Matthew Cain

Personal blog. Day job: Customer services, digital and data in Hackney

Why the simple solution to the Office of Local Government will be the more painful choice 

Central government is starting to explain what it intends for its new ‘Office of Local Government’. The Secretary of State explained that the body would analyse data covering areas such as education, recycling and social care and produce an annual report so that: 

“taxpayers will be able to see which councils are going furthest on the environment, which have really transformative children’s services and which are providing the best value for money”. 

Local authorities may be tempted to choose a simple solution to meeting the requirements of the new Office of Local Government. The combination of it not being a local priority, a deadline that suits someone else and having to meet unfunded duties whilst we all having to look for ways to cut services to balance the books means that many Chiefs will be looking for the easiest way to get this off the ‘to do’ list.

The easy way will look something like this: 

  1. Buy software that’s apparently been built for this specific purpose. 
  2. Require each service to input data on a recurring basis
  3. Employ someone centrally to chase the updates
  4. Record a narrative and actions and repeat the cycle

Sounds simple. Here’s why it’ll be painful.

There isn’t widely used software to do this today because no data driven organisations work this way. The data you’re reporting won’t come from the software. It’ll likely be a compound measure that will be derived from at least two other data points, stored in different systems and gather for different (service delivery) purposes. The task of amalgamating and (inevitably) cleaning the data will be added on to someone’s existing duties. The reporting period required won’t align to the rhythms of the service. 

Data-driven organisations have got data visualisation tools and business intelligence platforms which interrogate data in near real time to develop predictive models, identify correlations and causations and enable data to be interrogated. You might know this because you’ve already got one. So your simple solution will be to use sub-scale software or use convoluted and less safe alternatives, creating ever more complexity in your data architecture and ever more arguments about which version is the “truth”.

It’ll be painful because no data driven organisation focuses so much effort on reporting quarterly in arrears (or worse). They might run quarterly reports, but not to find out that the delivery function had a problem five months earlier. By the time you’ve run the reports, agreed the data and had the meeting the problem will have evolved. You’ll be watching stars.

It’ll be painful because it will increase the less appealing aspects of your culture. It’ll make the service performance sovereign, not the experience of the people whose needs it should meet. It’ll drive an individual focus on particular measures rather than a system understanding of what’s happening to people, fragmented across the different parts of your organisation. No one involved will be incentivised to have an honest appraisal of the systemic issues driving performance. You’ll be wanting to bring together more integrated focus and working, while all the time your reporting mechanisms will be driving wedges between your teams.

It’ll be painful because it will retrench your data skills. The incentive to get that data “right” will be huge given its purpose. So spreadsheets and emails will fly around before data is committed to the reporting system and hours will be spent trying to make sure that the numbers for submission to the central machinery give the right answer. And if you’re lucky, the opportunity cost to your organisation will have been that those people could have been building predictive models, or machine learning algorithms. If you’re less fortunate they will find rewarding jobs.

And after all of this Sisyphean effort, you’ll have a worse understanding of your residents’ experience. Take one metric I know too well: the average waiting time on the phone to speak to a customer services agent. When operational management made this their priority measure for success, they used to activate ’purple mode’. They answered the phone quickly and wrote down your name and number to call you back. So the metric looked good (the calls were answered quickly) but the time taken to return the call and whether the call resulted in the resident receiving the service they needed weren’t recorded. Those weren’t PIs.

The average waiting time reflects just one element of the customer experience and only the first step in their journey to having their problem sorted. But it was the only PI.

The average waiting time was (and remains) a function of the number of calls coming in and the number of staff to answer them. But management of PIs doesn’t lend itself easily to enquiring why. Whether the jobs are completed efficiently and correctly is one of the main drivers of demand. But those are separate PIs led by other people.

All those things are now visible on our business intelligence tool, many automatically. It doesn’t ensure that people ask the right questions. But it removes the effort from providing the data. And frees us up to do something with it (identifying people who haven’t accessed the service and targeting the areas where demand drivers need most attention, for example).

Of course, we could ask if any of this is well intentioned. Is comparing the performance of your local authority with one next door going to support levelling up through mobility? Is it going to enhance democratic accountability? Or would a focus on the systemic issues and root causes lead to better outcomes for citizens? That’s for others to answer.

Faced with this choice, the harder and smarter answer would be to:

  1. Start with culture and ways of working: how do you curate the right conversations about problems, performance and progress?
  2. Honour your commitment to the Local Digital Declaration and liberate data from legacy systems that inhibit you from capturing high quality data once at the point where the work is done and used many times to join up services and give the full picture of residents’ experience
  3. Use data to deliver better public services that are more personalised and with faster feedback loops
  4. Work in the open, with residents and partners to show why this approach makes your place one in which citizens can lead better lives, not simplify success down to your accountability to DLUHC’s annual report

Leading through a cyberattack

Letter to leaders

A conversation this week helped me reflect on the high calibre of leadership in Hackney Council that has been key to our work to recover from our cyberattack. At the time I took parts of this for granted because I’d not seen anything different. This letter is to leaders of public sector organisations that have experienced (or will experience*) a similar situation to ours.

