London Borough of Hounslow deploys Box to deliver ‘Government-as-a-Platform’ services

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The London Borough of Hounslow has deployed Box as a cloud-based content collaboration platform to help its staff to work anywhere, anytime, on any device, and its residents and partners to connect better with the council’s digital services – as well as reduce the cost of operating the borough’s IT estate.

Case study key facts

Company London Borough of Hounslow
Industry Local government
Current Collaboration goals Hounslow’s five-year IT strategy details many architectural changes it wishes to see through (such as a migration to SaaS and IaaS services in place of continued capital investment in a local IT estate), but the end goal is a ‘mobile-first’ digital platform so that its residents and local businesses can interact with council services seamlessly online, and its staff can be supported to work anywhere, anytime, on any device, in support of these services.
Current approach In June 2013 Hounslow rolled out Box as a secure SaaS IL2-level enterprise filestore for staff, integrated with Salesforce to support business processes and complement a platform approach to developing and delivering services. Box’s mobile-friendly features have enabled the council to bring in a BYOD policy for staff and better support working ‘in the field’ with vulnerable residents.

IL2 (corresponding to a ‘business impact level’ of “Protect” / “Best Commercial Practice”) correlated with Confidentiality Integrity Availability (CIA) value 2-2-4 and represented the security level which the UK Government believed its service providers should be operating across the organisation. In 2013, IL2 was part of the UK Government’s enhancements of accreditation to Information Security Standards ISO 27001, ISO 27002, and ISO 27011 – though it has since been superseded by new Information Security guidance under the Government Service Design Manual.

Outcome Migrating non-sensitive local files to Box is not only enabling Hounslow to substantially deliver on its strategic commitment to become ‘infrastructure free’ by the end of 2015, and cut its operating costs (£600,000 in the first year so far), but also Box’s platform credentials and mobile-friendly interface have already led to customer-facing apps built on Box being trialled in Beta – with document collaborations with borough partners in the pipeline.
Collaboration tools and suppliers used Box

Salesforce Service Cloud

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Company background

The London Borough of Hounslow is one of London’s 32 local authorities (also known as borough councils). It covers nearly 22 square miles of West London (and is the capital’s tenth largest borough, by area), with a population of around 254,000 residents across 94,900 households (correct at the time of the 2011 UK Census).

The council was established in 1965, and employs around 2,500 staff across three main directorates: Corporate Resources (which includes customer services, democratic and electoral services, IT, procurement, fraud, internal audit, finance, shared services, business development, revenues and benefits); Regeneration, Economic Development and Environment (includes housing, services, planning, street care, roads, transport, leisure, culture, adult and community education); and Children’s and Adults’ Services (includes school-based education, children’s social care, and adult social care). Additionally, the Chief Executive’s office includes responsibility for communications, policy and performance, human resources and scrutiny.

Whilst the Greater London Authority retains control of transport, strategic planning, regional development, police and fire services London-wide, the borough council is responsible for a diverse range of ‘personal services’ specifically for Hounslow (such as housing, education, libraries, leisure and recreation, social services, environmental health, refuse collection, local planning, licensing, cemeteries, and council revenue collection) and has a net current expenditure of £524m for 2013-14.

Project background

The London Borough of Hounslow is under increasing pressure to demonstrate significant operational efficiencies (and hence keep costs down), whilst at the same time meeting and exceeding new demands for easily accessible customer services. In 2012 the borough determined that moving its IT infrastructure to the cloud and ending its reliance on large legacy applications could halve its operating costs, as well as provide it with the capabilities to become a more flexible employer (facilitating widespread changes to the how, where, when, by whom, and with what its work gets done), and leverage these changes to deliver much more seamless, responsive and efficient digital services.

