In recent years, our government has committed to decentralising all manner of government tasks to municipalities, such as work and income, youth welfare and long-term care. To perform those tasks successfully, municipalities have had to invest in resources and knowledge. In that respect, cooperation with neighbouring municipalities is a solution while other municipalities are opting to merge at administrative level. In the Dutch province of Province of Noord-Brabant, the three separate municipalities of Aalburg, Werkendam and Woudrichem therefore decided to merge in 2016 into the new Municipality of Altena, with greater agility as the main argument.
Merging municipalities can be very challenging. In any event, it's a process that both residents and municipal officials are usually experiencing for the first time. Not only do organisations have to be merged and restructured, but all rules and processes also have to be adapted. That ranges from citizen services to finance, human resources and ICT.
Consolidate first, move to the cloud next
Someone who is very familiar with the impact on IT of such a municipal merger is Jan Visser, team manager of information at the new Municipality of Altena. In December 2018, he started working at the Municipality of Werkendam, which eventually merged into the brand-new Municipality of Altena in January 2019. The decision to merge had already been taken in 2016, and in the interim period the municipalities had been preparing for the administrative merger. On the IT front, for example, considerable efforts were made to consolidate the individual application landscapes so that the intended cloud migration of the Municipality of Altena would then be as minimal in scope as possible.
With a view to having three municipalities operating on a new IT environment by 1 January 2019, a tender for IT services had already been put out in 2018. The scope of the tender was in line with the IT strategy: simplification of the application landscape, cost reduction and hassle-free operation. “The challenges faced by municipalities in terms of information security are only increasing. The new municipality wishes to focus on its municipal core tasks, and these do not include matters such as network management. There was also a practical impediment: the new Municipality of Altena relocated to a former Rabobank regional office, which did not provide space for an extensive server park. We wanted to focus on functional management and we were looking for a partner for the rest.”
Open Line emerged as winner after the tender process. The assessment was made based on several conventional factors including cost and quality.
Visser looks back: “We ended up with around 140 applications in the preliminary consolidation phase, which is fairly low for a medium-sized merger municipality. This was partly due to the fact that the three municipalities not only had their own applications to some extent, but also their own suppliers. There was also overlap of course. A decision was made at the outset to opt for SaaS solutions as much as possible. I estimate that by 1 January 2019, half were already available in SaaS form. Only the applications for the social domain were not yet suitable to be offered directly as SaaS. Open Line had to do a lot of work to make them available via the network. These are important applications – you want to avert benefits not being able to be paid at all costs. About 85% are now SaaS applications.”
Migration + COVID-19 pandemic
In early 2019, work was formally started with cloud migration to Open Line as first on the agenda. The actual transition to the Open Line cloud took place in April 2020, the time at which the COVID-19 pandemic had just exploded. “For the migration weekend in which we were due to go live, we had invited many suppliers. There would have been close to 100 employees present, including our own staff. That had to be transformed into an online migration at the last minute. A busy period followed. Employees switched to Office 365 and started working from home, so there were quite a few of incidents”, says Visser. “Everyone had laptops and mobile phones, admittedly, and everyone theoretically had access to all applications. And you do technical, functional and chain testing, of course, but there are always teething problems. In the end, continuity was never at risk however.” Visser characterises that time as a hectic period.
Building the relationship
The following year, however, Altena was able to focus more on building the relationship with Open Line: assembling the right teams and connecting people. “Open Line also endured a hectic period as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Moreover, our partner had made the transition from a product-oriented organisation to a verticalised organisation. This meant that content specialists had to be reallocated among teams”, according to Visser.
The Municipality of Altena has drawn up a Terms-of-Service document, which sets out the starting points and choices for the way in which the Municipality of Altena provides services to its citizens, businesses and civil society organisations. Its elements are achievable, accessible and low-threshold services that are digital as much as possible, but also clear, reliable and secure. With regard to the last, several other actions are planned, such as further development of the information security policy and the appointment of a CISO.
Visser: “Stability and continuity are, of course, at the top of the list, and that benefits citizens too. The municipality is also now better placed to innovate its service delivery – which is why functional management has been kept in-house. We now have a great technical partner.”
Looking back, Visser concludes that the Municipality of Altena now has a well-functioning hybrid IT management environment: the teams consist of employees from the municipality and from Open Line. “We have now ensured that innovation and management are properly set up. There is a high level of discipline and structure in terms of changes and a change advisory board has been established. The idea of making-do is now a thing of the past. It is also a major reassurance that we now have a single partner we can spar with on a technical level about information security. I believe that ensuring this is almost impossible for a municipality to do independently.”
From PoC to roll out
When it comes to innovations, Open Line comes up with ideas proactively, says Visser. “They then develop a PoC, which will demonstrate whether it is likely to deliver anything. If that's the case, it's easy to take a decision to go ahead. We have now successfully completed two innovation projects with Open Line: the roll out of Microsoft Intune, a device management system, which had to be implemented outside Citrix because of widespread working from home. We therefore had to ask all employees to return to the office for once. All devices are now implemented in the Intune environment so we can roll out a new application remotely,
Even if a civil-servant works in Singapore.”
The second example relates to AutoCAD, a relatively heavy application used mainly for spatial planning and public space management purposes. Visser explains: “Using it was difficult in combination with working from home, so Open Line developed a PoC for that too – with local computing power in the cloud – which was then rolled out, so that even CAD designers can work independent of time and space. Besides the town hall, we have a number of offices which are located in different districts that act as support centres, where municipality employees can go and work. Open Line is therefore not only concerned with the standard workplace, but also of end-users with specific features and requirements.”