* Sadly, trends in cyber crime suggest that there will be many more to come.

Dear Chief, 

You aren’t alone, but you’re feeling lonely right now. And you are also probably feeling confused and a bit frightened. You knew technology was important but didn’t really know that you also ran a technology organisation. And right now you have very little. Your staff can only see the things they can’t do. 

And you’re probably feeling angry. At the criminals who’ve attacked you. Because of the agenda you can’t now deliver. And probably more than a little bit at your IT. You were never entirely sure you were ‘getting it right’ with technology. There was always a gap between what suppliers told you, what you read about and what you saw day to day. And that gap is now a chasm. 

But enough about you. What about the job you need to do now? Firstly, do no harm. You are desperate to get back to business as usual. But there’s something more important. You must make sure you don’t have another cyberattack. They aren’t like house fires. If you rush recovery, you might just introduce a new threat. So whilst you’re desperate to recover, you need to give your team the time to be thorough, no matter how frustrating that will feel. 

Whilst you’d love to turn the clock back, the job of recovery isn’t to return to what you had. You now need to lead transformation of your organisation’s technology and data, and its relationship to it. You need to take your senior leaders through some core concepts that they might feel isn’t their job to understand. Whether it’s their role as information asset owners (and how that relates to protect the people you serve who have been affected by the attack), why cloud computing is an essential part of your recovery, or why your strategic imperative is managing data, not recovering legacy systems. 

Normally a change management cycle (or just grief cycle in this instance) gives time to work through awareness and then desire, but you’ve got to accelerate through that at a speed you and your organisation are unlikely to have seen before. You are going to need to make strategic decisions quickly and make sure that your decision making processes support that. For example, your IT team shouldn’t have to invest time and and capital justifying why now isn’t the time for a return to legacy software and why the greater security and agility offered by cloud is where they should focus. 

You’ll want answers to questions about why we’re here. You’ll be frustrated to learn about how complicated the recovery work will be and the lack of definitive answers. But asking the questions more frequently or more aggressively won’t change the position. It just incentivises your team to divert their energies from the work that is most essential to getting your services back up and running. 

Has your team got the skills to recover? Bringing in outsiders to run the strategy might be tempting but could easily become a significant impediment to recovery. Your team alone understands the architecture of what was attacked. They don’t need to spend time explaining that to outsiders. They may need specialist help – in digital forensics, in building cloud infrastructure or recovering databases – but let them describe what they need. 

But that doesn’t mean your team can run all the things. You’ll want to tell the public what does and doesn’t work, and when it will return. But the attackers are watching you, so you must take care to not help them hurt you more. And the same IT team tasked with recovery will be getting a huge range of demands from colleagues, regulators, politicians, other organisations and salesmen. The team are now your most valuable assets – give them the protection and space to do their best possible work. 

You also need a good communicator who can understand enough of the detail, but who can translate the recovery path, uncertainties and all, to a range of different audiences in language that they will understand. Your service users nd partner organisations will be looking for information you probably don’t have, and you’ll need to find ways to inform and reassure, without confusing. The task will become more complex as you move away from the ‘day by day’ accounts of the initial work towards the slower and more frustrating long tail of recovery initiatives.

You’ll be desperate to know that the team is working as hard as they can. But you won’t recover from your cyberattack this week or even next month. You’ll need them working effectively at a sustainable pace – quite possibly into next year. Stand them down that first weekend. And the next. The time you ‘lose’ will be made up in time you’ll gain in reduced staff absences and avoiding exhausted people making mistakes. 

Your teams will also be grappling with as many emotions as you are experiencing yourself, and they’ll be looking to you to keep them calm, focused and supported. Recognise this and design the mental health and wellbeing support they need. And remember that you’ll need a break, too. The teams will follow your lead and will echo the way that you respond.

The team is also running more major projects simultaneously than any organisation would ever rationally take on. They are rebuilding a huge number of systems and dealing with critical needs across your organisation. Your governance is ill-equipped for this. Firstly, work with your support services so that they work with your IT team. You want to reduce the amount of recovery time spent justifying business cases or signing off contracts. But it also needs coordination across the organisation. Your IT team shouldn’t have to invent that governance. But nor must they be subject to a governance framework that measures the effectiveness of delivering against a plan, in linear fashion. A genuine collaboration around risk, user needs and change management will build a capability in your organisation that you’ll benefit from for years to come. 

This isn’t the moment for everyone to point at IT, saying ‘solve this problem’. You need to harness the passion and collective energies of staff that would otherwise be under-employed to develop the right solutions to keep things running while recovery work is taking place. But you had a corporate IT function for good reason – now is also not the time for a free-for-all. Make sure your teams working on interim solutions are being thoughtful about how data is captured and managed – that diligence now will pay back many times over when you are recovering your longer term systems and will help protect you from potential new threats. 