The drive to change the way the council’s staff work and its customers access services has come from the Borough’s residents and council staff saying “why can’t I do ‘that’ on ‘this’ while I’m ‘there’?” after getting accustomed to flexible digital services in other areas of their lives (such as online retail, banking, leisure, etc.). As a result the council wanted its working conditions and customer-facing services to deliver absolute flexibility, with residents interacting with the council when and where they wanted, and staff working where and how they wanted in order to best service those needs.

The project started within the Corporate Resources directorate (home to the customer services department) and has taken a customer service perspective from the outset (be they services for residents, visitors, business owners, or other local authorities) – the technology transformation itself is seen simply as a means to that end.

The project was initiated and is led by Hounslow’s Director for Corporate Affairs (and head of the Corporate Resources directorate), with a technical project team that’s been quick to embrace user needs articulated through business user representatives who are represented on key groups and consulted early and often. Hounslow’s intention has been to place customers (both internal staff, borough residents and business leaders, and the council’s partners) at the heart of the project – viewing it as more of a customer revolution than a technology one. It’s this sort of Design Thinking which has ensured user requirements for a rolling 12-month planning horizon are fed in and balanced with organisational imperatives as the project progresses.

Design Thinking (popularised by design agency IDEO) is “a human-centered approach to innovation that […] integrates the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success”.

Once user requirements had crystalised, however, the council soon found that its previous IT estate wasn’t fit for purpose (it just wasn’t architected that way) and so a new “…as-a-Service” paradigm was adopted across key business systems.

Its five-year plan is designed to see the organisation become ‘infrastructure free’ – with services for customers and IT capabilities for staff delivered anywhere, at any time, to any device, from the cloud – by the end of 2017.

The council saw that it needed to replace a lot of IT to do this. It had previously been buying vertical technology stacks (e.g. care management systems) for many years, despite the fact that its service delivery to customers was a horizontal model, with information flows required to transcend these poorly integrated siloes in order to provide a rich and seamless customer experience. It was this realisation that led to the Hounslow Platform concept of digital services, delivered through secure, scalable enterprise solutions in the cloud.

All this also challenged the way the council’s customer service department worked. Previously, large vertical systems vendors would tend to drive the development of business processes to suit their software, which would influence how the department could run its services. Now, the council has found that with more flexible ‘…as-a-Service’ elements at its core, it has much more free rein to define its own workflow and business processes to be better aligned to its customers’ needs, and be more agile in servicing them.

Implementation characteristics and status

As well as providing document management capabilities internally, Box’s features (being rolled out to users at a rate of around 100 per week, as of March 2014) allow council staff to securely access the information they need from anywhere, at any time, on any device – to the extent that it’s now able to operate a BYOD policy for laptops, tablets and smartphones.

More than this, though, the move to Box has enabled Hounslow’s services to become platform-based, with custom apps developed on top of a secure content sharing and collaboration layer that directly underpin customer services as well as supporting staff workflows.

It’s this shift to thinking of the borough as a Digital Enterprise, with residents and partners demanding more seamless customer experiences, delivered as a platform, that’s bringing flexible services such as:

  • The potential for the council to share documents securely with its residents and business owners, and to collaborate with partners, via Box (and vastly reduce paper waste);
  • The launch of digital services such as the Sort it! app (currently in Beta) that allows the uploading of geo-tagged photos of dangerous trees, potholes, fly-tipping, etc. which are then routed to the appropriate council team (and logged though the council’s cloud-based CRM solution) to be dealt with more efficiently than traditional report-and-assign processes allowed;
  • Residents being able to inform the council of, and be updated on, issues via social media if they choose.

Such multi-channel engagement is becoming typical of the borough’s drive to provide access to its services in ways that chime with its younger, traditionally harder-to-engage (yet smartphone-toting) customers. It wants initiatives like these to encourage residents to become part of its digital services revolution, and get involved themselves with future app development to ensure they focus on their key pain points around living and working in Hounslow.

The approach

The council looked at both traditional and new vendors in the collaboration space, but felt that although some did fit the bill in terms of the consumer application characteristics it sought (intuitive, available anywhere/anytime access, etc.), many just didn’t have enough of an enterprise-orientated approach.

