Matthew Cain

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

Weeknote v10.15

Week beginning 12 April

Focus for the week

I set four goals for this week and spent just enough time on each to feel like I contributed towards their progress (one is probably better not shared openly). 

  • An agreed approach for document management in revenues and benefits which is clear communicated
  • Define the remaining  work & timeframes involved in providing access to services over PSN and connecting an older application which requires access over VPN 
  • The data platform project is clear what value it will deliver first to users

Whilst two are still work in progress, it felt like a week with more comprehensive progress. I also avoided the Friday morning anxiety that I get most weeks as we prepared the update for ‘Silver’ – the Directors and Heads of Service meeting to discuss recovery progress. 

In addition to the work I expected at the start of the week, we also grappled with a system outage over the weekend and in to Monday afternoon. I didn’t contribute much, in truth, but tried to hold the ring between teams but not so tightly that I was a blocker. We were fortunate that it resolved on Monday because I suspect that any longer would have had a material impact on the rest of the week. 

The process of setting the goals across the different workstreams is also starting to generate a useful conversation both amongst the workstream leads and at our recovery meetings. We’ve been working in this way for four weeks now so it’s a helpful reminder that sometimes it takes a few goes before it something new starts to take hold. 

Ones to watch

Find my polling station – You can’t choose where you vote and it isn’t necessarily the closest place to where you live. It doesn’t change much, but before you know, you need to know. There’s a clear user need to find my polling station. And Democracy Club, an independent social enterprise, has built a service that’s better than what we can do. So we’re making sure the data about our polling stations is in good shape for Democracy Club’s tools to provide the right information to residents. 

Delivering and improving – we’ve got a couple of teams that are delivering significant new features whilst also listening and responding to user feedback about what we’ve done already (Repairs Hub and social care case recording are probably the best examples). That creates a challenge in everything that we do: How can show & tells find space to reflect and learn, whilst talking about what’s new? How do we make space for improvements whilst delivering new features? How do we prioritise improvements sufficiently to keep users’ confidence whilst focusing on the big things? How can we use the performance of the live service to teach us about prioritisation? 

Managing our housing finances – a significant number of council services found ways to design interim approaches for continuing through the cyberattack. And as we start to put those on a firmer footing, we need to manage the data as was, the data processed whilst the software was unavailable, and the new data. The work we’ve done in housing services with our partners Nudge conducted a Service Standard assessment to ensure we’re doing that as well as we can. It’s pretty damn bold not just to be recovering from the cyberattack but also be aiming high. 

What I’m learning

Digital chairing – I spend far more time facilitating or leading meetings than chairing. And I did a pretty ordinary job of chairing one meeting this week. Partly I’m blaming the software. Bad workmen do tend to blame the tool. But I reckon the video algorithm gives more prominence to those more active in the meeting. And when you’re chairing, that means they’re more visible to you in a way that silent participants are more visible when you’re face to face. 

Feedback – I received some feedback this week which was hard to hear. I knew it was right, I know it’s harder to solve than it looks. And I don’t know if I can. This was also the week where the determination to tackle the last piece of feedback started to fade. I think that the right thing to do is make sure I’m consistently adopting the previous piece of advice, not forget this, and promise to tackle it when I have the time.

Next week

I’ve set goals that aren’t the most pressing issues for any of the workstreams. There’s a logic, which I’m interested in setting: the pressing issues are well attended to and they may or may not be resolved in the next five days but my shadow won’t help that positively. Therefore, I’m better off setting goals which are about making the most of some important but not urgent tasks and thinking ahead to what next. It’ll be interesting to see how well this works or whether it risks causing a disconnection with the teams and their work.

Weeknote v10.14

Week beginning 5 April

Focus for the week

This week will have been dominated by the launch of the consultation on our new structure in customer services for some of the team. We’ve achieved an immense amount in the last 12 months – in fact 32 new ways to help our residents. 

