Local govt as a bleeding-edge innovator – Mark Denvir, Director of ICT, Auckland Council

Mark Denvir Auckland Council

A lot of our journey has been in getting us to a stage where we now have very robust, tier-one platforms and capabilities that allow us to function as a single entity.

Local governments are not typically known as breakneck innovators. Yet, being at the coalface of their communities, councils are increasingly looking to innovative tech solutions to manage real-world problems: from tackling noisome graffiti, paying a water bill, to protecting vulnerable environments.

Auckland Council, which emerged out of the consolidation of eight municipal and regional councils, is leveraging its resource heft to invest in a range of innovative technologies, including Internet of Things (IoT), digital twins, and artificial intelligence, that provide practical support and meaningful services to its community.

Mark Denvir, Director of ICT at Auckland Council, takes us through the council’s decade-old consolidation journey, the still unresolved tension around OpEx and CapEx spending models, and opportunities stemming from multi-cloud and IoT adoption.

FST Media: After nearly two years of rolling lockdowns, an exponential increase in cyber threats (targeting all tiers of government), industry-wide tech talent shortages, and budget stresses (with local economies at a stand-still), local governments have no doubt come under considerable strain.

What are the key pressure points facing Auckland Council currently and how are you moving to address these challenges?

Denvir: Probably the biggest challenge we’re faced with right now – and obviously this is proportional – is the talent shortage. Covid-19 has put ICT at the front of most organisations’ minds and driven an uplift in demand, regardless of whether the shift to remote working has been a positive or negative experience.

Covid has certainly raised the profile of how technology enables and underpins their businesses; tech is now seen as a strategic advantage.

With both Australia and NZ also experiencing locked down borders and competing in the same marketplace, this talent shortage issue has only grown; the demand profile has probably gone up tenfold.


An issue for us specifically, we’ve been around as an organisation for just over 10 years, following the merger of eight legacy organisations, so we’ve been on quite a significant journey of consolidation and removal of legacy apps. We’ve got to a reasonably good position in consolidating and are we’re pretty current across all our platforms – we’re the ‘latest release minus one’ across the majority of our portfolio of applications, so we’ve become a very efficient IT shop.

Right now, we’re looking at how we can leverage the investments we’ve made in our platforms to drive more transformational activities in our customer-facing areas.


FST Media: On the talent shortage side, there’s no doubt concern that, once borders reopen, today’s shortage will become tomorrow’s exodus.

Denvir: There will be. We’ve got to be careful that we don’t go into the death spiral of simply chasing the dollar, because no one wins in that space. Ultimately, the contractor market doesn’t win either, because they end up getting to a certain level, and when things calm down, they’re left high and dry – with the premiums they’re charging, they’ll be the first to be cut.

The other challenge is that remote working has got us to a position where New Zealanders can work for Australian entities without having to relocate. That’s an added challenge for us, given the Australian dollar and salary rates are better than in New Zealand.


FST Media: You mentioned those eight organisations merging to create the current Auckland Council. Could you give a bit of background to this merger and what impact this has had on your tech roadmap?

Denvir: An Act of Parliament brought Auckland Council into being in 2010, merging seven metro councils, including Auckland City Council, the Manukau, North Shore, Rodney, and one regional council.

Our journey in this time has been to bring those eight legacy organisations onto a single platform. For example, the process of registering dogs. Previously, we had seven different ways that you could register a dog depending on where you lived. Simple things like categorisation: certain councils would have four or five colours for a dog, whereas others would have upwards of a thousand. As part of the merger, we had to find one way to record, manage and register dogs, and maintain animal management in that landscape.

A lot of our journey has been in getting us to a stage where we now have very robust, tier-one platforms and capabilities that allow us to function as a single entity.

We’re now asking: ‘How do we leverage those to really drive efficiencies and really push into that digital space?’


FST Media: What do you consider to be the unique tech or digital needs of local government, particularly compared to other tiers of government?

Denvir: If you go into the core technical platforms, government isn’t too dissimilar to the commercial world. You need robust systems that are going to stay present, and government is absolutely pushing into more digital services. But even there, we’re still just catching up to the commercial world, especially retail.

Specific challenges in the government context are usually around data and data retention: different laws govern different types of information.

In the local government space, anything to do with property effectively needs to be kept forever, with any change against a property since it was established required to be recorded and stored.


One important factor, as you mentioned earlier, is around security and privacy. It’s about making sure you’re investing in that landscape to remain as safe as you can, knowing that you’re in an environment where you’re never going to win. You need to be as good as you can with your defences and ensure you’re not an easy target, but then understand at any point in time you could be breached.


FST Media: While, as you mentioned, consolidation is an ongoing priority, what are some other key milestones in your tech roadmap over the next 18 months?

Denvir: One of our biggest projects currently is implementing a multi-cloud strategy. Through the consolidation of eight entities, we moved to a fully IaaS [infrastructure-as-a-service] provision.