Key for Hounslow was the need to roll-out not only an easy-to-use and quick-to-deploy solution for individual teams’ file sync-and-share problems, but also something which would integrate tightly with its own enterprise systems (now also driven to become cloud-based wherever possible to evolve the ‘Hounslow platform’) and provide the means for secure information-sharing with its partners – both of which it felt Box was already well-positioned to deliver. It adopted Box early in 2013 after a 2-3 month period of evaluating the market and testing the product (in particular, looking at Box’s feature roadmap and its granularity for access rights).

After some initial piloting, agile development techniques took over as the council’s services went digital. Also, as a front-end to the revamped processes being embraced by its staff, Hounslow’s Digital Services (website, mobile apps, social media monitoring, etc., all designed along UK Government Digital Service design principles) were overhauled. The remodeled website is currently in Beta and due to launch in April 2014.

The UK Government Digital Service has published a list of design principles (such as Start with needs, Do less, Design with data, Do the hard work to make it simple, Iterate then iterate again, Build for inclusion, Understand context, Build digital services not websites, Be consistent not uniform, and Make things open – it makes things better) for public sector websites, designed to spread good practice in meeting the needs of public service customers.

Strategy

Hounslow, like many UK local government authorities, has spent many years repeatedly buying large, vertical line-of-business applications – often from the same set of vendors, over and over again.

However, in 2010 (following several years of low investment in IT infrastructure, and after determining that the cloud market had sufficiently matured) the borough made the decision to plan for the elimination of most of its on-premise IT infrastructure within five years.

The council’s strategy became “SaaS wherever possible (multi tenanted, public cloud – to give reduced operating costs); and if not, then at least IaaS”, and it aims to have functionality equivalent to around 30% of its 500 line-of-business systems replicated as services in the cloud by May 2014 (with at least some coverage in each area by the end of the year). One of the first pathfinder projects was a commitment to SaaS CRM (Salesforce), and the need for a SaaS filestore solution that didn’t require lots of middleware in order to integrate tightly (Box).

Longer term, Hounslow aims to re-imagine its business models and challenge traditional ways of working and supply chains right across staff workflows and the services it provides to customers. It sees the move to Box and other cloud-based initiatives as the first step towards further development of its platform-based approach. Next considerations for the borough, beyond putting more data into the cloud, include Desktop-as-a-Service for its staff, in a drive to eliminate yet more infrastructure from its IT estate. However, current contracts for on-premise Virtual Desktop Infrastructure have 18 months left to run, so the focus for now is more on files, data, and new applications to run on Box’s cloud-based collaboration platform.

Organisation and people

Adoption

There were a number of adoption characteristics that attracted Hounslow to cloud-based services like Box, including:

  • Agile implementations that can bring about noticeable improvements both to working practices and customer services quickly, and with the minimum of lead-in time and user training;
  • Flexible relationships with suppliers on pay-as-you-go and pay-only-for-what-you-need-when-you-need-it contracts, compared with large up-front infrastructure investments before any benefits are seen, although this model does highlight the need for careful cash flow planning, moving IT infrastructure to OPEX instead of the traditional CAPEX spending;
  • Platform environments where just one provider can service desktops and mobile, both inside the organisation and for collaboration with partners – and new capabilities can be layered in a virtual stack, each themselves also provided as a service.

Front-end staff were deeply embedded into the build teams to ensure staff user requirements were adequately captured, interpreted, balanced, and serviced. They have served as a proxy for end-customer (i.e. borough residents and visitors) requirements thus far because of their extensive experience interacting with the public face-to-face, on the phone and online. However, the council is now eliciting residents’ feedback directly through the Hounslow Digital Services Beta testing program. New internal services (such as working with files on Box) have been preluded with showcase events to demonstrate what would be possible with the new functionality. Subsequent roll-outs across departments have been accompanied by staff ‘floor walking’ to answer questions and hasten good practice sharing across the organisation, although the intuitive nature of the Box product has meant that the council has found very little requirement for formal training.