A set of initiatives introduced in customer services in the last year

But mostly that’s been despite the way we’re organised. The proposals for a new structure are designed to make it easier to continue our ambitious plans and are the product of lots of conversations – with residents, colleagues in the service, people across the Council and our senior leaders through the Mayor’s customer services steering group. As a result, I hope they’re not surprising. Change can always be worrying but I hope we’ve reduced the stress by clearly signposting the direction of travel.

It’s taken longer than I wanted to get to this point and the nature of these things is that when I had to work hardest on the proposals, I had the least to say. But next week we can meet to discuss them together and I can start to get a sense of how they’ve been received. And whilst we’ve worked hard on the proposals, it’s important to listen carefully to the thoughts and ideas of the team. They know better than me what it takes to run a successful customer services operation. 

The vast majority of my time remains on the software and data recovery, cloud unless and data platform workstreams that I’m leading. After a week away, it took me a day to get up to speed But I was well supported by coming back to a number of handover notes – thanks particularly James and Soraya – and weeknotes. Yet even now, there remain 45 unattended-to emails in my inbox. I wrote three well-crafted goals for the week:

  1. A clear way timeline and process map for document processing in revenues and benefits that we have communicated to the heads of service, is consistent with our technology strategy
  2. Timeframes and documented tasks for establishing access to two important services which can only be accessed over a VPN 
  3. A social care show & tell which works towards a practitioner-led conversation and shows that we’re delivering value early and often

In hindsight they were too ambitious to achieve in 5 days, let alone just the three that I had available. However, we made progress on all three fronts. I was particularly pleased with the social care ‘show & share’ because we heard directly from practitioners and had useful feedback on how we could improve the record history for a service user. 

Ones to watch

Repairs Hub – I’ve been watching from the sidelines as Repairs Hub gets rolled out to more contractors. As our head of housing transformation told the Mayor on Friday, it’s a good example of where we’re building back better. It gives us visibility of a repair from start to finish, regardless of who does the job – as well as a view of possibly related jobs. After a period of gestation it’s good to see things really accelerating. 

Change Support – we’ve been incubating the Change Support Team for a little over a year. We thought its success would be judged on whether it made visible and calculable impact in the Council (done), whether it would stimulate further demand for those skills (done) and have a compound impact. The team has started to create a microsite to share its stories of change, underpinned by the tools of change (more powerfully, in my view). It’s still early days but I’m really pleased they’ve made this step.  

Housing register – this project is just beginning and I caught up with the early progress at the recent show & share. But perhaps the most exciting thing was to see how the project is enveloped in the way the benefits and housing team now work. The team has been communicating through weekly show & shares for more than a year and the housing register work was just one of four initiatives they showcased at the session. 

What I’m learning

A fresh perspective – One of the consistent benefits of having a break is being able to take a fresh perspective. Our rhythms and routines are great for creating predictability but the familiarity has costs, too. I used to work for someone who would routinely reorganise the office every six months and every time she did, it would have a ‘first day back at school’ affect. I’d particularly like to contribute towards making sure the good things are even better.  

The importance of teams, for better and worse – I read four books* about accomplishments last week. Three were historical accounts and one was a theory of how to achieve change, based on the author’s experience. And it reminded me that nearly every advice book underestimates the impact of people and their teams. And nearly every book that’s about a person is actually about a team. 

* The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947 by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple

Accomplishment: How to Achieve Ambitious and Challenging Things by Michael Barber

Next week

I’ve got two important papers to produce at the start of the week for senior leaders so I need enough space to do those well leaving enough energy that I’m not playing catch-up for the next four days. 

Weeknote v10.12

Week beginning 22 March

So that’s how it feels. Thursday: a feeling I’ve not had for at least 12 months. The feeling of release that comes with a release. Of knowing you did the right thing, a bold thing and an important thing. We recovered case notes from the social care system and could present them in the new case recording tool we’ve developed. 

There have been others of course, plenty of others. The work on Here to Help, the annual billing for council tax, webchat and now Repairs Hub. They were all important too. It’s not even my achievement. 