Your team is likely feeling considerable risk aversion. Yet as you embark on your largest concerted investment in IT for a generation, you must ask: ‘do we want to spend this money to go back to where we were, or to leap forward?’. ‘We use that software because that’s what they use in the other place’ must never again be a credible argument in your selection of IT. If you aren’t leading a conversation about modern technology with your organisation, your investment will be wasted. You’ll have faced an existential crisis and blinked. 

If you can do all of this, you might find yourself the leader of an organisation equipped for the technology age and have stepped forward many years in your strategic capabilities to meet the future challenges you were already focusing on. The opportunities for your organisation, the people it serves and your staff can become a competitive advantage. 

And if you’d like a chat, just get in touch. 


Matthew Cain

What Hackney’s award-winning Link Work has taught me about innovation

Weeknote 25.2022

Hackney Council’s Link Work programme won an award this week. It’s the most impactful thing I’ve achieved in my career to date, and it’s taught me that much of what I’ve assumed about innovation is wrong, so I wanted to share the story. 

A loosely held vision

Most of my life, I’ve driven visions that have come to me ever so quickly. They’ve been unmistakably mine. This was different. The development of Link Work had a long genesis. 

One evening, I told my boss that I was interested in expanding my responsibilities to incorporate customer services. I could see opportunities to make the face to face service a bit less ‘municipal’ and thought there were substantial opportunities to introduce automation into the service but I didn’t have a clear vision. 

Months later, I embarked on a leadership course and committed to finding a way of using the techniques of responsible leadership to help the Council save money through designing better services. I convened a set of conversations with my peers to understand what support they needed and designed the concept of an in-house Change Support Agency – a short-term experiment of a multidisciplinary team that would work to the agenda of our services over short engagements to accelerate their transformation initiatives. 

One weekend, I had a sleepless night and so read Radical Help by Hilary Cottam. I didn’t agree with its conclusions but it was impossible not to be excited by the core concepts: that strong relationships, drawing out people’s strengths and designing a range of different support around their needs, was more effective and probably cheaper than making eligibility criteria for statutory services more strict. 

In late 2019, the Mayor convened a steering group to focus on customer services and my big pitch was ‘we’ve got better at delivering transactional services. Now we need to focus on the role of customer services in high cost, relational services’. To help bed-in Zoe Tyndall, who joined to lead the Change Support Agency Zoe focused on four complex customer journeys (hoarding, noise, debt and digital inclusion).

And then, a week before lockdown, I was made responsible for customer services in Hackney. Shortly thereafter I had a call from the Head of Communications asking me to set up a phone line and a form for people to ask and offer help. I was determined the phone line would be 3111, mirroring the 111 NHS service and used verbs to describe ‘I Need Help’. 

Simultaneously, I knew from a previous discovery that our adult social care front door was under pressure. I offered that customer services take the calls so that, with the greater productivity we were seeing with remote working, we would alleviate the pressure on the team in adult social care. The ‘Three conversations’ approach was being trialled in adults, so I also sought to provide reassurance by training customer services staff in those techniques. Our public health team was integral in helping the customer services team use the Make Every Contact Count method to have better conversations with residents and then provide them the space and confidence to develop reflective practices. 

I distinctly remember a hot day shortly before Easter 2020 where I had a really clear view of the product landscape that would enable us to scale Link Work. I wasn’t able to corral my team around this, but the way that we pulled together Find Support Services, Better Conversations and I Need Help was part of that. The arrival of the Data Platform to help us identify people who might benefit from Link Work wasn’t coincidental but it was more than opportunistic. 

Each of these things could have taken us to a different outcome. They could have existed largely independently of each other. We also didn’t bring them together too soon, which I think is equally important. There was no large programme of change. The smaller initiatives had space to develop at their own pace, connecting them up when ready. 

A success with many owners and few losers

I dont feel the same relationship with Link Work that I do with some of our other accomplishments. Because I know what a small part I’ve played in making it real and how many more people have put a personal stamp on its design. 

There are lots of different people who could all legitimately claim to be a co-founder of Link Work. Without each development, incarnation, tweak it wouldn’t be what it is today. Rashmi and Selwyn developing the database and form the first weekend of lockdown and Emma’s work on the pattern library was invaluable. Sonia and the Community Partnerships Network that turned Find Support Services from a map to a network of advice organisations. Kate, the conversations method and the reflective practice. Liz, Daro and the team that built the single views with flags of potential vulnerability. Tim and the team of brave customer services advisors, supported unfailingly by Kelly. Then Zoe and Claudia who turned Link Work into what it is today. And leaders like Ilona and Jen who supported us at show & tells and through reflective practices, rather than wasting time worrying about whether we were encroaching on their professional expertise. 