The council has put a strong emphasis on internal communications, prioritising what people actually use the most to secure and retain early buy-in.

Despite these measures, and staff generally responding very favourably to the new ways of working open to them with Box (“employees they like the product and like what it can do”), there has still been some push-back from the front line. Previously, most staff were just given a new version of the incumbent vendor’s software when upgrades came around, whereas now they’re being asked to get much more involved in process design and roll-out – and some are unused to this level of ‘ownership’.

In terms of levels of adoption, the council is now nearly a year into its Box adoption and by May 2014 it anticipates seeing 30% adoption of Box replacing local infrastructure and storage, with front-loaded rollout plans now cascading through the rest of the organisation. Further roll-out sprints will continue to November/December 2014 with the aim of achieving some (but not complete) coverage in every area of business by then. At the start of 2015 residents will have seen some services become digitised through this process, with more to follow through the year.

Roles and resources

The council chose not to involve large-scale systems integrators to deliver the project; instead it’s made use of smaller technology partners such as Methods (who, as a G-Cloud registered professional services firm and Box partner, Hounslow contracted for this project). The use of G-Cloud procurement also contributed to the speed of delivery, with the first service roll-outs seen only a month after the decision was taken to go with Box.

The UK Government G-Cloud is an initiative designed to facilitate easier procurement of cloud-based services by UK public sector bodies. It consists of a series of framework agreements with suppliers, with which organisations can call off services without the need to run full competitive tenders. G-Cloud services are available on the Government’s Digital Marketplace.

As a result of some access administration becoming devolved to non-technical teams through Box’s in-built functionality, the IT team’s focus is now different. Rather than getting bogged down in traditional system and service administration, it’s now able to get much more involved in supporting and selling new capabilities on the council’s customer experience desk. In fact, the council no longer has an IT service desk team per se; instead it has a customer service team.

The technical roll-out has also brought about HR policy changes across the organisation too, since users are now able to do things for themselves which previously would have been the preserve of the IT team, particularly around the mobility of, and access to, files.

As for wider implications, the council is still finalising what the rest of the departments will need to look like in terms of role changes as a result of new ways of working. The next wave of organisational implications will be considered after the April/May 2014 roll-out milestones, by which point the project team expects to have a better idea of the volume and types of skills required.

Hounslow’s digital-by-default, mobile-first approaches don’t just result in online-only affordances. The borough’s residents are also seeing indirect improvements at its physical drop-in centres, where customer service agents are now trained to meet and greet people with iPads and walk them through digitised brochures and forms (which they can also serve themselves) – bringing the online experience to the floor.

Governance

Project governance is provided through program, platform, and technical boards, which take feeds from a strategic board that has representation from business users across the council. The presence of business user representatives in the make-up of the strategic board has helped respond to cultural anxieties and tune the message, and also meant that the changes haven’t been seen as ‘IT-imposed’.

The council is taking a risk-based approach to data migration into the cloud. Around 90% of its day-to-day transactions are in areas without overly sensitive data (such as housing and planning), so it’s this low-risk data which is first to go, with the rest considered on a case-by-case basis (following UK Government guidelines for information assurance) in consultation with data owners so they’re satisfied that appropriate due diligence has been performed.

The Communications-Electronics Security Group (CESG) at the UK’s intelligence and security organisation GCHQ operates as the UK’s national technical authority for information assurance, and publishes guidance on risk assessments for data governance, etc.

Ultimately, if data owners remain uncomfortable with a move and unpersuadable, then the data won’t go into Box – the company doesn’t yet operate any European data centres, for example, and that fact may be a stumbling block for some. However, Hounslow is operating more of a pragmatic approach to data sovereignty for low-risk items – with the thinking that over a further two- to three-year timeframe, policies and facilities may have come on-stream that will permit migration of more sensitive data.