But I sat there, in front of anxious social care professionals in early January and told them we’d do this. That in March social workers would have access to this data. I said we would do the things that were fastest, safest and most sustainable to recover council services, and we did. And I had the Thursday team all-hands. And I think I kept on a level, although inside I was all Steve Ballmer

Of course there’s ample room for modesty. There are plenty of council services that aren’t yet back to where they need to be. Important aspects of social care remain work in progress. We’ll learn about what more we need to do next with this piece of work through next week and beyond. 

But none of those facts, important, big and challenging, can dilute the feeling. 

Focus for the week

I had six goals for the week of which the above was only one. And objectively, two of the other five weren’t achieved. I wanted to align teams around the cloud engineering roadmap, but we won’t do that until next week. I wanted to complete some software selections and actually just generated a flurry of management activity.

But the data platform team did an important and early first show & tell and I’m confident will do the right things in the first sprint. The show & tell highlighted some of the early reasons why the work is going to be important but hard. But the team also did a really nice job of taking the high-level concept that we’d stumbled across and already developed the next level of detail to be able to show people how it could work. 

We’ve also got a clear plan for recovery of our Comino records management software and work is starting. I’ve mixed views about some aspects of our software suppliers but it’s been really notable how many of the people who work there really care about the impact of the cyberattack and are invested personally in supporting our recovery. 

Ones to watch

Housing finance spine – a team led by our partners, Nudge Digital, has been working to develop the tools to help us close our annual accounts by coming to a clear view about account balances and payments since the attack. They’ve not only built a highly usable service but also the basis for how we’ll migrate the data from our old housing application. It’s particularly exciting to see projects where the scope means we are able to do the right thing for recovery, whilst also building a bridge to what we need in the future.

Case recording – Now’s the time to push not pull back, if we can summon the reserves of energy. We’ve got an exciting and important roadmap for the next four sprints. And we need to balance two modes: finding the right answers through careful research, prototyping and iteration with releasing features early and finding the product/market fit through observation and iteration. 

Document upload and evidence store – we knew in October that we would need the capability to manage residents’ documents and evidence. The work started in the context where people were struggling to see its immediate value and the bar for ‘good enough’ was quite high. So the team has been labouring away doing the hard work to understand user needs and make things simple. And it’s now a couple of sprints away from being able to make a really important contribution to our supporting key council services. 

What I’m learning

I had a great piece of feedback this week about how I’ve managed performance. It was specific, right and well-timed. You may have noticed, depending on the day of the week we spoke.  I find it particularly challenging because it’s easy to do, but hard to do well and done badly it has terrible consequences. I’ve sometimes shied away because of a fear (which can also be a bit arrogant) that my expectations might be unreasonably high.

Next week

I’m having a break. It’s not going to be easy. But I’ve worked hard to get ready for it. And I’m going to fill my time to the nearest second in order to stay off my devices. It’ll be Kindle all the way. 

Weeknote v10.11

Week beginning 15 March

The first week in a couple where I’ve ended it feeling relatively energetic and never dipped into ‘beleaguered’ territory. And no football this weekend. It’s all looking up. 

Focus for the week

I set five goals for the week and discussed these with the team over Chat:

  1. We understand what needs to be done to form the plan for onboarding the new telephony solution
  2. The data platform team has a clear and achievable goal to begin shaping their work
  3. We identify improvements we can make to the out of hours service and have a clear direction for its management over the next 3 years
  4. The team working on the housing register could begin work with a clear focus and access to the tools they need to avoid repeating previous work

Nobody said whether these were right or wrong, which typically leaves me a bit disheartened and then I remember that when Rob asked me for feedback on his goals for the week, I also struggled to engage with the question. 

We also refreshed our rhythms for Cyber Silver so we’re now setting goals for the week on Friday. It’s good to agree them as a senior team and have a common way to know what’s important to each other.  And I was really pleased to get feedback on my draft. It also coincided with me asking better questions: ‘is this achievable next week’, and ‘am I missing anything important? ‘

Ones to watch

Out of hours – I had an important conversation with a group of residents about our out of hours service on Tuesday night. I went from being worried about whether anyone would attend to having to close the meeting before every contribution was exhausted, after we overran. Helpfully we identified six potential improvements and got a much better understanding of the problem. 

