Municipal government uses an intelligent intranet based on SharePoint to keep people working during a pandemic

Published on July 21, 2020

Situated on the southern tip of Vancouver Island is Victoria, capital city of British Columbia and a jewel on the Pacific coast of Canada. Millions of people visit the city’s extraordinary combination of ocean views, heritage architecture, and temperate climate each year. Serving the city’s resident population of 94,000, the City of Victoria municipal government consists of 1,000 employees ranging from IT pros and firefighters to communications specialists and urban foresters.

To share information among its employees, in 2014 the city government rolled out an intranet built on WordPress. From the time the site went live, the City of Victoria’s IT group knew that it would be a

stopgap measure only: A site built on Microsoft SharePoint was the goal. Unlike the static WordPress site, the group wanted an intranet that would:

  • Foster engagement with employees.
  • Enable the city’s intranet administrators to send out notifications and reminders.
  • Provide access control over the content that city employees see.
  • Serve as the city’s document repository.

“WordPress filled a gap in time, but we knew we were going to something more powerful in the future,” says Mike Palmer, City of Victoria CIO. That future was the government’s Modern Workplace initiative, which launched in 2017. The City of Victoria’s intranet was about to undergo a monumental change.

Building a dynamic intranet based on SharePoint

Palmer engaged with Victoria-based consultancy Regroove Solutions to help with the Modern Workplace rollout. The team began planning the intranet migration to SharePoint, but there was no way to migrate the existing content into modern pages programmatically at the time. Then, a shift in the city’s priorities halted further development on the intranet. When the project started again, everything had changed. “The first time around, we did publish pages within SharePoint but set to classic,” says Matt Longpre, a designer and developer at Regroove. “When the project began again, we were able to use an application programming interface (API) to bring the content into modern pages. That break served us quite well.

The City of Victoria’s intranet consists of five hub sites:

  • City Hub. The intranet landing page
  • Resource Centre. The bulk of the previous intranet’s content, including government forms
  • Latest News. City government news, edited by the site’s administrators
  • Social Centre. News and information that any employee can post and that administrators can syndicate to the City Hub
  • Kudos. A hub where any employee can post the achievements and accomplishments of colleagues

At the time Regroove was developing the City of Victoria’s intelligent intranet, Microsoft hadn’t yet introduced the megamenu. Instead, Regroove used an application customizer SharePoint Framework extension to build a global navigation bar. The bar is made up of SharePoint lists that site administrators can edit to manage the items in drop-down menus. The code in the customizer then uses the SharePoint API to pull in the lists. Says Longpre, “Everywhere users are, whenever they open a SharePoint page, they have a tenant-wide global navigation bar with the City of Victoria’s colours and theme.”

SharePoint ease of use creates an intranet champion

With the framework established, ownership of the new intelligent intranet passed to Continuous Improvement Advisor Heather Follis. Follis didn’t have an IT background or coding skills—she was a communications person—but with support from Palmer and the folks at Regroove, she soon had the skills she needed not only to run the intranet but also to design and publish new pages. Sean Wallbridge, Chief Troublemaker at Regroove Solutions, says, “A big part of our role with the intranet was coaching so that the IT and communications groups could take it over.”

Follis says that the look and organization of the current City of Victoria intranet are largely the result of trial and error. She experimented with web parts, placing content blocks, deciding if she liked them, then rearranging things for greater appeal. Follis already had a lot of experience using SharePoint as the city’s document repository, which helped, but the ease with which she could redesign the site architecture and create new web parts meant she could give the intranet a fresh start. Longpre says, “The Page Builder in SharePoint is just a dream. When we showed Heather how easy it is to manage content layout, she was really pleased to learn how that worked.” Follis describes her experience this way:

“It became evident in March, when a huge chunk of our workforce was suddenly working from home with very little notice. Rather than having to rely on a third-party contractor to help us create a new section of the site and re-envision a home page, that was something I was able to do in a day. I created a highly visible icon on the home page that people could select to see a dynamic, evolving section of the intranet specific to information they needed for business continuity and working from home.”

This ease of publishing content to an intelligent intranet based on SharePoint is echoed by Longpre. “I think the editing experience of the modern pages was really eye opening for people,” he says. “In the old intranet, you’d have to write your content in an editor, preview it, go back and make changes, and so on until you finally published it. In SharePoint, you’re editing the content inline, committing the change, and you see it—including external links, the document library, videos, list web parts.” He adds, “Also, the pages are so responsive. Having the columns collapse to accommodate smaller screens was a hit.”