Technology and infrastructure

Initially positioned under Hounslow’s ICT Strategy and Roadmap as filestore replacement in the cloud, providing “secure, fast, and reliable access across environments”, Box has gone on to leverage tight integration with Salesforce, the platform upon with which staff workflows and customer-facing apps are being developed and which the borough began rolling out around the same time.

Hounslow’s “mobile first” philosophy for new customer services, and partnerships with suppliers and other boroughs, demands a rich mobile content experience, and Box’s considerable investment in functionality that supports content consumption across many devices is paying off here (and facilitating the borough’s BYOD policy).

As the council’s strategy becomes further operationalised however, and mindful that some sensitive data may never fully migrate to the cloud, Box will need to demonstrate that it can integrate comfortably with the remaining local stores and immovable legacy line-of-business applications in order to maintain its position as a seamless information hub that transcends the on-premise/cloud boundary.

The results

In June 2013, Hounslow became the UK’s first local council to adopt an enterprise-wide cloud platform, underpinning new ways of staff working and new information flows upon which digital services have been developed and deployed. By revamping its internal processes and rolling out more flexible content collaboration through Box, the council has managed to become much more of a Digital Enterprise – both improving the quality of, and access to, its digital services, as well as supporting new agile ways of working for its staff.

The opportunity for customer-facing staff to get deeply involved in the project through inclusive service design approaches has had a positive effect on morale, with people getting enthusiastic about what they can now do, and how they can do it.

Interest across the UK public sector in general (and particularly amongst other local government organisations) has been considerable – largely because of the eclectic mix of services the borough delivers to its customers. Since Hounslow embarked upon its project, other UK local government customers have been announced by Box (such as Peterborough City Council), eyeing Hounslow’s experience with interest.

In recognition of its customer-centric approach to technology, the borough was honoured in December 2013 with the Innovation Award from the Society of Information Technology Management (SocITm). Judges were impressed by the borough’s ‘Government-as-a-Platform’ approach that innovated across many layers of business to improve the services it delivers to its customers, at the same time as achieving significant operational savings.

Although some £600,000 has already been saved on the council’s operating budget since Box was deployed, no formal enterprise-wide return-on-investment calculations have been drawn up. The project team recognises that they themselves can’t deliver widespread savings; the service delivery teams must take ownership. So now, with the first wave of roll-outs already under its belt, it’s asking council staff to evaluate the enacted, or potential for, new working practices brought about by the move to the cloud and assess what savings they anticipate being able to make in their area, particularly now that they’re better acquainted with Box’s capabilities, and with staff roles evolving and adapting to new ways of delivering services.

As for cultural impact, the council has yet to analyse all the feedback it’s had through social media, and comments on the adoption of new technologies. But so far staff reaction has been very good overall and customer comments – particularly impressions from the ‘Generation X’ and ‘Generation Y’ residents who make up nearly 60% of the borough’s adult population (correct at the time of the 2011 UK Census) – has also been positive, with an appreciation being made of its attempts to meet new expectations of customer experience ‘on their terms’ with both re-imagined interactive spaces in council offices, and re-designed digital services.

Recommendations for adopters

In our conversations with Anthony Kemp (Hounslow’s Director of Corporate Affairs) for this case study, he offered several recommendations for organisations embarking on a similar initiative.