Too often in public services the hangovers from the days of ‘best value performance indicators’ means focus gets put on one measure without paying attention to the bigger picture and people’s end-to-end experience of services. In customer services that can lead to a singular focus on waiting times, without considering deeper issues that cause demand and repeat contact when people don’t get the service they need or when getting something done becomes too complicated. The Link Work approach is exciting because it’s putting people first, taking complexity away from residents, and our analysis shows that as well as being a better experience it’s also cheaper for the Council (Josh and Claudia’s work is starting to demonstrate the social ROI too). 

Innovation not revolution

Most of my big ideas in life have been NEW. Even the ones that other people thought of first. 

All the elements for Link Work existed before we created Link Work. Customer services advisors helped people find solutions to problems. We had a Directory of Services. Frontline staff were trained in Make Every Contact Count. We had data on which residents were most likely to face challenges. There are versions of Link Work happening in Newham, Barking & Dagenham, and Wigan, to name just a few. 

The things we brought together, the order in which we brought them together all made Link Work what it is today. 

Relentless focus on quality over scaling

Founders are under pressure to achieve scale rapidly. Sometimes that’s vanity, sometimes that’s funding. In our context, that could have looked like a significant publicity drive or even just a significant amount of internal awareness-raising. Occasionally I’ve even been frustrated by how little I’ve seen people get excited by Link Work. 

Zoe gently resisted this at the right times.  Much of the importance of Claudia’s work has been the focus on the quality of Link Work. The review by UCL’s IIPP was intended to give further challenge to ask if we were doing the right thing. I think we’ve spent far more time making sure we’re ‘getting it right’ than pushing its development into something bigger. 

Energy for opportunism

There’s a lot of innovation chat about the importance of focus and strategy. Often, Link Work benefitted from opportunism. Zoe was hugely effective at spotting new government initiatives that required the Council to ‘do a thing’ and turning them into opportunities for the Link Work approach. By consistently making customer services ‘open for opportunities’ we put the service at the forefront of problem-solving for other busy, over-stretched departments. 

The right leadership

Link Work has benefitted from the right kinds of leadership at the right times. Councillors Kennedy and Maxwell asked all the right questions but continued to be gently supportive through the gestation. The Mayor was emphasising the importance of really listening to what resident need and comfortable in prioritising talking to frontline staff to learn from, and reward their development. 

The senior leader who once summoned me to a meeting for mentioning a ‘social work-informed approach’ to instruct me that only Social Workers could practice Social Work because Social Work is special, stepped out of the way. 

In some of the longest days of my life, I made sure to find time to have conversations with a range people to get their ideas about how to develop the service. Most of these had no obvious actions or conclusions.  Many times I wanted to do something  to demonstrate my commitment to succeeding but couldn’t find the right thing to do. I hope that I achieved more by letting things happen around me. 

Very occasionally we have insisted on Link Work. Sometimes we set targets for Link Work to make sure it happened regardless of events. The new leadership team in customer services had no choice but to whole-heartedly back Link Work – though were of course supportive anyway. 

Rewarding the right things

Innovation in public services can be found up and down the country. There’s always an intrinsic motivation. But it doesn’t have quite the same glamour as being the founder of a unicorn. That’s why recognition like the Digital Leaders Innovation award we received are also important. People respond to positive reinforcement. Bros, hoodies and garages will always have a place in our consciousness as drivers of innovation but there are less visibly heroic approaches to innovation that can also make a positive impact on people’s lives. 


Weeknote 20.22

My first weeknote for a while. Purdah is a handy excuse, but there were a couple of weeks where I just couldn’t face it – and then I fell out of the habit. Tonight it’s just a desperate attempt to spend some time not thinking about Sunday; its possibilities. 

Cost of living has been high profile for a number of months. Zoe’s team has been working across the council to scope the opportunities and challenges associated with providing an income maximisation service. We administer a number of small grants for people in crisis, and there are wider support opportunities available in the voluntary sector. The team’s building on its effective work to increase the efficacy of the DHP service and it’s an exciting project. 

Agile isn’t hard. But it’s easy (possibly easier, even) to make the simple things harder than they need to be and neglect entirely the bits that are deceptively difficult. Our convention has been to work in sprints because of the benefits the fortnightly rythms provide for stakeholder engagement. But we don’t consistently set sprint goals that express the value delivered for users and they’re rarely quantitative. I’m pleased with the tracker idea that Alex has developed and David is picking up through the Modern Tools programme.

Making good documentation so often becomes like New Years Resolutions. But we’ve got a couple of exciting opportunities to pitch our products to other councils so Marian has been doing the hard work to explain the value of what we’ve done and how it works, at a high level, so that colleagues in other places can consider our open source solutions alongside some of the more high profile alteratives. 

Personally I’m never more tedious than when I discover something which I should have known earlier. It makes me an evangelist out of a sense of guilt and desperation. My latest revelation has been the importance of looking beyond delivering something towards how we support it. We’ve got a couple of things at the moment where we’re picking up work that’s got a clear vision for getting to live but nothing beyond that point. I’m also currently responsible for applications support, which is part of it. But I need to work a bit harder on how I pitch it because I know that my former self wouldn’t have listened carefully to my current self. 

