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How the City of Vancouver is making workforce mobility work

Municipal CIO Mark McDonald discusses dealing with a unionized workforce, strategic planning and other speed bumps on the path to a device-friendly culture


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If you’re rolling out a workforce mobility strategy, you’ve probably discovered that technology is the least of your concerns. While there are decisions to be made around devices (and who pays for them), you’re also faced with massive cultural shifts at a systemic level.

In the public sector, there aren’t a lot of examples of how this is being done. But Mark McDonald, CIO of the City of Vancouver, has made it a top priority — driven by the expectations of citizens and businesses.

The city is in “uber transformation mode,” transforming business processes as part of an aggressive digital agenda. “Like most public-sector organizations we’re under pressure to find savings, we’re under pressure to do more with less,” said McDonald, during the fourth annual Mobile Enterprise Canada conference and exhibition in Toronto last week.

But mobility is less about technology and more about risk management, he said.

One of the city’s key challenges is its complex, unionized environment: It has 10,000 staff, and 70 per cent are unionized within 14 collective bargaining units.

“We’ve got to have governance around this or we’re not going to get anything done,” said McDonald. So he helped to create a digital information oversight committee with one director from each business unit across the city, as well as the deputy city manager (for executive buy-in) and even the CTO from Hootsuite (to provide industry insight).

“This committee owns the mobility strategy from a corporate aspect,” he said. “The key strategy here is to have buy-in at all levels.”

But everyone has to be on the same page — otherwise, it’s a recipe for failure. “We can’t just throw devices at people and say ‘we’ve got a mobile strategy,’” said McDonald. So the committee came up with a specific goal: to increase productivity, customer service quality and innovation by enabling mobile city employees to perform city business while away from their desk or primary work area.

The committee also identified who actually needs mobility. The city has an estimated 830 mobile information workers, including meeting warriors (such as elected officials) and field workers (such as inspectors and technicians).

“One of the things we did is develop a comprehensive matrix of how people work and their need for certain types of devices,” said McDonald. That helps ensure employees receive the device best suited to their needs.

But employees also need a way to communicate without data plan costs spiralling out of control. So the city is building out enterprise-class managed Wi-Fi at city facilities with encrypted access to city systems, as well as video conferencing and collaboration embedded into mobile devices to reduce site-to-site travel time.

“People were traveling an hour to go to a 30-minute meeting,” said McDonald. “That cost saving is going to be critical in terms of using mobility.” Increased efficiencies — through accessing line-of-business apps in the field and providing a single point of data entry — are also expected to drive savings.

But empowering employees was also a critical piece. “We wanted to make mobility part of the culture, we wanted to embed mobility into the DNA of the City of Vancouver,” said McDonald, adding that could help with recruitment and retention as a quarter of the city’s workforce is expected to retire in the next five to seven years.

“The organization loves it so much they’re not going back — they’re expanding tech and mobility even further,” said McDonald. “The big topic now is wearable devices.”

While developing a workforce mobility strategy isn’t easy — particularly for a large public-sector organization — it’s possible if you follow McDonald’s example. A committee that “owns” the strategy can help drive momentum, gain buy-in and ensure mobile devices best serve the needs of your employees.

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