to sort through, 400 of them “extraneous” – assigned by a manager who was no longer with the city, supporting a program that would be eliminated, or that were simple make-work projects, Harris-Campbell said.

The point of amalgamation was to save money, so it was clear that a shared services model was going to be the direction.

The city opted for a “centres of expertise” (COE) model, with a goal of providing a single point of service for clients with the same business needs.

The drawing-board challenge here, said Harris-Campbell, was drawing the line between business and IT functions to make sure resources were distributed correctly. For example, there were areas of the business that generated millions of records, yet were deemed to have no IT staff.

Resources could be “scooped” into COEs competing for staff, leaving managers fighting over fractions of FTEs.

“Who gets the budget has an awful lot to do with who can deliver the service,” she said.

In the early days of the process, IT’s mission was of a core, “keep-the-light-on” variety: make sure e-mail got through, make sure the systems stayed up, etc. “It’s not a big stretch now to keep the lights on,” Harris-Campbell said. “A stretch now is to be a leader.”

Business case first

Project delivery now starts with a business problem or opportunity, not with a software package. Business clients within the city pose the question, and in consultation with the IT department’s 13-person client relationship office (CRO), flesh out the business case.

To monitor the department’s progress on the best practices front, Harris-Campbell and the Ottawa Centre for Research and Innovation invited 20 public sector CIOs from the area to a breakfast meeting. Thirteen attended. Harris-Campbell presented her best practices. “My question to them was, ‘Am I looking at the right things?’” she said. In the ensuing discussion, the group identified about 10 best practices, seven of which the city was already using. It’s an instructive process, Harris-Campbell said, and she plans to do it every two years or so.

“The reality is for IT … your value has to be aligned against something,” Harris-Campbell said.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a technology journalist with more than 15 years' experience. He has edited numerous technology publications including Network World Canada, ComputerWorld Canada, Computing Canada and eBusiness Journal. He now runs content development shop Dweeb Media.

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