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Behind the IT Curtain

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As an ending to the career of one of the more controversial rock bands in history, the question uttered by Johnny Rotten at the shambolic ending to the Sex Pistol’s last gig (in their first and only tour of the US) holds a certain resonance even today.


‘Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ asked the punk group’s frontman at the Winterland in San Francisco, some 37 years ago.


This is a question which local government chief executives, chief operating officers (COOs) and finance directors have posed me when asking to know why their latest long-term IT deal is performing worse than Sid Vicious on an off-night.


In one case I investigated, a multi-million pound outsourced IT deal had been recently signed. It promised whopping savings of just under £10m. But, with staff complaining that they did not have enough time in the day to fill with meetings as the systems were unusable, and the outsourcers explaining away, did anybody look at productivity losses?


After all, the IT director had promised a straightforward and seamless shift to 500 shiny new state-of-the-art servers. Not wishing to pry into the technicians’ mystifying dark arts, the perplexed COO demanded to know what was going on.


The issues are not just isolated to outsourcing but apply to upgrades and the day to day running of systems. One cabinet member who presided over an unfortunate upgrade of their children’s services department pleaded why they had been forced to work offline for the past eight months and record sensitive case notes manually, at huge and painful cost to productivity?


Knowing where to start and what to monitor is all. Given the performance of the current generation of servers, your powerful local government IT wizard can, with consummate ease, pull out key performance indicators (KPIs) that justify their position and silence all protests at the lazy flick of a mouse button.


And what do they want to be measured on? To make their life easy (and who doesn’t want an easy life?) the two criteria they push out are ‘server availability’ and ‘resolution of help desk calls’. Month after month without fail, the results punched out are closely akin to the results of a North Korean election. But the endless list of 99% to 100% successes on these measures alone tells nobody anything of any meaningful value.


Rather, what you have is the Great Oz of IT hiding behind the curtain, pretending all is alright in the Emerald Kingdom. All the while frontline staff morale is plummeting, services to vulnerable clients are going awry, and scarce resources are being squandered.


My advice to the COO is to pull back the curtain and take control of the agenda.


The only key indicator worth paying attention to is application performance. This means the actual speed and stability of the processes that underpin the smooth running of the vital services. After all, that is what local authorities are held accountable for. The main fault I detect with much council application performance is that it does neither speed nor stability. Instead the IT systems are all about looking good, for the sake of those who purchase and manage them.


Because IT is perceived as a black art, whose sacred arts are best left to their devoted priests, it is easy for problems to remain hidden from view. And in many cases, the need to ‘look good’ is really a cover for the IT department ensuring it doesn’t get to ‘look bad’ in front of the carefully selected provider. ‘Don’t show up the supplier’ is the order of the day.


So what is the answer? How is it possible to deny the IT tail permission to keep wagging the corporate dog? The answer is to focus on the only KPI that matters for your organisation. That KPI is application performance.


One way of pursuing this would be to run a well-structured and very short survey for your users – asking their views on how the application is performing and its impact on their workload. This is admittedly very subjective. However, it’s very powerful when trying to introduce change – and that is what success in this context is all about.


Once acknowledged as a problem, the IT director has nowhere to go. He will be forced to implement systems to monitor this situation of perceived poor performance. Otherwise, the situation simply cannot be improved – and improvement is what we all want for council services, isn’t it?


Quadnet demonstrated actual proof of this concept, that performance speed is all, for Islington LBC’s parking services (ICPS).


ICPS is responsible for keeping traffic flowing through the borough, and has 160 users, spread over three sites handling more than 1 million transactions.


Slowness of application performance was a constant complaint from ICPS users. But the head of the unit and his internal application team were finding it difficult to resolve the problem with external suppliers and the borough’s IT infrastructure team.


We used a simple three-step process to resolve the issue.  Firstly, we assessed how the slow application was affecting business – this revealed in three months the impact on productivity could be as much as £260,000.


Secondly, we found the root cause using sophisticated analytic tools, and thirdly we kept the system running well using real time dashboards and alerts.


Boosting the efficiency and performance of your authority’s key services shouldn’t be a dark art best left to the initiated. In fact, it should be simple when you know how – and what to ask for.



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