Powering government reform

Darren Lemon leads eircom’s operations in Northern Ireland and Owen McQuade met up with him to discuss the Network NI contract, which the telecoms company was awarded last year, and the wider government reform agenda.

As observers of reform in the Northern Ireland Civil Service will know, Network NI is a major part of the move towards better efficiency in government. The contract for the £70 million project, which will modernise the Civil Service’s internal telecommunications network, was awarded to eircom in September 2007 following a competitive tender process. eircom’s solution will support a wide range of voice, video and data applications with next generation capabilities, and will underpin critical change initiatives such as Workplace 2010, Account NI, Records NI, HR Connect and NI Direct.

All 11 government departments and the 280 Northern Ireland Civil Service locations are due to be connected to eircom’s network by September 2009. Darren Lemon, the company’s General Manager for Northern Ireland, is heading up the project.

eircom, he explains, had been operating in Northern Ireland for many years before winning the Civil Service contract, which will see it provide “the key infrastructure to power the whole reform programme”.

“That’s been the springboard for eircom to really expand its operations in the North. We have created a really highly skilled team in a fairly short period of time, initially focused on delivery of the project,” Lemon comments.

His role has been to come in and establish “a broader business capability” in Northern Ireland with sales, marketing and pre-sales skills on the ground. In addition, eircom will draw on the existing expertise and skills of its Dublin based operations. He then turns to the actual workings of the system.

“In order to deliver the project we invested a number of years ago in the development and build of the Saturn Ring, which is basically a big fibre ring which goes around the middle of the province. And off the back of that we’ve built seven ‘PoPs’ as they’re known – points of presence – which are really key locations that we bring Civil Service customers back in through.”

The network is supported and managed through eircom’s state-of-the-art operations centre which was officially opened earlier this year by Finance Minister Peter Robinson. eircom has approximately 40 staff in total in Northern Ireland and is presently recruiting for vacancies in pre-sales, for which people with technical consulting skills for Cisco technologies are sought.

“We’re a stand-alone Northern Ireland business. However, we worked in partnership with our colleagues in Dublin throughout the bid process for the Network NI contract. Their additional skills and expertise were key in delivering a very robust and comprehensive offering”, he adds.

Lemon sits as part of an eircom team which handles its business with government and receives strong support from the company: “The real attraction for me in coming here is the fact that you’ve got the excitement and the agility of a start-up business which has a very well-resourced and supportive large parent just down the road.”

While leveraging the right elements of the business from Dublin is certainly useful, maintaining eircom NI’s own “identity and agility” is very important for its staff.

“Our strategy in the North is to put ourselves in place as a really strong credible alternative to other providers that are already here. Our focus is very much based on two key markets: public sector and enterprise markets,” he continues.

“It isn’t in our plans at the moment to move into the domestic market in any sense. By enterprise, we mean the larger, corporate-type companies.”

“Whilst the network we’ve built now is substantial and really quite widespread – when you think of all the government locations we’re pretty much in every county – it’s building on to that and rolling out services off the back of that core fibre-ring investment to make services available to other customers.”

Lemon previously led Northgate’s education business and was involved in building the province-wide C2k project in schools. He draws comparisons between how that network developed and the ongoing progress of civil service reform.

“I think that once again Northern Ireland finds itself in a position of trail-blazing to an extent. I would see some similarities with what happened in C2k in education 10 years back,” Lemon recalls. “We managed to put ourselves into real trailblazing territory and created a model that other parts of the UK are very much in the process of adopting now and refining.

“I think the current reform programme in government is in that vein as well. Clearly, it’s a very well-considered and developed programme with the right objectives at the heart of it, in terms of improving public services for citizens. We’re right bang in the middle of that, with all of the services and all the technology that monitors Network NI.”

He adds: “It’s a challenging programme and we all have to approach it in the spirit of partnership and realise that we’re all really actually shooting to the one end game here, to achieve the desired outcomes from the overall reform programme.”

While the purpose of Network NI is to improve communications within the Civil Service, the reform programme’s NI Direct project is customer-facing, and involves the development of contact centres to handle calls from the public and run shared services such as human resources and finance on behalf of Civil Service departments.

