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The organisation can rest assured that its IT is doing a good job!

Michael Dean discusses Northern Ireland Housing Executive’s accreditation to the National Computing Centre Standard for IT Departments with Colleen Long Assistant Director and Head of IT Services at NIHE.


The Northern Ireland Housing Association (NIHE) which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year is Northern Ireland’s Regional Housing Authority, a unique position in UK Public Administration. The organisation was created during a very difficult period in Northern Ireland‘s history with the aim of ensuring equality of treatment and fair access to social housing by the entire community.

NIHE IT Management Team
Colleen Long (centre) and her team

NIHE employ over 3,000 staff and manage in excess of 90,000 homes; they are also responsible for regularly examining housing conditions and requirements, demolition and clearance of unfit houses, improving the condition of existing housing stock and liaising with District Councils and housing associations. In addition NIHE is the Home Energy Conservation Authority for Northern Ireland, administrate the Housing Benefit and Rates Relief Schemes and provide traveller accommodation. Last year NIHE invested over £525m in the local economy and administered over £570m in housing benefit payments.

Colleen Long joined NIHE in 1987 and has been Assistant Director and Head of IT Services since 2007, and as NIHE’s responsibilities have increased over the years, she has seen a significant amount of change in IT. “The most notable development was a large scale business modernisation programme which included the appointment of BT in 2004 as a strategic ICT services partner to support the delivery and operation of all IS/IT services. The partnership has now been in operation for six years and during that time there has been a significant programme of work completed including the transfer of key services from an in-house service support model to a fully managed operational service in the BT Data Centre, the selection and implementation of a new EDRMS, the introduction of a secure remote access capability to support remote working for staff and access to NIHE services for Housing Associations and the selection of a new Housing Management package. As well as supporting internal staff there are also over 2000 non NIHE staff using some of the NIHE IT systems.” She said.

“Here at NIHE we have a culture of doing things well,” Colleen says, “Other departments within NIHE have their own accreditations such as Investors in People, Customer Service Excellence and Charter Marks, even our Legal Team is ISO9001 accredited! We wanted to prove that we too are committed to continuous improvement and that we are doing things well, so that’s why we applied for accreditation to the NCC standard.”

The National Computing Standard for IT Departments (ITDA) examines an IT department’s performance against 110 common controls, enabling the department to compare and understand its own strengths and weaknesses. The ITDA is also an accreditation scheme, so those IT departments who meet or exceed the Standard will be awarded with a recognised accreditation to the NCC Standard. The ITDA provides a framework for Business Management, Business Direction, Business or Service Generation, Delivery and Operations, and Customer Relationships, enabling the accredited organisation to benchmark continuous improvement across the breadth of activities they typically undertake. Over 50 organisations have achieved or are currently going through accreditation.

“We liked the concept of an independent validation of what we were doing,” said Colleen, “and the fact that at the end of the process you get a bespoke Action Plan which identifies areas for improvement; this helps you prioritise activities. I also spoke with IT Assist, another accredited organisation based in Northern Ireland and they were very supportive of the ITDA process.”

However, because of NIHE’s service delivery approach, the work of strategic partner BT would also come under the spotlight too. “BT were really up for accreditation too, they felt that they were doing a good job and the accreditation would support this.” Said Colleen positively, “Credit where credit is due, we have travelled a long way with BT and yes there were some early teething problems, but things are working well now and I’ve got to thank them for the enthusiasm and work they shared with us in applying for accreditation.”

Colleen and her team were quietly confident that their procedures, policies and application would make the grade, but they were also willing to learn from the ITDA process. “For us this wasn’t a tick box exercise, we wanted to learn from the exercise and our assessor was very helpful in this respect, helping us identify what ‘good’ looked like in a number of areas.

To help them prepare for assessment, Colleen and her team met over several weeks to go through the accreditation workbook, identifying appropriate evidence for the assessment day. “The trick to successful preparation,” said Colleen, “is management team buy in. The whole team got behind the accreditation from the start and that meant that delegation was easy. We did identify a few issues but had the time to ensure they were addressed before the accreditation. Our partners at BT were very supportive and did their bit too to ensure that we had the necessary evidence by the due date.” Using the EDRMS system as a central repository for the evidence collated made the assessment day run smoothly.

At the end of the assessment visit the assessor recommended accreditation to the standard. NIHE did very well across a broad spectrum of criteria and the NCC Moderator subsequently praised NIHE for a noticeably solid set of results. The assessment however, did identify areas for improvement and these have been highlighted in the ITDA Action Plan. Progress against these actions will be reviewed in a year’s time at the time of Light Touch Review – a brief annual review to satisfy NCC that standards are still being upheld.
“We have already started to address some of the Actions highlighted,” Colleen said, “As part of the ITDA, NCC ran a customer perceptions survey amongst our stakeholders and identified that an improvement in ‘empathy’ would help.

Whilst news of the IT Department’s success has still to filter down to all staff in the organisation and partners, the team are very pleased with their achievement. “Now we have the independent recognition that we are doing the right things the right way morale has been boosted. Also, the organisation can rest assured that its IT is doing a good job, having been benchmarked as amongst the best. Our focus now will be on the Action Plan and continuous improvement!” Rallied Colleen.

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