New Forest District Council is a local government district in Hampshire. It was created in April 1974 following the merger of the New Forest, Ringwood and Fordingbridge Rural Districts, and the Lymington Borough Councils.
The council employs more than 850 staff, the majority of which are based at Appletree Court, a building that was built in the early part of the 19th century as a private residence. Since then, the house has been sold on to various individuals and organisations and it was purchased by the New Forest Rural District Council in 1948, where all its offices are now based under one roof with the council chamber added to the building in 1950 and subsequent wings from 1967 to 1986.
Although Appletree Court is an aesthetically pleasing building to work in, the fact it had extremely limited wireless was proving very frustrating for the 500 plus staff that worked there. In practical terms, it meant staff were attending meetings with a laptop, charger and network cable. In addition, as there were not enough network points in the meeting rooms, very often staff would have to use pen and paper to make notes, resulting in the IT department receiving a lot of complaints about this method of working.
A major transformation of ICT services at the council was launched in 2017 after the appointment a new Head of ICT, Rob Beere. This transformation was aligned with the ambitions of the Chief Executive, Bob Jackson, who wanted to update and enhance the technology at the council’s headquarters, and at a smaller building at Marsh Lane Depot, Lymington, where the operational staff are based. The overall aim of NFDC was to develop a smarter working culture for all staff which would see the roll out of new handheld devices and laptops and also encourage a hot desking culture where staff could walk into either building and go to a work station or a meeting room with wireless capabilities.
As part of the ICT transformation, Mark Hill was appointed ICT Technology Officer with the task of sourcing, implementing and managing the project, and all the new technology.
Mark explains: “I spoke to colleagues at other councils as well as doing some research of my own, so was aware of the wireless solutions available to us. Having developed a specification for what we wanted to achieve, it was submitted through the council’s tender framework.”
Stone won the contract and suggested the council implement a Cisco Meraki cloud-based solution. The system itself is exceptionally cost effective compared to other solutions. It offers a powerful and intuitive multi-site management via the cloud, while eliminating the cost and complexity of traditional on-site wireless controllers.
The scope of the infrastructure project included:
- Latest 802.11ac wireless Access Points (APs)
- Design and implementation of a cloud managed wireless service
- Multi-site implementation
- Full site survey
- IT staff training and certification
- Active Directory integration to support staff, guest access and BYOD
- Optimised wireless design based upon predicted usage patterns
- Pre-and confirmatory post installation wireless site surveys
- Full project management
- 3-year support and maintenance agreement
To begin the planning and implementation of the Meraki solution, the designated project manager from Stone sat down with the NFDC project team to start scoping the project and coming up with a plan of action. Mark explains: “At the beginning, there were a few things we needed to rethink and Stone were really patient with us when we changed our minds.”
The main challenge for both teams was Appletree Court itself. The old country house had very thick walls which made it difficult to get the cables in and the wireless signal to pass through. In addition, the work had to be carried out during office hours and so the project managers from Stone and New Forest had to make sure they planned their work accordingly. For example, working within the customer contact centre during less busy periods. A final point that needed to be considered was that New Forest District Council is part of the Hampshire wide network of councils and so the project managers had to liaise with them and their network provider to ensure that all the communication tasks were lined up in a timely manner.
Mark adds: “Most of this was done before we went in to start the work but some things, such as the firewall rules had to be done afterwards. The process had minimal disruption on the smooth running of council business. The main assessment of the solution was around acceptance testing once the points were up. One of the biggest tests was in the council chamber where we asked about 80 people to connect at the same time and challenged them to stream videos too so that we could monitor what happened in a high congestion area.”
It was a nail biting moment for the team but the system passed with flying colours. Mark’s team were especially pleased as it meant that council members and staff outside of the IT department could see for themselves that the system had been thoroughly tested before it went live.
The work began in November and we had originally anticipated the project being completed within 6 months. However, the big wireless switch on at Appletree Court was completed in January and at Marsh Lane it was all finalised by February – which meant the team smashed their original completion deadline.
“This was a major project for me personally,” comments Mark, “as well as being important to the elected councillors, the executive team, and ultimately the entire organisation. It was also a hugely visible project that all our staff could see and so I think all of us did have some nervousness about it.
“Stone’s evident experience and knowledge helped keep us all calm. We couldn’t fault their dedication and commitment; the engineer even came back to us on his days off! Whatever we asked for we had it really quickly and it was very important to have that level of dedicated support.”
Now the system is up and running all the staff are now asking how on earth they managed with the old one for so long? Employees and members of the council can now pick up their laptop to go to a meeting and all of their information is readily available. There is no need to disconnect, reconnect and wait for things to load up. Another part of the solution was to allow councillors to have their own private internet access and connection which the council hopes will go some way to helping them become a paperless office.
The NFDC team have had excellent feedback and better still, the project came in under budget. Ultimately, the solution is allowing staff to work smarter which saves staff time. And that includes the IT staff too. The solution is all looked after in-house and as a cloud-based system, there is no hardware to manage. All they have to do is log into a web browser and configure their settings. It couldn’t be easier.
“The installation of the Cisco Meraki cloud-based solution means council members and council staff are working smarter – good for us and for the communities we represent.
“The project came in under budget and well within the original time frames – always good news!
“The team from Stone clearly knew their stuff and we were immediately put at ease by their expertise and professionalism. Throughout the project, they worked in partnership with us, offering effective solutions quickly and efficiently.”