Local Government Magazine
Information Technology

Mike Manson – 40 years & counting

Last year SOLGM honoured ALGIM CEO Mike Manson for his 40 years of work in local government. Mike spoke with Ruth Le Pla about how the sector has changed and his predictions for local government IT of the future.

Tick that

Asked to name the biggest challenges that technology has resolved during his 40-year career in local government, ALGIM CEO Mike Manson picks three: information storage and retrieval; the introduction of sensors; and the integration of computerised systems.

Information storage and retrieval. “I don’t think you can go past how manual systems were in the past,” Mike says. The data-intensive nature of local government makes this an ongoing battle as more data is generated.

“One of the major advantages of technology is the ability to not only retrieve information, but now we’re getting into the automation of that data and processes.”

GIS, too, brought a major boom for local government.

The sector still has a long way to go before all data is automated. “There’s so much data that there are whole programmes around data cleansing.”

Moreover, while some of the smaller councils are still scanning early documents, most councils have been through a phase of scanning and back-loading all their files.

The size and complexity of such projects fly under the radar of most ratepayers.

“If you don’t put data in regularly or accurately, you’re not going to get it out accurately: people in the future are relying on it. We are custodians of this data.

“As we get into artificial intelligence, they’re not going to be able to produce good results if the data is inaccurate or can’t be retrieved.”

Sensors. Mike’s Palmerston North City Council was among the first local authorities to install ground sensors on its parking spaces.

This “major change” made defunct the old system of council wardens wandering the streets trying to find a vehicle parked on an expired meter. Now, sensors alert wardens to vehicles that have outstayed their time. The warden makes a beeline for the vehicle and issues an infringement notice.

“In the future, people will automatically get a message saying they’ve overstayed,” says Mike.

“At least the [current] sensing idea is accurate as to when someone got in the parking space, when they left and what’s available.”

Systems have become more integrated. Remember the days when councils all had a separate system for general ledger, one for rates, another for dog registrations and yet another for licensing? Now councils can buy one package that gives them the lot and more besides in one go.

While the current state of play could still be improved, says Mike, today’s integrated solutions go a long way towards linking a customer’s records together. That’s been a major improvement and lifts perceptions of professionalism in the minds of customers when they contact a council.

It’s hard to imagine the local government world that Mike Manson stepped into on his first day at Palmerston North City Council (PNCC). Forty years ago, many of the technologies and processes we now take for granted simply didn’t exist. Trees were sacrificed in great numbers to feed the vast paper-based systems of the time.

The then 16-year-old Mike had thought he was set to become a dairy farmer. He’d figured out he needed to earn some money first. So, at his mother’s suggestion (a past employee), he went for a fill-in job at council and landed a job in accounts.

It was, he says, a “cold stark open-plan area in the Treasury Department. The average age of people there was about 70,” he insists.

“A lot of them were retired professionals or reaching retirement. Many of them had worked for Railways or such places. The strategy at the time was to have a workforce that was a little cheaper. Then they must have changed tack and brought in the younger generation.”

Mike was among the first of the new wave of younger ones to be employed. He was immediately sent to Whanganui, of all places. He was to be “indoctrinated”, he jokes, into the ways of government service. His cohorts comprised people from councils all around the country.

Short though it was, the induction helped Mike start to grasp how different parts of council worked.

Back at PNCC’s accounting base, he found the old guys friendly and good to work with.

Over the years, his dairy farming dream faded. A year after starting at PNCC, he began working on mainframe computing for council.

“The excitement swallowed me up,” he says. “Then when I got married, the last thing my wife wanted was a dairy farmer for a husband, so that was probably the turning point.”

From such roundabout beginnings sprouted a 40-year career in local government. Mike has spent his entire time with PNCC. For the past 10 years council has “leased” him out, as he puts it, to ALGIM as its chief executive. For six years before that, he was ALGIM’s president: elected to the role, according to him, after he walked into an ALGIM AGM and they made him president and later Life Member.

ALGIM’s heavy commitment to learning through conferences means Mike has been exposed to the ideas of 250 speakers in the past two years alone. Over the years, he has delivered some 20 international presentations, sharing our country’s ideas on the global stage.

Importantly, he is a founding member of the Linked Organisations of Local Authority ICT Societies (LOLA). Set up over a decade ago, LOLA membership now spans seven countries with a network of more than three million IT-ers supporting hundreds of thousands of local governments. Together they serve more than 320 million citizens and manage more than 35 million devices.

In 2010 Mike entered the ALGIM IM Toolkit project into the LOLA global initiative awards and won Project of the Year which was presented to him in Canada.

Our country will be hosting the LOLA annual get-together in 2022.

Roles

We’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Meanwhile, back at PNCC, a much younger Mike was gradually racking up experience on the borders between IT, customer-related roles and business operations.

After his initial days in accounts, payroll and as an office junior, he spent a decade in IT supervising computer operations. He shifted to customer management then back to IT management. He worked in client relationships and business development. Along the way, he’s spearheaded high-profile projects including a major shopping complex – now Palmerston North’s Plaza Shopping Centre – and a highly-contentious wind farm which never got off the ground.

The wind farm project was looking at developing a piece of council-owned land the size of Kapiti Island.

“I had to give a speech for two hours at a public meeting in front of the council, and for the first time ever in my career pretty much everyone in the audience was booing. It was tough.”

Innovations

Mike has master-minded or contributed to some significant innovations in his 40 years in the sector. Back in the eighties, local body election votes were still counted manually. PNCC alone would employ up to 400 students each time.