In the work of the TDA (ie outside the meeting) we realised the value of good governance and our leadership principles. We’ve twice visited a thorny data sharing issue with a software supplier. We needed to check back to the notes to make sure we’d correctly interpreted the decisions that we’d made and were committing to the right actions once we’d disagreed well.

One of the tensions In grappling with at the moment is expediency versus strategy. We’ve got a huge strategic potential to develop a high quality people record, using a Person API across our built products. This leans into Hackney’s heritage in master data management and the valuable Citizen Index. But we also need to deliver value to users now and there’s alway a legitimate reason why the Person API isn’t quite right for now. Vision without execution is an hallucination.

Networks are important. I found the value of the senior managers network through COVID and the cyberattack. But the opposite also applied: with that pressure we didn’t have time to invest in personal relationships, and with a lot of change at senior level, that became harder. The Senior Managers’ Network this week wasn’t always easy but nevertheless represented an important opportunity to try and move beyond those conversations and rebuild some personal relationships. 

Each week I’ve been setting personal goals, until my recent weeknote hiatus. Mostly their absence has been negative. In spare pockets of time I’ve lacked the focal point that they’ve provided. But there’s been one obvious advantage: my diary has been a bit freer to respond to stuff that needs attention immediately. 

So on to next week – the purgatory between Wolves and Madrid. But with a conference about public sector data, a couple of projects that need focused attention as well as some financial planning I’m sure to be busy enough to stay distracted. 

One for the routine

Weeknote 12.22

For various reasons I can’t write a weeknote reflecting on the week as a whole, but I don’t want a second week to pass without writing something. 

Firstly, on the challenges of running a frontline operational service and my admiration for colleagues that have been doing so for some time. It’s been a tough fortnight or so in customer services. This time of year is always the busiest. The council tax billing season, rent increases for tenants, leaseholders nad people on benefit together with elections leads to higher demand. 

We’ve also seen an increase in the number of residents coming for help in the Service Centre. There are lots of really good things about this – and we wouldn;t have it any other way. But it’s about twice as quick to help someone on the phone than face to face so it’s put further pressure on the service we provide. We’ve also had more than 10% of staff sick with COVID. 

Large operational services aren’t challenging because each day comes with new surprises. But because whilst all that’s going on, you also need to make things better. And if you do too much of one at the expense of the other, you lose credibility. We’ve got a strong organisational focus on the immediate at the moment but I also know that the seasonality of customer services means we can’t wait to make the more fundamental changes that are needed. 

The other major thing about my week was speaking to a cyber security conference about what we learnt through recovering from the cyberattack. I took a few examples of datasets which I believe are components of critical national infrastructure and explained some of the challenges we faced in making industry-standard business applicaitons conform to NCSC guidelines. In short, it is harder than it should be to run them in a web-first, zero-trust, two factor authentication, cloud-based architecture. This is no one’s fault and everyone’s fault. Only urgent, concerted action across the sector and with the active participation of central government can solve this. I hoped that a dose of self righteous anger helped at least someone in the audience to believe that we can and must change. 

Next week, I’m on holiday abroad. I’ve been lucky that it’s not my first trip since lockdown. But it’s still much needed. I’m getting irritated about things that I can usually brush off. And then when I get back I’ll have to summon the focus to think about something other than the result against City. Whatever that may be, 

Was it just the Interlull?

Weeknote 12.22

If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all – my Mum used to say. She probably still does. But that’s never knowingly prevented me posting a weeknote. 

The reasons this week was one of the most personally challenging I’ve ever had at work don’t lend themselves well to working in the open. Or maybe I’m just suffering from the consequences of an international break. The one that happens just as the season is reaching its crescendo is almost always the cruellest. 

But here are three broad themes that I have found interesting. 

  1. Being a good ally

The Child Q case has affected lots of colleagues deeply and I feel like our internal response has been empathic and comprehensive. Coincidentally, the IT strategy show & tell provided a space to a group of non White men to share their fears and thoughts about what our team could do differently to provide more opportunities for career development and advancement. I’ve been learning a lot about white privilege and thinking carefully about diversity and inclusion over the last 18 months or so. But I suspect I’m not yet a good ally. 

  1. The matter with words that matter

I’ve received feedback, up and down, recently which has made me reflect on words that matter. In particular, how one person’s off-hand statement can be the thing that sticks with the listener for some time after. It’s equally true of emails. I know that personally, I’ve been less careful with what I’ve said of late. A crisis can do that to you but so also can comfort and certainty. As I was drifting off to sleep one night, I reflected: this is the problem with the onset of middle age. You’ve seen enough that you think you know what’s right and you come to decisions quicker. But it also makes you less attuned to other perspectives.