We virtualised, consolidated and bought everything onto a single data centre. For legacy entities, it did present a challenge. Once we got to a point where we were fully virtualised as an infrastructure-as-a-service, there was a shared tendency inside the government arena, so we didn’t have line of sight to start to get an understanding of performance management and how it was working for our customers and our end users. Also, we had to confront the sheer cost and bill shock of moving to an IaaS provider.

There are many who talk about the benefits of Azure or of AWS; you could almost tell as you started to talk to someone by the sticker on the top of their laptop as to which zealot pool they fell into.


We could see the benefits of everything, so we took a step back and asked, ‘How do we take the benefits of Azure and the benefits of AWS?’ and because of our scale, it’s actually so much cheaper for us to own tin and run a private cloud. So, we ended up designing a multi-cloud environment.

While we’ve outsourced the data centre, we’ve created our own virtual data centre. We’ve transformed and transitioned things, like most of our productivity sits on Office 365 on Azure cloud, we’ve migrated some of our HR capabilities onto SAP’s SuccessFactors, some of our apps have been moved into AWS. What we’re really looking to do is find a way to leverage across all of those.

We created a single relationship with VMWare and what we wanted to do is build the hyperscaler, and what we wanted – no matter if it was Azure, on our private cloud, or on AWS – was to allow us to transition workloads across any of those platforms at any time. But it was also ensuring investment in back-end infrastructure so you could be scalable and flexible enough to move.

The last thing in that space is we’ve been a traditional IT shop, which has run, managed traditional change programs, and we’re in the middle of migrating to a safe, agile delivery mechanism. We’ve been piloting that with one of our directorates, which is our regulatory and compliance function. And we’ve been co-designing what an operating model would look like post in a safe, agile environment with the rest of the organisation.


FST Media: And, on the point of cost, there is certainly a debate around the transition from a CapEx to an OpEx model off the back of this cloud transition. Where does Auckland Council stand on this?

Denvir: The challenge in local government, and especially for Auckland Council, is that our funding model works on the OpEx spend, which is driven from the [council] rates take, and we go to the debt market for our capital spend. We have a very good Standard and Poor’s rating, and we’re pretty close to our debt-to-revenue ratios.

We’re at an interesting point where, if we were to move all of our capital to an OpEx spend, that has an impact on what the governing body would need to ask from the population of Auckland in terms of the rates they pay.


Traditionally, it’s been a capital spend. However, we’re now getting to a scenario where there’s not enough headroom in what’s available in capital without impacting our S&P ratings. If we go over those limits in our ratings, then our interest rates change, and that has a significant impact again on what council rates would be. So, we’re at a really interesting point in time. For us, it’s a case of blending what is the best overall funding model, because we’re under pressure from both sides.


FST Media: A lot of governments’, and even local governments’, transformation programs are culminating in ‘one-stop-shop’ online hubs for their constituents.

What do you think a successful digital transformation program within a local government context ultimately should deliver for its constituents?

Denvir: There’s a couple of key components. First is visibility and transparency of what we’re here to do. ‘What services do we provide and how can people see their relationship?’

We do have a program underway, myAUCKLAND, which does culminate in a front-line digital capability. The platform brings all relationships together and enables customers to see what their relationship is with us.

Our rating system sits in our SAP application suite, but a constituent might have a library account, a leisure centre account, a dog registration (as I mentioned before) or a relationship through our cemeteries business, which all sit on completely different systems.

Via identity management, we can connect constituents to all these different relationships they have with us, allowing them to see where and how they consume services with us. That’s quite significant, because we run 26 different businesses which have completely different objectives and outcomes that are all servicing the same customer.


FST Media: What informs your approach to customer-end platform design?

Denvir: We do a lot of consultation with constituents, using digital channels to engage with Aucklanders – from the budget to zoning considerations. And it’s actually lifting our game, improving our inclusivity, asking, for instance, ‘How do we do that equitably when we have portions of our population that aren’t digital natives?’.


FST Media: So you’ve embraced the co-design principle?

Denvir: Quite a lot of what we do is bring citizens in to ensure the customer proposition is clear and our focus remains on what they want us to achieve for them. We ultimately need to remember what a local government, or council, is here for: to provide services back to our communities.


FST Media: And as a council, more often than other tiers of government, you really do deal with constituents’ on-the-ground concerns – for instance, that growing pothole on their street or bins that aren’t being emptied.

Denvir: On the point of potholes. A proposition we’ve developed allows anyone from the public to raise a request for service. For instance, if you see a broken bench in one of our parks, a pothole, graffiti or no toilet paper in a public restroom, you can take a photo, we’ll capture the GPS coordinates, and that will generate a work order for us. We populate and manage that work order and its status, and report that back to the citizen who raised the original concern.

We’ve provided transparency: ‘We’re here to ensure the park’s clean and fit for purpose, that things are safe, so you can report a problem with us, and we keep you involved through the process of how we manage that resolution of that request.’