Cloud engineering – No one really thinks that cloud is just someone else’s computer. But 15 years since I first used cloud computing, seeing the extent of the work we need to do to become a mature cloud organisation makes me admire even more the few organisations that have successfully made that transition. We’ve now got a clear vision for what this could look like in Hackney and a roadmap to show the extent of work we need to do over the next 3-6 months. And I hope we’ll be compelling advocates for not just why the transition is important but also quite how profound the change can be.

Design system – the team launched a refreshed design system tool for our work. We learnt through our COVID response that this was a critical part of our infrastructure to enable us to deploy digital services quicker and to a higher standard. And wow: it’s really exciting. We had a connected conversation about why we’ve found it so hard to recruit and retain front-end developers. A design system as cool as this has to help. 

What I’m learning

Community organising – a few years ago I was lucky enough to attend a weekend training session on the principles of community organising. Some of the ideas were similar to the Systemcraft approach we learnt about with the Forward Institute. And there were three occasions this week when I was able to draw on that experience. We built the out of hours discussion around the idea of ‘hearing testimony’ rather than the more structured, interactive workshop or formal presentation that I’d ordinarily have done. And when discussing the future of the change support team with Zoe I drew on the same idea to think about how we could create the conditions for an idea to emerge rather than preparing a solution to present to people. 

The value of experience – I had a meeting this week that would have previously caused me to invest at least a few days’ worth of energy and probably one interrupted sleep. It didn’t, this time, because I knew what was going to happen. In a (flash of brilliance) recently I defined confidence as the product of a deliberate action producing the anticipated and desired outcome. It’s a shame there aren’t shortcuts for these things. 

Next week

Over the next few weeks, I’m expecting to have a set of things maturing which will show what we meant by ‘a year to define a decade’. Work in social care, housing as well as our common components will be making some significant strides forward. We need to deliver these as well as we can, learn from what they could do better, whilst spending just enough time to think ahead three months to ensure we’re doing the right things now to ensure we will be making similar strides three months hence. 

Weeknote v10.10

Week beginning 8 March

Focus for this week

I’d resolved to set myself some clear, measurable goals for the week and actively use them to guide my time. I also wanted to build a bit of routine into the start and end of my days so that I was thinking actively about whether I was doing the right things, rather than the things that came my way. It was a qualified success. 

I set myself four goals: 

  1. To follow-up a decision from our Cabinet Procurement Committee on Monday night to initiate the project to onboard a new phone system
  2. To ensure the team could start work on the housing register;
  3. To model the initial costs of our new cloud infrastructure
  4. To ensure our cloud engineering team has the resources it needs

On reflection, it would have been better if I’d been more explicit in committing to the goals and then worked more actively with relevant team members to ensure they were met. Then I wouldn’t be sitting here, asking myself whether I’d fully achieved them. 

And actually, the most important things I did this week wasn’t any of the above. I spent a significant chunk of time with Rob, Cate and Henry thinking about how we were organising ourselves for recovery and what that could mean for the longer term shape of the team. We don’t have all the right answers ourselves but need to set out the opportunities so that we’ve got a starting point for discussion. 

Ones to watch

Vaccines – we had a really helpful session with the Mayor this week, sharing experiences of supporting our GP surgeries contact residents to promote the COVID vaccine. It’s a different type of conversation to the ones we’ve been having through the Here to Help service and we’re deliberately focusing on residents who may be less receptive to the conversation. It was good to hear how the team is adapting to the challenge. 

Data platform – we’re exploring how the creation of a data platform team can accelerate our work to capture data once and use it many times (where appropriate). We’ve now got a shortlist of potential opportunities ready to start work next week. 

Modern tools for housing – the discussion at our steering group this week felt really positive, and it was evident how Cate, Francois and Jasmeen had prepared for it. Managing the programme won’t always be easy. Taking the time to understand what’s making people nervous, confronting things that aren’t right and then working rapidly to take action will always require time and energy. But it will usually be worth it. 