Dynamism and a single document library: two big wins

The dynamism that SharePoint adds to the City of Victoria’s intranet is a tremendous bonus—and exactly what Follis had been looking for. Lack of engagement with the intranet had always been a problem. “Now,” says Follis, “SharePoint gives us the dynamism that we were missing before. We can add image galleries, Twitter feeds. It’s not just words on a page.”

In addition, the intelligent intranet gives Follis and the intranet editors the ability to:

  • Make sure employees keep coming back to the intranet for news, forms, and information about what’s going on in the organization.
  • Send out notifications and reminders.
  • Ensure access control over forms and content.
  • Use single sign-on to help with content targeting, making sure that the people who need to see content do and those who don’t, don’t.
  • Provide a single source of truth in the form of the city’s document library—changes made to documents and forms in the SharePoint library are propagated throughout the organization, with version control.

This ability to sync the document library with the intranet was another advantage. “Embedding a document library web part on a page, with PDFs and all the other document types, just wasn’t possible on the previous intranet,” says Longpre. Palmer and his team are still in the process of migrating everything to SharePoint from the organization’s network drives and other data sources, but COVID-19 has accelerated the need to complete that work. The City of Victoria’s employees have embraced working from home, however, which has made the migration a bit easier.

Teams and SharePoint are key to work-from-home success

The Modern Workplace initiative has facilitated shifting workloads away from data centre servers to the cloud. This move to software as a service has been particularly beneficial for the city government’s document library—a large part of the initiative. Rather than having to track down every instance of a document, verify the version, and make the same changes potentially multiple times, document owners edit their files in a central location and SharePoint takes care of version control. “You add content to the appropriate place in the document library, and it automatically appears on any page that has the document library web part. That’s a huge win,” says Wallbridge.

Moving to an intelligent platform like SharePoint that we don’t need to keep updating, one that’s constantly up to date, with Microsoft adding features all the time—it’s fantastic!”

– Mike Palmer

City of Victoria

Equally important is Teams, which had been central to Palmer’s initiative even before COVID-19 reshaped how the City of Victoria’s employees worked. Wallbridge points to a shining example. One of Regroove’s first projects with the IT group was the creation of Victoria’s emergency operations centre (EOC). “We created a template and customizations in Teams so that whenever a citywide emergency occurs, they can spin up an EOC team in 10 minutes and respond,” says Wallbridge. This experience proved invaluable when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Adds Palmer:

“The City of Victoria’s Engagement Department uses SharePoint to store and track documentation in the background during the crisis. The IT group uses templates in Teams to spin up an EOC in minutes. Once the EOC is up and running, we use Teams to manage the city’s response and coordinate communication among emergency services, citywide core services, provincial government agencies, and volunteer organisations.”

Microsoft 365 helps the modern workforce evolve

For Palmer and Follis, embracing the modern workplace means no end of possibilities. “For me,” says Follis, “I love the potential SharePoint gives us—the potential to own our content, the potential not to have to go back to a vendor every time we want to change how a page looks. We have only hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can integrate into our hub as far as features and tools.”

Municipal government must be adaptable to meet the needs of residents and respond to changes at the provincial and national levels. As a cloud-based solution, Microsoft 365 is constantly changing, as well, with Microsoft releasing new features and tools all the time. Says Palmer, “Moving to an intelligent platform like SharePoint that we don’t need to keep updating, one that’s constantly up to date, with Microsoft adding features all the time—it’s fantastic!” Wallbridge echoes Palmer’s statement: “In the old days of intranets, you rolled them out, then replaced them every four years because the technology had changed. With SharePoint, you get continuous improvement over time.”

We have only hit the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we can integrate into our hub as far as features and tools.”

– Heather Follis

An intelligent intranet is just the beginning

Teams and the SharePoint-based intranet are essential to the City of Victoria’s continued functioning during the coronavirus pandemic. “With COVID-19 driving work from home, Teams use grew more than 400 per cent, says Palmer. The intranet has been the central source of COVID-19 work-from-home information and resources, and employee adoption rates reflect the site’s importance. “We’re seeing analytics we never had before,” says Palmer.

Follis’s colleagues have embraced the ease of content publishing that SharePoint offers. Says Follis, “When I train my team members to publish content on our intranet, the first thing I say to them is, ‘You’re going to be surprised at how easy this is.’”

The City of Victoria’s transition to a modern workplace continues. “Now that we’re on this strategic platform, we can fully integrate our back-end systems through Power Automate and the richness of Microsoft 365. I like to keep things simple, so as soon as I can eliminate a third-party point solution and double down on our core platform, that’s a big win,” says Palmer.