Steria has been selected as preferred bidder for the first phase of the NI Direct programme but eircom also has ambitions in this area. Lemon comments: “Clearly we would provide some of our infrastructure to support that programme and as that programme develops in terms of the use of IVR [Interactive Voice Response] type technologies for call management and so forth, we would hope to be one of the companies bidding for aspects of that work and supporting that programme.”

The company already has experience of providing those services for some of its customers in the Republic of Ireland.

Procurement

Having worked with the public sector over the past 10 years, he has been impressed with the improving professionalism of government procurement over that time. Recent OGC (Office of Government Commerce) changes have enhanced procurement even further, making it more pragmatic, and there is an increased focus on the public sector “getting the best service they can for the best value for money”.

“I think with government, you have a much more mature procurement model now and a very professional procurement service in terms of what you’re dealing with certainly throughout the bidding process and into the delivery phase.”

The concept of public service is one which he also values in his supporting role for government: “I continue to work in this area because I think it’s a very rewarding area to work. It’s an area where you can actually help deliver fundamental change in society and that you can also deliver benefits for all through this.

“It’s also nice to work on projects that are long-term, they’re not quick in and out, you’re there on a partnership basis. People use the word flexibility very loosely but it is about that. Network NI could be as long as eight or 10 years for us as a project. The requirements as you can imagine in five years’ time will be very, very different to what they are now.”

With this in mind, eircom’s challenge is to build sustainable networks and services to support change in the public sector over that time, and he expects much more change to take place over the contract’s duration. “Realistically, in the reform programme we’re in phase one,” Lemon adds.

Turning to the wider economic downturn, Lemon is asked whether there are any signs of it affecting the telecoms industry.

“Like everyone else, it’s almost at the stage where you don’t want to buy the newspaper anymore when you read it,” he quips.

“From our own perspective, our plans remain as they were six to 12 months ago. Regardless of the downturns and the continuing growing inflation rates etc. we’re all going to have to work our way out of this.”

eircom’s perspective is that the services that it delivers will help both the business and public sector through these difficult times. Lemon explains: “The so called downturn means we just have to change the way we do business. It’s going to force industry and the government to work harder.

“There was a great deal of weight put on the importance of having a first class communications infrastructure during the recent American visit. It’s our sector’s responsibility to keep driving forward with that and provide Northern Ireland with the infrastructure that will give us every chance to succeed.”

Asked for one lesson he has learnt when working with government, he emphasises: “For me, success has come from working with people who are passionate about their work and people who are driven and committed and have a genuine desire for change.”

Maintaining, building and strengthening relationships between the contractor and department is especially important during the transitional period between procurement and delivery. Network NI has a “substantial” implementation phase, lasting 18 months, during which there are “lots of decisions and calls to make and challenges to face.”

A key challenge is to have both parties on the same terms at the end of the project as they were in the ‘honeymoon period’ at its beginning. There also needs to be an acceptance, on both sides, that the project’s timescale is subject to change, and it may indeed be delivered ahead of schedule.

According to Lemon, the public sector, now has a much greater appreciation and is much more comfortable with the private sector needs of reform programmes “that it is all about give-and-take and having a two-way partnership approach.”

His own professional journey has taken him from IT into telecoms and with the increasing convergence between the two sectors, Lemon appreciates that the telecoms sector is keen to listen to the “slightly different way of thinking” offered by IT professionals “and that’s a healthy balance to have”.

eircom’s operations south of the border are built around a converging IT-telecoms market. “It’s an IP world that we’re living in now,” he notes. In the North, the company’s focus is on providing data networks and voice services in public and private sectors, and in doing so it works with partners such as Fujitsu.

There’s no doubting that there is great drive and energy behind eircom NI and its general manager. The awarding of the Network NI contract has without doubt put the company in a very strong position. The ramping up of eircom NI will lead to increased competition in the Northern Ireland telecoms market and this is sure to make for interesting times in the months ahead.

Profile: Darren Lemon

Darren Lemon is General Manager of eircom’s Northern Ireland business, eircom NI. He was previously Managing Director of Northgate’s education business, which is one of the largest education IT businesses in the UK employing 250 people. Darren’s focus has been very much on building the local eircom team and to ensure that “we keep the start-up culture as we grow in size”. He is married to Angela with two daughters, Vicky and Rozi. Darren lives in Lisburn where he is a member of the local tennis club, a sport which he enjoys and “which also manages to keep me fit, without any of the pain”.

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