What I’ve learnt this week

The power of doing the right thing. We had a brief period of controversy last week when two things we did created conflict unexpectedly. In the moment, both were frustrating and even alarming for the team. But I was also sure that we were right. So we dealt with the concerns but stuck to our position. And this week both of the outcomes we were seeking were achieved. Now, we need to use that to gain confidence that change may not always be popular but if we do it in the right way, and have courage in the quality 

Working at work may not be so productive. I’ve been into the office a handful of times in the last year. After the initial shock of quite how empty it is, and quite how hard it is to get energy when sat on a bank of empty desks, the experience has stabilised. But I haven’t got any more productive. For most tasks I actually work more effectively at home with fewer distractions, even if it’s less rewarding. That couldn’t be more different to a year ago when I considered a day working at home to be a generally lighter experience.

Next week

Out of hours – next week we’ll be talking to councillors, and then to residents, about our out of hours service and how we can develop it to better meet the needs and expectations of residents accessing this vital service. Longer term, we’re thinking about how we can provide a wider service by delivering this in-house. I spent some time sketching out the critical path this week and it looks very achievable; if it was the only thing we had to focus on!

Both children are expected to be at school for most of next week. That will be properly weird. In theory it ought to be more focused time. There’s a danger that with no-one to look busy in front of, that I’ll find too much laundry to distract me. 

So to mitigate that, I’m going to commit to some clear goals, discuss them openly with the team and work them through the week. But I’ll also need to make space at the end of each day for reflection before the childcare kicks-in. 

Weeknote v10.9

Week beginning 1 March 2021

A colleague said this week that I’d started to look ruffled. Truthfully, I felt beleaguered for the most part. There was plenty to take comfort from but just enough on the other side of the ledger, too. And it’s hard when you’ve lost five games at home and barely looked like scoring since December. 

Focus this week

I’m actually finding it hard to commit to goals at the moment. I keep telling myself I will and then the week starts and I can’t quite get enough time or control for it to happen on my terms. But as best as I can remember, there were three things I wanted to get right. I wanted to ensure that we were able to send council tax and business rates bills after weeks of hard work by lots of other people (I just wrote the summaries of each day). I wanted a positive start to our work to create a data platform team. And the first of our social care recovery strategy meetings needed to help align us around a positive vision and clear objectives. So in the sense that these things were achieved, it was a qualified success. But it would be over-stating it to suggest that I had a great deal to do with them. And there were just enough little irritations to make the week feel long. 

Ones to watch

There were two things that happened this week which I was surprised and delighted to see. The first was a performance dashboard for customer services. For various reasons, we do more reporting on our service than I’ve experienced before, and I was keen to ensure that all of the effort also created value for residents. I also want to ensure that we put residents at the heart of everything we do in the service; not just the day-to-day contact or through user research in projects (both of which are vital) but also in shaping how we identify and prioritise improvements. The performance dashboard is the first of a set of things that we’re using to try and open-up those conversations. Granted, most residents don’t get up in the morning hoping to tell their council whether to improve the blue badge process ahead of the housing repairs service. But when that does become important to people, we need to show that it’s not just a customer service but a citizen’s service. 

The data and insight team have also been doing a recovery job on the data we were managing in our business intelligence tool, Qlik. They’ve been able to recover data for a number of services that, in the words of one colleague, helps them feel they’ve got their life-blood returning. 

What I’m learning

Building back a routine – I’ve got a steady morning routine which involves a bit of year 5 maths, followed by a run and then a shower in just enough time for my first meeting. It no longer involves the sport pages of any website. But I need to bring back more of a work routine. I’ve talked about it often enough in my weeknotes. But somehow, once I’ve cleared my task list on a weekend, the noise of the week means the simple patterns get lost. 

Space for reflection – I’ve never really struggled to make space for reflection. It’s too deeply ingrained in how I think. But I fear the loss of the commute has chipped away at the natural time it provides. I’ve worked deliberately to create an end to the working day at home. It’s not glamorous: it involves either making food or tidying the kitchen. But I fear that the clean break means that I just switch and so reflect less. More of a routine might also provide a more obvious space for reflection. 

