IT Assist provides Digital Shared Services for all Northern Ireland’s government departments touching every aspect of our lives in this region from agriculture, education and the economy to health, finance, justice, communities and infrastructure.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, IT Assist had already embarked on a strategy to transform their service delivery through an ever-greater use of modern technology. Having completed a proof of concept, a six month pilot was to follow.
Covid-19 dramatically changed those plans. With lockdown looming, the organisation now had less than six weeks not six months in which to implement different working practices and enable a more agile approach to business.
Jonathan Smith, Infrastructure Manager, IT Assist says: " We faced an unprecedented challenge. We needed a way to enable thousands of civil servants to work from home so they could continue to provide vital services. We needed to move quickly and on a scale never seen before.”
The department was ready to deliver 5,000 remote connections across the service, but the ask was for over 20,000 connections.
A telephone conference service was put in place within a day of lockdown being announced. With capacity for 400 users, this provided a vital safety net to the department as they embarked on the biggest logistical challenge they had ever faced.
The organisation had to ensure there was sufficient capacity in the system. A team of 12 worked with BT around the clock, seven days a week to deliver an additional 15,500 civil service connections via secure remote access (SRA).
At peak, the organisation was supplying 1,000 laptops a week while also ensuring the requisite security, licensing, internet, and network capacity. A drop-in centre at their Stormont offices was established where staff could make an appointment to pick up their laptop and required kit.
With staff located around the country it was important to ensure everyone could stay in contact and collaborate with ease. So, working with BT, the organisation adopted a range of communication platforms to make this happen including Cisco Jabber which provides audio, video and instant messaging; audio conferencing facility BTMeetMe; and finally WebEx, an easy to use voice, video and content sharing experience allowing internal and external people to attend meetings any time, from any device and from any location which was scaled to all users over three weeks.
Much of this activity would have happened as part of the strategic plan that BT has been working on with IT Assist but the pandemic ensured those plans were rapidly accelerated.
While staff were being enabled with laptops and comms platforms, a huge amount of IT infrastructure was being managed and deployed behind the scenes to make everything work smoothly.
A Covid-19 Hub was also set up providing advice to users on how to set up online events or how to connect to the network via a mobile device. Advice and guidance for those working remotely was also collated and made available on the NICS Covid Website. This covered audio meetings, video meetings and best practice in use of equipment in the remote workplace.
Support was also provided for the Department of Finance and Department of Health Covid-19 Hubs which were acting as co-ordination points during the pandemic and providing Situation Reports to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Video Conferencing equipment and Digital Collaboration Boards being used to facilitate the Webex Cloud Pilot were diverted and urgently configured allowing each of the Covid Hub locations to collaborate and join meetings across their sites and with those working from home. Support was provided to those staff who formed the NI Hub teams in the development of their new ways of working under the early Covid ‘lock down’ conditions.
20,000 civil servants were transitioned to working from home in a matter of weeks and core telecoms infrastructure was upgraded to support the shift in working practices.
There have been over 40,000 individual participants and more than 300,000 meeting minutes have taken place over the same period.
Jonathan Smith, Infrastructure Manager, at IT Assist, anticipates the legacy of the pandemic will see this new way of working become more permanent. He says: "New applications for technology are being recognised and deployed all the time. For example, WebEx is enabling virtual live court sessions and virtual prison visits to providing careers advice while Careers Advisors are unable to go into schools. There are more and more opportunities for technology to have a positive impact and we’ll be looking at ways to support and deliver on that."