Get yourself connected

Following the local government whitepaper “Strong and prosperous communities”, which called for substantial progress in joining up public services for the benefit of citizens, local councils have been striving to improve the quality and delivery of services to their communities. Wansbeck District Council is no exception to this. Despite being the smallest district in Northumberland, it is embracing new technologies to deliver on its commitment to provide the highest standard of assistance to its citizens.

The council
Wansbeck District Council is responsible for a population of 61,700 and has approximately 500 employees. Its goal, set out by council chief executive Bob Stephenson, is to “transform Wansbeck Council into an organisation that is citizen- and customer-centred, and uses technology to improve its services and enhance its role as democratic leader, to make life better for all within Wansbeck“.
To form the basis of this transformation, Wansbeck Council last year deployed a converged IP network to support all of its voice, video and data communications, and created a licensed wireless network called COMSEN (Community Network South East Northumberland), covering more than 30 public sector buildings and supporting several thousand users.

Why was this needed?
A couple of years ago, Wansbeck’s IT department was handed the responsibility of running the council’s CCTV network. However, high operating costs and network inflexibility meant a change was badly needed. Moving over to a converged network allows Wansbeck to effectively route its region-wide CCTV feeds on the same network as its data traffic, increasing community safety by making community security surveillance video easy to access.
Previously, Wansbeck had been maintaining three costly and inflexible networks, one each for voice, video and data communications. The replacement converged network was deployed in partnership with Alcatel-Lucent and Rapier Systems, and offers numerous benefits, such as allowing the council to take advantage of free VoIP-based internal calling. This encourages staff to speak to one another more often, which in turn leads to improved public service. This level of collaboration means Wansbeck’s staff can handle citizen enquiries quicker and more efficiently.
Having a converged network also means that when a member of the public calls the wrong department, there is no need to ask them to call back on an alternative number. Wansbeck is able to put them straight through to that extension, meaning the local authority is a much more joined up and accessible organisation from a citizen’s point of view with improved first call resolution of enquiries.
It also allows staff to access council resources and share documents at greater speed, benefiting council services by further reducing the time needed to resolve and aid citizen enquiries.

The importance of joined-up services
With departments often geographically dispersed across wide areas, inter-office communication can suffer, which in turn can negatively affect public services. Converged networks streamline these wide area communications and are becoming essential in the delivery of effective joined up local government. In particular, COMSEN was created in recognition of neighbouring councils suffering similar problems to Wansbeck Council.
This network covers a number of buildings and organisations – not solely within the council. Woodhorn, for example, a new museum and archive complex in Northumberland, uses COMSEN to provide its visitors with secure high-speed access to 150,000 genealogy records stored in its archives. This has significantly reduced the time citizens require to trace their family trees and other genealogical records. Woodhorn is an example of the network directly benefiting Wansbeck’s citizens in a busy public environment.
Like Wansbeck, Woodhorn can utilise free VoIP-based calls to other local authority organisations, and its inclusion in the COMSEN network provides staff with instant access to council resources, encouraging more interaction between local government organisations.

Connecting local businesses
Wansbeck has also extended its network to important local environmental centres such as the New and Renewable Energy Centre (NaREC) based in Blyth, Northumberland. Furthermore, the network is being used to help and support the local business community. The Northumberland Enterprise Centre is one such organisation that is connected to COMSEN, while new properties run by the council for start-ups and local small-to-medium businesses are also supplied with cheap bandwidth. This is aiding the local economy by helping businesses to keep costs low.
Not only has the network connected buildings in the immediate district, it has also joined up neighbouring councils. Wansbeck District Council is connected to both Blyth Valley Borough Council and Northumberland County Council, allowing them to share resources, cut costs and increase collaboration between the councils.
In addition, Wansbeck has also utilised the network to help citizens directly by providing free internet access to the public in locations such as cyber cafés and in voluntary organisations such as the YMCA. The COMSEN network is continually growing, and also includes a number of public facilities including sport centres and libraries.

Provisioning for the future
The flexibility that a converged network provides is useful for government departments and organisations as they expand, or if they move location. The scope of Wansbeck’s converged network has already greatly increased since its implementation, and it still has the capacity for further expansion.
Wansbeck has utilised this flexibility for its call centre, creating a virtual call centre comprised of a core location that can easily be expanded to operators in outlying offices if needed. This has enabled Wansbeck to be much more customer focused, ensuring that citizens do not experience long waiting times, even at busy periods.
The flexibility also means that the network has the capability to handle video conferencing, should it be required in the future.

Initial concerns
Powering the network is Alcatel-Lucent’s OmniAccess Wireless LAN technology, integrated with its OmniPCX Enterprise IP-PBX phone system, which provides Wansbeck with the resiliency it requires. Initially Wansbeck was concerned about whether putting all its eggs in one basket was a good idea, as if there was a point of failure it would affect all other communications. However, having both a fixed and a wireless network has eliminated this problem, giving the council alternative ways of routing the communications traffic.

Security was also a concern, particularly because wireless networks have a reputation for being insecure and because thousands of people from the local community – not just council officials and employees – would be accessing and using the network. However, Alcatel-Lucent’s technology is based on a highly secure standards architecture and provides a multi-layered security framework with network access control and attack detection and containment capabilities, ensuring unauthorised personnel cannot gain access to restricted parts of the network.
The network has proved very successful, and has helped Wansbeck improve and enhance its services greatly for the public. Wansbeck is an excellent example of how new technologies can be deployed to join up local councils and departments, to deliver citizen-centric services, and through the provision of contact centres, to improve accessibility.

Please register to comment on this article