Next week

Well – it wouldn’t hurt if I aimed a bit lower and simple tried to put into action a good intention from my weeknote and see if it survived until Monday lunchtime. 

Weeknote v10.8

Week beginning 21 February

Focus for this week

There were five things I wanted to get right this week. The first was a piece of management theatre I’m doing so that we can keep track of annual billing for council tax – each morning I meet Chris who’s actually leading the work and write-up a mini stand-up. The project is exactly where we said it would be, which is gratifying. I also wanted to make sure we released new functionality for our social care case recording tool. I’m chalking that up as a win even though the release is on Monday, because I helped find a compromise on the issue that was blocking us. Thirdly, we geared-up to start the work to develop a data platform team. 

There were two other goals where I failed. The first was because I hadn’t thought far enough ahead and that’s a mistake Imake rarely. The second was a qualified failure – I spent some time helping a team define a piece of work but managed to find the opportunity to do it by accident rather than design. 

I had lots of gaps in my diary this week, and didn’t use them as well as I could have done. Partly that’s coincidence – the things I needed to do didn’t need long chunks of time. But I did spend a bit of time calling residents who had left us negative feedback in response to our customer satisfaction survey. One of the things we learnt in the research we did to validate our performance framework was that people are reluctant to give feedback out of a belief that it doesn’t matter. So I wanted to lead by example and understand for myself where we fall short of providing the service we aspire to.  

Ones to watch

The one that releases too soon – we prefer Agile approaches but we often encounter waterfall releases – for example, when a release will change how people work. In the business continuity phase of recovery we were introducing a greenfield solution so anything was an improvement. But now we’re delivering software that changes an established way of working. And sometimes the closer we get, the more we identify versions of Columbo syndrome. That can mean the release becomes more significant and harder, which becomes a vicious flywheel.  So this is a challenge to the team that can get the prize for releasing too soon. 

Out of hours – we’re working to improve the quality of service that residents get from our customer services outside normal office hours. Whilst lots of people would prefer to do this online, there are some problems where you just need to talk to someone. And without the resources of a large corporation we sometimes struggle to provide the service people need. We’re talking to a range of people to better understand what we can do to support them whilst recognising the cost constraints. 

Document upload – I love learning the apparently small insights from user research that make the difference between a service that’s intuitive and one that confuses users. The team developing our document upload and evidence store component are doing the hard yards to make it reusable but also learning about the subtleties of what users expect vs the service we provide. One of the hardest challenges is presented by the tension between ‘you’re just the council, why do I have to choose for my document to be re-used’ and building for privacy first.

What I’m learning

This is the second week in a row where I’ve reached the end and really struggled to think about what I’m learning. It might not be a coincidence and I’m toying with taking a bit of leave despite it only being 8 weeks since Christmas. I also noticed that I’m spending too much time thinking about things that really only ought to be briefly irritating. 

But the big theme of the year so far is about the conditions for transformation: what they are, where they exist and the extent to which they can be created. The conditions aren’t static and if there are moments when they converge, they are also transitory. Moreover, where is it responsible to persist despite the barriers and where is it better to accept that you may be right but you can’t succeed. 

Linked to this, I’ve also been spotting just how flawed the Aaron Sorkin world-view is. In the Sorkin view, you build an argument towards a denouement where one approach prevails and that sets the course for subsequent events. I increasingly see a world in which a set of smaller things happen and the inevitability of the course becomes visible only in the rear view mirror. 

Next week

I’m working with James to develop our software and data recovery into a more stable programme. I’m nervous about over-complicating this and creating avoidable levels of governance. But we’ve got a number of emerging challenges which require the involvement of more than one team. And we find those challenges particularly difficult to deal with efficiently. So if we can strike the right balance between simplicity and coordination then we can establish a way of working that will add value beyond the scope of the programme.  

Weeknote v10.7

Week beginning 15 February

Focus this week

What’s the only thing that’s harder than managing the software and data recovery from a major cyberattack during a global pandemic in half term week? I was about to find out; mostly on Tuesday, which was also my wife’s birthday.

