ICT during the Covid-19 pandemic: Doubling of cyber-attacks & mobilising entire council departments to work from home

It’s been a hectic few months for the ICT team at Bridgend County Borough Council – deploying hundreds of laptops during a worldwide shortage, dealing with twice the number of cyber-attacks and ensuring that council staff have been able to work from home.

The additional workload has been on top of supporting schools as teachers moved towards online learning, repurposing over 500 laptops and ICT devices for digitally excluded learners and ensuring local care homes had tablets so that residents could make video calls to their relatives.

The council’s ICT service is split between a systems team, data and network service specialists, and support and digital office staff.

Speaking about some of the challenges during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, ICT group manager Martin Bell said: “The amount of work that needed to be done was vast, and all in a very short timescale.

“While around 800 members of staff already used laptops, less than 100 of them practiced agile working at any one time. At our peak during Covid-19, there have been more than 1,600 staff working from home on laptops at the same time, and the success of this, with lots of staff homeworking at very short notice, is a positive sign of what the future may hold.

“In the days before lockdown, it became clear there would be a need for more agile working. Within the first few weeks, we issued more than 700 laptops at a time when there was a worldwide shortage of such equipment.”

Once delivered by suppliers the laptops had to undergo the council’s corporate build, which includes adding security settings and remote connections to the local authority’s network. A huge schedule of appointments then had to be organised so that members of staff could collect the laptops from ICT.

“The ICT team just got on with it – they knew it was a job that had to be done,” Martin said. “While many office staff were able to work from home, the ICT support team continued to come in five days a week for the first few weeks, and handed out up to 40 laptops a day.

“We already had some laptops in stock for a different project, and having a good relationship with a couple of suppliers enabled us to order another 350 very quickly.”

Among the teams who worked remotely from the start of lockdown was the council’s entire customer contact centre.

In facilitating the move for staff to work from home, the ICT team created more than 1,000 new Jabber profiles, enabling staff to receive calls on their usual office phone numbers while also providing secure Citrix access from personal computers and allowing secure online meetings to take place.

In the meantime, with the majority of council office staff now working from home, the ICT team dealt with twice the number of usual service desk calls.

In the early days of lockdown, logistical challenges involved ensuring social distancing rules could be met while organising the collection of laptops by staff, while subsequent challenges have involved an increase in cyber-attacks against the authority.

Martin said: “While cyber-security risks have heightened during the pandemic, we are very well prepared for them and have high levels of security measures in place, including high-capacity firewalls which enable staff to work from home securely.

“Currently, email phishing attacks pose the biggest threat, and we send out regular reminders to staff not to click on random links within emails if they do not know where it has come from.”

Unfortunately, the pandemic has meant a number of planned projects have had to be delayed, one of which has been the move of the council’s data centre to a different local authority building.

The Leader, Cllr Huw David, said: “Technology has been absolutely critical over the last few months. It has enabled staff to continue to work, school-children to access online learning materials, and members of our older population to stay in contact with their relatives.

“Staff within our ICT team have facilitated all of this, and have been ready to assist those in need of extra help, acting swiftly where necessary to ensure that staff can continue to work from home securely, and that the council has been able to continue to provide essential services throughout the pandemic.

“As a local authority, we are incredibly grateful for all of their work.”