By 1989 Mike had invented and rolled out the world’s first bar-coded election system. “The first time, we did it with 60 people,” he says. “Then we got the process down to 10 people. Today, it’s all high-speed scanning.”

Around the same time, he also co-invented New Zealand’s first searchable computerised cemetery system: a project that took workers a good year of keying in data from the region’s cemetery books.

While easy access to such data now seems bog-standard, it was a startling leap forward at the time, opening the way for people to research their family trees with ease and speed.

When, later, Mike worked in customer service, he contracted a company to build a new electricity, gas and water billing system that went on to become a world leader, adopted in countries as far flung as Canada, the US and Australia.

Later still, working in PNCC’s newly-created Business Unit, he’d sit around in the evenings with his management team colleagues eating fish and chips and inventing games to teach the 350 staff – over 50 percent of the council – how to understand council as a business.

“We got a set of scales with costs on one side and dollars on the other, to show them how the business of council worked.”

In the early nineties, Mike and the team dreamed up a new floating, flexible “flower” model of working. He admits the name didn’t go down too well with council’s blue-collar workers. “Anyone could be a petal on a flower to deliver an outcome. Then it would disband, and you could create another flower.” Mike got an A at Massey University for writing about it.

“I had to give a speech for two hours at a public meeting in front of the council, and for the first time ever in my career pretty much everyone in the audience was booing. It was tough.”

Projects

More projects came along. One was to centralise customer service at PNCC, which, at the time, had some 28 different points of contact for any single customer.

Mike helped run the project, set up a contact centre and centralised the service. The scheme started to win awards, attracted interest from other organisations and was adopted by, among others, Massey University and Mooney Valley City Council, Melbourne.

One day a flood hammered the region. The phone systems went down at all the other councils in the area. Their customers, as ratepayers, were ringing PNCC.  “We found out we had the capability to deal with everybody from the entire region,” says Mike. In contrast, PNCC’s then after-hours service – run by a private sector organisation – couldn’t handle the volume.

“I had this vision: why didn’t PNCC set up an after-hours service for local government? I got a neighbouring council – Horizons Regional Council – to come with me on the journey. We went around and talked with many local authorities. In the end, we got the entire region to join.

“We decided that wasn’t enough. So, I went on a journey around New Zealand and collected up, at the time, I think, 25 local authorities to all feed into PNCC’s after-hours system. We won local government awards throughout the country for some of the things we did with our after-hours service.”

Today over 30 councils feed into this system handling everything from complaints about noise, to concerns over lost dogs and enquiries about rates.

Then in February 2011: Mike took a call. ‘You’ve got one hour to set up a contact centre to cope with the Christchurch earthquake.’ It was the police via Horizons Regional Council.

“We set up 120 seats for a contact centre in one hour and took all calls for Red Cross – their contact centre had fallen over.” Soon after that, for three weeks, day and night, the centre took all calls for Christchurch City Council too.

Behind the scenes, Mike had already set up a cluster of 30-or so contact centres in the Manawatu. They’d been working together for years. So, when the big one hit Christchurch, the group volunteered their staff who were able to handle diverted calls 24 hours a day.

Awards followed and Mike was made the first Life Member of the Manawatu Contact Centre Cluster.

On the cusp

While technology has undoubtedly helped resolve many of local government’s challenges to date (see the box story Tick that), plenty of issues remain.

Mike says the sector is “on the cusp” of many new technologies coming on board – particularly in artificial intelligence.

He’s been researching the practicalities of introducing digital humans, for example.

“It’s not a magic bullet: there’s a lot of work behind the scenes to make them even useable. But they have the capability to enable 24/7 service for people who might just want to go on a website and start talking to a digital human.

“You could talk to a real human, but there’s a generation coming through that doesn’t like using phones. They just want to communicate digitally – which is great – and councils have to respond.”

He argues that the local government sector should look more broadly for inspiration. “Air New Zealand and the banking sector provide a lot better services in a digital form to customers,” he says. “So, we need to as well.

“The aspiration is for local government to be the Air New Zealand of the public sector. After all, an airline is a people business. They’re not really about planes. They’re about delivering a service to customers in a way they enjoy. You can have your coffee ready for you when you walk into the terminal, you can track children… ”

Mike says local government could better anticipate the needs of residents. “Perhaps, if someone needs rubbish bags they could be delivered. I’ve worked out that all our refuse trucks go around our entire city. What business visits all their customers once a week? No-one else does.

“I see the rubbish truck as a portable mobile device that we could use to monitor the roads and services, look at overhanging vegetation, or footpaths, look at a whole range of aspects using sensors and IoT. We would have a mobile data capturing unit.

“It’s only with 5G coming and with better telecommunications that we can do all these things.”

Similarly, Mike has been investigating opportunities for the use of robots: albeit the technology is still in its infancy.

“We’re still learning how to derive good value from them because they can sense and see, but they can’t always do all the things that a human could do.

“We all watched those Star Trek-type programmes years ago where a lot of these things came from: flip phones and talking to artificial intelligence machines. We have this vision that they’re magic and can do everything. But there’s maturity required before they can deliver everything we need.”

Nevertheless, Mike says the increasingly possible world of sensors will take away some of local government’s pain. “They could tell us when stormwater systems are over-running or when there’s no water in a tank, for example. We should be able to take advantage of IoT. And all these sensor technologies are going to make a big difference to local government.

“When you think about smart cities and other smart concepts, the technology is improving rapidly. We can now look at flows of traffic without having to put a little cable across the road. A camera can accurately count types of vehicles, the number of people and whether they’re male or female… all sorts of things.

“You couldn’t do that in the past by putting a little bar across the road.”


This article was first published in the March 2019 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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