  1. When to observe and when to act

We’ve been observing a problem for some time, and acted decisively this week. For some of our challenges, there aren’t a significant number of options. For example, if you’re tied into a long contract for something that isn’t working both parties know that – other than getting cross – there’s not actually much you can do. And posturing is tiresome. But weighing up the scale of problems and balancing them against the costs of change is more judgement than science. What we’ve learnt this week suggests we did the right thing. I suspect the next few weeks will help us understand if we did it in the right way. 

Some positives, despite

Weeknote 11.22

I suppose I’m fortunate not to have many weeks like this. Perhaps I should have spotted the pattern before I attempted my first ever shave with a cutthroat razor on Friday morning. Somehow emerging from the bathroom covered in small nicks felt a fitting end to the week. 

It all began with a list of all the things that needed something from me. Writing them all down wasn’t helpful. It just highlighted how many there were. At least last week I just had a general sensation of there being too many. There aren’t any fewer today. 

With that whinge out of the way, here are some things to celebrate:

  • We’ve developed an SROI model to guide our Link Work, assessing the financial equivalent cost to the interventions and the value for each resident we’ve supported. We’re showing a 6% return at the moment which isn’t overwhelming but also feels credible
  • One of the residents we helped through Link Work was sufficiently motivated that we’re now exploring whether they could come and work for the Council
  • Our Events Team in customer services put on their first social – and colleagues were looking particularly smart in the office on Friday
  • I was particularly impressed by colleagues in the finance systems team as they briefed me on the challenges we’d had with Mastercard payments – and the work that they do to support the end of the financial year; part of my responsibilities running the applications team
  • The Techncial Design Authority had a healthy retrospective. We did it through the medium of a ‘letter to a significant other’ to help us talk about the work in non-technical ways and find an accessible way of talking about the outcomes we’ve achieved. Rob reminded us that we can’t just ‘bank’ the things that have been positive about the first 10 meetings; we’ll need to continue upholding our values
  • The Delivery Healthcheck meeting was clearly different from the recovery board which showed that we’d learnt from that retrospective, and I could see the added value in the conversation about priorities and people (rather than tactical issues with projects; though they still have their place)
  • I promised last Friday to help move forward a procurement (for Child Protection Information Sharing services), which I did
  • We used the OKRs that we established for our Documents Products team to assess the progress we made. My take-away was that we’d made better progress towards our objectives than towards our Key Results. I’d certainly prefer it that way around!
  • We had a good conversation with colleagues in our recruitment service about a new approach that we’re going to try. They were really supportive and enabling, which was energising

Personally, I got a massive buzz from seeing To Kill a Mockingbird at the Gielgud Theatre with my children on Monday night (which wasn’t ideal, but COVID meant the performance was reorganised twice) and then, of course, the Liverpool game on Wednesday night. It wasn’t quite enough to provide perspective on other things, but they were a good distraciton. 

One of the challenges that I’ve long grappled with is when to sweat the small things. Done to a micro level, you disempower teams, entangle yourself in problems and leave undone the job you’re paid for. Look too large and you can write off almost all problems as something that will be forgotten in a year’s time. This week helped remind me of three things that are never too small to forget about:

  1. What interactions between good people says about the health of your team
  2. What the speed of feedback loops says about the health of a piece of work
  3. What you can learn from how people articulate something they need to do 

For much of the last eighteen months, I haven’t been able to give these things much attention. We’ve been fortunate not to have to, but I need to be more active in making those matter. 

Next week

I need to define success on my own terms next week, partly as a way of dealing with the things where I’m not succeeding. Bits of the goals need to remain private, but to give you a glimpse, I’m wondering:

  1. Does our SROI stand up to scrutiny and can we use some of our customer insights to guide priorities for action?
  2. How might we explain one of our digital services so that we understand how it compares with a commercial alternative?
  3. How do I ensure I understand the priorities for our applications teams and where I can most help them?
  4. How might we use the support we need to provide to colleagues in adults for our case recording tools to provide an exemplar for other services to follow?

Out of all the things, some key themes emerge

Weeknote 10.2022

I’m absolutely convinced I put in a significant shift this week. Yet on Friday when I compared progress against my goals for the week I was left spluttering: surely there had to be a mistake? I couldn’t have failed this badly! Maybe two nights out distorted my sense of how much I’d actually done.

So here’s a flavour of what the week entailed, so you can come to your own conclusions. 

I will take temporary charge of our applications management teams from next week, following some recent departures from the team. I had a detailed discussion with the team about the key pieces of work involved to ensure we had the right support arrangements in place for our social care products, whilst recognising where we would need to ‘respond to events’. I also designed a format for the weekly meeting that would help us get a shared sense of the priorities, blockers and performance. I’m feeling energised by the opportunity. 

We briefed a group of councillors on the software we’ve developed in partnership with FutureGov to manage applications to join the housing register. I sprang a surprise on the team by asking them to show it on a mobile, as they began the demo. Of course it worked! At the end of the week the Product Owner and I started scoping out the roadmap for further improvements – particularly around applicants recording a change of circumstances. The project also represents an interesting design challenge; for most people, joining the housing register isn’t their best option for securing appropriate housing. So whilst we want to make it easy for people who need to, the user need is more complex than the transactional service suggests. 

