IT service staff deserve huge praise say council leaders

Frontline council workers such as social carers and firefighters and colleagues over at the NHS have rightly won huge public praise in recent weeks for continuing to do such a terrific job in difficult times – but what about the technical enablers and supporters?

At Cherwell District Council and Oxfordshire County Council, the IT Service team work in the background and are very rarely under the spotlight. However it is their preparedness, ability to adapt and diligent contingency planning that has allowed many crucial services to continue to be delivered as close to normal as possible since the national lockdown began in late March – and which points to the potential for an increasingly digital future for council services.

Approximately 3,500 members of staff who would normally work from the office have been working from home using technology online since late March.

Councillor Ian Hudspeth, the leader of Oxfordshire County Council, said: “Our IT Service staff are every bit as important as the frontline workers whose efforts have been shown so much appreciation in recent weeks.

“Despite such a big change in our working lives it has all happened pretty seamlessly notwithstanding the unique nature of the current Coronavirus situation. The fact that we can say this is a huge tribute to ‘behind the scenes’ professionals in IT who have undoubtedly been the unsung stars of the show.

“Time critical work like school admissions has continued to operate with people setting up and working from home just as if they were still at the office.

Lots of “business as usual” work has continued thanks to the contingency plans our IT people had the foresight to have ready - allied to their sheer adaptability and willingness to innovate.

“The setting up of local community hubs for vulnerable people could not have been achieved so quickly without the speed at which the IT Service worked to provide the necessary support. Our registration service is incredibly grateful for the technical assistance it has received during a time of great pressure while having to do the job from home – the list really is endless.

“Their next task at both the county council and Cherwell District Council will be to help us set up virtual meetings in place of the normal committee meetings as the democratic process resumes in this new setting we find ourselves in.

“The whole experience of the past few weeks emphasises once more how the use of IT can, in an ever increasing way, become our new ‘business as usual’. One example at the county council concerns our libraries. They are closed – but we’ve seen an acceleration of people using our online library services. Last April, the county council’s library service issued 11,784 ebooks. This year the equivalent figure is 20,611 – a 75 per cent increase. It could be a pointer to a more digital future.”

Councillor Barry Wood, the leader of Cherwell District Council said: “I cannot praise our IT Service teams highly enough. Without their sterling support we would not have been able to support frontline workers in the way that we have.

“Quite rightly there has been a wave of support for our bin-collectors who are out there continuing to do their work while many other people work from home. However now is the moment to celebrate the achievements of behind the scenes innovators.

“As an example, most staff have increased their use of virtual meeting tools and the IT Services has been brilliant at supporting this at short notice. As a result colleagues from inside our two councils and from partner organisations have been able to continue to meet and discuss crucial issues both linked to and away from Covid-19. There has been a huge acceleration in the use of this software.”

“The willingness and patience of the IT Service teams in helping people set up such new systems and then making sure they operate effectively has been fabulous. Bear in mind that all of the achievements of our IT professionals have been realised while they themselves have been working at home – that makes their work all the more impressive.

“The IT service rapidly devised an online form for businesses to apply for Covid-19 business grants and assisted the finance team to automate some of the back-office processes to help with the volume of applications that are being received. So far Cherwell have received 1370 forms for this scheme, with more anticipated in the coming days.

“Other changes that have required the team to be responsive have been changes to waste services such as bulky waste frequencies and collection days.

“A further example of how they’ve been there to support important work is the way the call handlers in our customer service teams who deal with sensitive inquiries about our services have also been able to set up and work from home at very short notice. The same applies to our communications and web professionals.

“Our services are likely to become increasingly online and digital in future. People have been discovering that they have the ability to book bulky waste collections online for the first time and circumstances have led to people investigating online routes in to many of our other services. Once they are in those habits they are likely to maintain them.

“As well as our IT Service it is also a tribute to our emergency planners who have long had us in the right disciplines of having business continuity plans in place to make us resilient to every possible scenario that could crop up. That included planning to provide services during a pandemic.

“All of these important and largely unsung people deserve our thanks. They are the glue that binds our councils together and they have proved their value beyond doubt as recent weeks have unfolded.”