  • Be risk aware, not risk averse. There are indeed both opportunities and threats associated with migrating data to the public cloud, but if each dataset and use case is considered on its own merits (and cloud-based flexibility adopted only where appropriate and practical) then a roll-out plan can unfold which has the potential to help organisations reap vast rewards. Kemp does concede, however, that some data may still prove to be too sensitive to leave local content management systems, and in Hounslow’s case its overall solution must therefore provide a bridge between on-premise and the cloud. Overall, though, his message is that it pays to understand the implications (both positive and negative) and the inherent risks properly as they pertain to one’s own use case(s) – and not to be afraid to learn to make judgments.
  • Challenge your vendors and your technical staff to meet the demands of digitally savvy customers head-on. Customers are going to drive the speed at which your organisation is expected to embrace the service delivery paradigms of a Digital Enterprise, especially younger generations – Kemp is keen that Hounslow’s digital services are relevant to the borough’s younger residents, and aligned with the ways they’ve become accustomed to consuming information and engaging with organisations. These demands aren’t going to fade away, so make the time to confront them now (rather than being chased onto the back foot). He also comments that if some of the legacy application vendors he’s dealt with over the years fail to recognise that too, it will be them who’ll be doing the fading away!
  • Choose a solution that works for the enterprise, not just for the people. Notwithstanding earlier comments about the need to adopt a customer-centric approach, whatever technical implementation this leads you towards needs to be ‘enterprise grade’, i.e. able to integrate and support existing enterprise infrastructure and applications (which aren’t going to go away overnight), and also provide appropriate levels and granularity of security and management controls (so that they don’t suddenly become your estate’s weakest link). Some cloud-based services, particularly those with a mobile consumer bent, were conceived of, and have grown up, in the consumer market and remained focused there. Some have taken on enterprise characteristics, and some are enterprise-native. Be aware of where (and how convincingly) your choice of cloud service solution for your enterprise sits, and what its roadmap looks like for future enterprise-friendly capabilities – will it keep your IT department happy now, or is it at least moving far and fast enough in that direction?

Best practice insights

A tech-savvy population (with already widespread, and still growing, access to mobile devices) is now actively expecting its public services to be offered digitally, conveniently, and securely. Customers’ expectations here are being driven by their experiences in other digital realms – their online bank, internet retailers, booking agents, media outlets, etc. – where well-established Digital Enterprises are raising the bar for high quality, seamless, digital customer interactions. Public sector service providers are now finding they must measure up to the same level because that’s just become where the baseline’s been set now, whether it’s to look up local information, register personal details, pay taxes, reserve a library book, or report poorly maintained roads. A borough’s residents will judge their council and find it wanting if its online presence still consists of some poorly maintained static web pages listing hotline phone numbers and generic email addresses, when they’ve become accustomed to buying and selling on eBay, booking flights, reserving restaurant tables, or looking up everything there is to know about a postcode via Google Now, from the comfort of their mobile phone.

Hounslow recognises this customer revolution and its strategic commitment to a platform for its services aligns well with the UK central government drive for public sector IT to be based on open standards and service-oriented approaches, delivering ‘digital-by-default’ solutions as-a-service, etc. The borough goes one further in stating that its customer services should also be designed ‘mobile first’, to appeal to the half of the population carrying smartphones, which seems a smart play for ‘where the puck is going to be’.

In its 2011 International Communications Market Report, Ofcom (the UK’s independent regulator and competition authority for the communications industries) reported that UK smartphone ownership had reached 50%.

However, it’s important to see these technology considerations as the means to a number of ends. The move to digitising services, ostensibly for increased customer convenience, can move where and by whom work gets done, thereby freeing up resource in the enterprise for more mission-driving activities and/or reducing operational overheads – and all councils are under pressure to lower their costs, and hence their local tax burden.

In case there is any other lingering doubt or hesitation, it’s also be fair to pose the question: why would a council want to be in the business of running an ever-more-costly IT infrastructure which risks distracting from its primary focus of delivering high quality services to its residents and businesses? Re-architecting organisations so as to take layers of capability ‘as-a-Service’ is an important step to helping IT re-focus on where the value is (rather than obsessing over where the costs are). Hounslow’s Government-as-a-Platform strategy helps keeps that customer service commitment in mind, focusing on taking SaaS and IaaS solutions to meet those needs, but only rolling them out on a risk-managed basis, when and where appropriate.

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