I also dipped into the design of the service to distribute the government’s energy rebate to council taxpayers. For residents in receipt of direct debit, it’s really quite straightforward. But it quickly becomes complex for those that aren’t and where people live together but don’t share money (students sharing a house, for example). The guidance makes a number of assumptions about how the service will be provided but doesn’t provide any of the tools to enable it to be done. There have been lots of pan-London conversations so we’re learning from each other but inevitably pace and capacity will produce different processes to achieve the same outcome. 

On Thursday morning I joined an executive education course run by DLUHC and AWS. We heard some great examples of digital transformation from around the world, thanks to Liam Maxwell. I feel pretty confident that I know where innovation is happening across England but know that I’m completely unsighted on innovation in other cities around the world. GDS was much-mimicked on a national level, but I’d love to know more about regional and local initiatives. Mark Thompson was at his provocative best (which, given the format, is particularly impressive). I’m sure he both managed to criticise the sector for being too dependent on too few suppliers and not collaborating enough. 

Our fortnightly repairs improvement board met, The board is focused on a significant number of short term actions to address a backlog of repairs. Part of the discussion was focused on our work to enable a major contractor to use our systems. This will enable us to provide a significantly better experience because currently we have to put a tenant on hold and phone the contractor before we can update them on the progress of a repair. We’re also gearing up to provide the ability to book a repair online, reusing the work developed by City of Lincoln (which in turn, built on work we did in 2019). 

The previous day, the Chief Executive had convened a small group to discuss transformation in the borough. The starting point was very different – our capabilities, our budgets and the challenges in our communities. Both of these perspectives are vitally important. We can’t deliver meaningful change if we don’t truly understand where we are. And we can’t change radically if we don’t understand how things could be profoundly different. But the contrast between these three conversations (repairs, AWS and our transformation) made me reflect on how often the different horizons, drivers and lived experiences more frequently constrain rather than enable transformation. 

Different perspectives was also an underlying feature of the retrospective that our management team had on Monday. We’ve talked previously about being aware of where we might be in danger of being too similar. So this was a healthy exercise, and I hope that I listened more than I spoke because I learnt more about my own strengths and weaknesses. 

There were some other bits, too:

  • We’ve been working closely with Idox on the launch of a new piece of software to manage building control, which also enables residents to self-serve. After a couple of irritating delays due to small but important bugs, we’re expecting to be able to launch it next week – thanks to the persistence and patience of Sachin and Soraya
  • I caught up with Chris to learn more about his experiences as a solution architect on our Single View project which, in turn, helped me think more carefully about how we work with agencies
  • Our customer services management team met to develop our service OKRs for the next financial year
  • I was quizzed as part of a review of how our facilities management and property teams work together
  • I organised a set of short check-ins with some of our new joiners in customer services to learn more about how we welcome, train and support new colleagues 
  • There’s a piece of work where we’re not sure if we’re making the right decisions about what to buy and what to build, so we’re agreeing how we best explore that at pace – delivering where we can but ensuring we don’t spend money that we later regret

So, maybe I just didn’t set the right goals. Maybe I wasn’t disciplined enough in saying no. Probably a bit of both. So I’d love to commit publicly to my goals for the next week. But right now, I need to take a bit of time to filter. And right, right now, I need to do a bit of Cello practice. I’ve a concert in 11 hours and the Cello’s start two of the pieces. If the tuning isn’t bang-on, we’ll lose both members of the audience. 

Outcomes and feedback loops

Weeknote 9.2022

I skimmed through my last weeknote before beginning to reflect on this week. It seems laughable now. I actually thought I might spend three days getting stuck into something meaty. Such naivety. It mostly felt like bouncing between multiple topics and issues without much structure or meaning. Looking back, though, there were some clear themes. 

Clear outcomes 

We’ve been working hard to develop a clear set of objectives and key results for our key projects. I feel increasingly confident in framing objectives and spotting ones that lack the clarity they need to know when they’re achieved. We’re starting to spot opportunities to use them to guide prioritisation. And looking back I can see projects we did previously that would have been easier if they had a clearer framework to guide their work. One of my fears and hopes is that the clarity of the objectives gives teams sufficient freedom to design, and change their work as they learn more about how to meet the objectives. At the moment I don’t have quite enough evidence in the ‘for’ or ‘against’ column to be completely confident. 

Our best work

Our ICT strategy show & tell heard from some of the team that have been working to increase the number of people who get Discretionary Housing Payment in Hackney. The team is empowered to meet a set of clear outcomes, is multidisciplinary (including behavioural insights, benefits expertise, service design, user research) and iterating their approach weekly in response to data. And each week we can see how many more people in Hackney are getting this support. The approach is guided by user-centred, Agile approaches but the process is worn lightly and they’ve been particularly thoughtful in working out how to lead the change with colleagues who’ve been working in the same way for many years. 