FST Media: While similar schemes do exist here, that transparency in the system is certainly unique.

Denvir: As part of our service model, we subcontract out that remediation work; and we have separate contractors for these jobs, whether it’s for fixing potholes or cleaning graffiti up.

We’ve effectively had to build a substantial interface for our suppliers in the contract market to hand out those work orders, enabling them to keep the status of those jobs updated. It’s our full, end-to-end value chain that’s allowed us to provide that visibility.


FST Media: In terms of utilising data from a multiplicity of sources, including third parties and non-government entities, how are you ensuring that those data sources can be connected and fully utilised?

Denvir: This is the next area of focus for us. Through consolidation, we have a good understanding of what our data assets are and where they reside. We’ve started using identity management to allow us, from a customer perspective, to gain visibility across all those remote or unique datasets and converge this into a single pane that we can present back to our customers. We’re also piloting IoT, which is creating new sources of data.

We’re currently refreshing our data strategy, having consolidated our assets, to begin that maturity journey.

We believe there are better insights that we can take from the data we have; we need to look at how we can bring those together to support our decision-making, and help make recommendations to our governing body.


But we also see opportunities to automate a lot of the manual tasks we still do. There’s also continual focus – like everyone else – on the quality of data.


FST Media: IoT has significant implications and use cases for local government. Could you give us a bit of insight into Auckland Council’s IoT pilots?

Denvir: We started with a proposition of: ‘We’ve done quite a few proof of concepts, we’ve got some pretty smart guys who love this stuff. And we’ve been building our own sensors and deployed them in quite a few different parts of our business.’

A use case that we’re pretty happy with relates to an environmental issue: a dieback disease attacking our native kauri trees in the Waitakere Ranges, west of Auckland. As a council, we’ve had to close the regional park and really limit how people move through it, because of the risk of further disease transference. We’ve been working with rangers to find ways to deliver better insight as to what’s happening in the park by putting sensors at gates and along the tracks, allowing us to better understand who’s moving through, how they’re doing so, and whether they’re sticking to the paths. These insights have allowed us to open up some of the regional park for citizens to come back and enjoy, but in a managed way that we can control. Previously, our response was to simply close the park down.

We’ve also then taken it to the next level, using IoT to support ranger stations that inspect water tanks in outlying areas (many cattle and animals rely on water sourcing from us). We’ve put sensors on the water tanks to tell us whether they’re still fit for purpose, if they’re full, what we need to do to manage those in drought conditions. Previously, we’d have needed a ranger out there every day; now they’re only doing tasks on-demand, making them far more efficient and effective.

We’re still at the very start of the IoT journey. We’ve got around 10 proof of concepts in the works.


There’s now a demand for us to take that service forward and we’re building a case for and creating an operating model that allows us to do this at scale.


FST Media: What technology do you feel will fundamentally transform the operations of local government over the next five years?

Denvir: If I had to pick one, it’d be artificial intelligence (AI). If you think about the nature of local government, and specifically around our role in the regulatory space, a big part of that is to ensure that houses or any infrastructure bill meets not only the Resource Management Act, but also building consents and the regulations that sit behind those –that’s really where AI can work, because they’re all rules-based.

When anyone submits a plan for a new build or for an extension to a property asset, we have to evaluate that against a set of rules; at the moment, that’s a person’s interpretation of these rules. For me, there is nothing more fit for purpose than an AI engine.


We understand the rules base, now we know we can look at those designs, see how they comply with those rules and start getting to a point of automated consenting. I see that as the area that will transform a lot of what an organisation like a council does.

Only just beaten out by AI would be Internet of Things. The potential of IoT for environmental data will be huge. We have a solution called Safe Swim, which examines the quality of the water at beaches to determine how safe it is to swim. Like every other city, we have ageing infrastructure for wastewater and sewage, with wastewater quite often being pumped out to sea. Currently, water quality is indicated through a website that informs people when it’s unsafe to swim at the beach for a period of time, based on whether they’re in an area where the infrastructure has not been updated or modernised and a major rainfall event has occurred. At the moment, a lot of that is done on modelling, but we can now start to put sensors along those wastewater channels and get real-time data on the quality of the water.


FST Media: Finally, what do you think best defines good tech leadership in a local government context?

Denvir: We’re democratising IT and systems, which means we become far more involved with the business outcomes and need to be focused in on. We’re here for a purpose, and that purpose is not the tech, it’s for a citizen to be able to, as an example, be able to go to one of our parks and to tell us there’s a problem and we can fix that.

For me, the leadership is making sure, in the context of local government – and really across every industry – that we start to move towards being more aware of the reason we’re here: What are we doing that is contributing to and delivering a better outcome for the customer? Then, it’s allowing, cajoling and helping IT teams work far closer and be part of the business that’s coming up with solutions for the end customer.

Mark Denvir was a featured keynote speaker at the FST Local Government New Zealand conference last September.