Not all projects can work like this. But we can be clearer about the opportunity costs associated with the time and effort that goes into projects that don’t have that clarity, leadership and purpose. 

I spoke to the GovICT conference in Westminster on Thursday about our work to develop APIs and how that enabled us to provide better, safer services more quickly to residents. I was giddy with the excitement of not talking about cyber security. The presentation was easy to pull together because we’ve worked in the open throughout. And it was great to be reminded of how the long term investment is starting to pay dividends, even though there’s much more we can do. 

Feedback loops

I have a pet theory that the core competence of any large organisation is managing complex change and that a key measure of its ability to do so depends on the speed at which it can observe, implement and evaluate change. 

We’ve tweaked the way that the IT recovery board is working, following a retrospective last week. We will be alternating the running of the group and dividing our time between focussing on specific projects and focussing on key themes. We decided not to do the same for the nascent Technical Design Authority (TDA), because the two need to learn from each other (whilst remaining distinct). 

There’s another piece of work I’m involved with where an action plan was developed in November and each fortnight we meet for 90 minutes to discuss progress on implementing the actions. My personal view is that not all of those actions are as relevant now and we’ve learnt that some other actions might also be necessary. But we don’t have a space in that piece of work to reflect and so we’re continuing on the hamster wheel of checking that we’ve done what we said we’d do, almost regardless of the consequences.

With that comparison in mind, I floated some tweaks to the TDA this week. We already had a packed agenda so I did it over email. I’m a bit uncomfortable canvassing views like that because it’s rarely a good way of making proposals better. But it felt more important to make the changes now rather than letting things drift for another couple of weeks.

We also had a couple of important escalation meetings with suppliers this week. Many of our suppliers are more comfortable with working in a waterfall fashion – because that’s what the sector is used to, and because often line of business applications are better suited to ‘all or nothing’ adoption. But one consequence of this is that it’s hard to spot problems until they’re big. One of the most important things we discussed was how to have regular touchpoints which enabled an open dialogue which is often so hard at a project board. 

Next week

Looking through my diary for the next couple of weeks, it would be easy to just bounce from one meeting to another. I’d certainly feel busy but not necessarily achieve much. So I’m going to carve out some time to define some clear goals. But right now, my son wants to play FIFA and I haven’t mopped the kitchen floor in a fortnight and I’ve learnt that goals set in haste don’t normally survive to Monday lunchtime. 

Looking long and acting short

Weeknote 8.2022

Just last week I was on holiday. It did actually feel like one. Little did I know that when I started reading Dresden by Sinclair McKay, there would be war again in Europe. Two years ago I heard the Army CGS say that global terrorism would look like a pimple on the nose compared to interstate conflict. The ability to look long yet deliver now, was a key theme of my week.

One of the big things I did this week was convene structured chats with team members to explore how we’re responding to the staff survey. The survey is a crucial annual temperature check of whether we’re working together well enough to respond to what residents need. There are changes we’ve already made and some more things starting so I needed feedback on whether these were right. 

We changed a lot, quickly in customer services as I started at the beginning of the pandemic. We’ve achieved some really big things which I assumed would take years, when I first got the job. But there are a number of things we’ve done which we need to keep reinforcing to make sure they stick (I talked earlier about how transformation remains dynamic not just an achievement). We need to work harder to discuss performance by taking a complete view. The unique ability to manage performance in real-time can lure us into actions that improve one thing only to create a problem elsewhere.

The second cohort of Link Workers completed their academy this week. This group has achieved some impressive outcomes for residents by listening to their problems and finding creative ways of brokering the support they need. It was particularly rewarding to spend time in my regular meeting with the Mayor – as our political lead – discussing the problems we tackled. Now we need to create the environment so that they can take the experience into the fundamental way they work so that the impetus doesn’t fade after the first experience. 

The recovery board had a retrospective this week (which I blogged about separately). One of the themes in this work is how we make the right decisions for now, whilst also looking at the longer term. Some of the biggest complexity associated with our work is navigating around things that were initially planned as tactical fixes or ‘quick wins’ which have become embedded through years of custom and practice. 

I had three conversations this week that helped me think differently about roadmaps. I’ve always been sceptical, frankly. Yes to a set of clear, mid-term outcomes. Yes to an immediate set of tasks. But articulating the route between those two points can be fraught with difficulty. But firstly, one of my peers said “you underestimate the value of roadmaps in showing staff that their area isn’t going to be forgotten”. And in a different conversation one of my team said “when you don’t have agency, a roadmap can help you look forward to when you’ll see improvements”.

I’m excited about next week. I’ve got three full days where I can focus on a single thing each day: we’re doing strategic planning on Monday, I’m at a conference on Thursday and Friday currently looks like a miracle. So there’s an opportunity to put some of this into practice.  Obviously it’s more likely that by midday on Monday I’ll be faced with so many different issues flying into the inbox that I’ll have forgotten all about it. But it’s nice to pretend. 

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