One of our recovery projects is necessarily ‘waterfall’. There’s a tight plan where the odd technical issue has eaten away at the contingency. And on Tuesday, it went down to the wire. But it was only resolved after lots of senior folk had started to get anxious (and rightly so). 

But by then, I was already too distracted from the birthday. The day began with an irritating email – something which was done with the best of intentions but with incomplete information that made something else harder. Then the news that 5,000 or so more residents would be asked to shield, so we needed to be ready to support them in customer services. And then plans to start making phone calls to support the vaccination programme.  

Oh – and it was the first day in years when I missed a Liverpool match. And they won for the first time in seemingly months. Not sure what to do about the Derby later.

Yet by the end of the week, as I compiled my weekly update to Silver command about the recovery actions, it became clear that we’d moved some pretty important steps forward. And, pleasingly, smaller things had moved forward too. I also added two ‘brave’ slides: one acknowledging some key blockers we were facing and another with a short forward plan (see weeknote v10.6).

Somewhere in there I had set myself a focus for the week. But I couldn’t claim any great relationship between defining my focus on Monday and what had been done by Friday. And right now, I can’t quite find what the goals were either.  

Ones to watch

Here to Help – we received a grant from LOTI this week to develop our Here to Help service. Our investment was, I think, vindicated by the extension of the service to encourage take-up of the vaccine. We knew something else would happen and wanted the flexibility to remodel our tools to support the unexpected. More excitingly, we’ve also got some money to do an independent evaluation of the service. I’m really keen to learn about the impact it’s having and how we can further improve the quality of what we do. 

Closing the feedback loop – I was thrilled to hear of a ‘better everyday’ initiative in customer services this week. We’re using the feedback from our satisfaction survey to call residents who’ve not had a good experience; to acknowledge it; and fix it where we still can. We learnt in user research in the autumn that without visible signs we’re acting on feedback, we lose the trust of residents. So I’m really pleased we’re making this simple effort. 

Cloud deployment – the cloud deployment team gave our strategy show & tell this week to talk about the roles and skills that we’ll need in cloud engineering. It’s important to me that we’re open with the team about how the cyberattack will change how we work. Yes, it’s probably unsettling for some people but better to be open than to add to the worries by being silent. And by being up-front I hope we’re giving more people a chance to develop the skills we need. 

What I’m learning

From desiring something to making it happen – I experienced a mildly painful case study this week in the difference between management that desires something to happen and leadership that makes it happen. There was a problem which I had anticipated emerging in November which came to pass this week. I had willed it not to, and vaguely told some people to avoid it, but I’d not actually committed to seeing that through. So it’s on me that it came to pass. 

In contrast, I had a positive reflection in the same week. We were sharing our customer services framework with another team. And I reached back to the complex customer journeys work that we did a year ago this month. And what we’re doing today on Here to Help is entirely consistent with those intentions – just much better and it’s actually happening. 

The first thing was relatively small and the second is big. But the accumulation of small things often causes more pain than fewer, big successes. So I need to find a way of being more consistent and insistent in tackling smaller things. 

Next week

I’m expecting a more stable week, next week. And miraculously, my diary has some big time slots without meetings. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the week will be to use this to do some big things well. So I need to set some clear goals but also ensure they’re the right ‘size’. I think I’ll start by joining in with the team calling back residents to learn from their feedback. 

Three metrics to understand your capability to change

I’ve been thinking hard about how you know if you’re getting better at making change. In sport you can play well and lose. But modern coaching is about increasing the likelihood that you do the right thing often enough to reduce the elements of chance. I’d like to see a similarly methodical approach to how public services assess their capacity to deliver complex change. 

Local government hasn’t recovered from New Public Management. We still obsess over output measures. How fast the phones are answered; How many repairs; How many registrations within 42 days. We’re relieved, apparently, that there are fewer than ‘the old days’. Though, inevitably, they haven’t quite died. Some still appear greyed out on the reporting dashboard. COVID hasn’t changed everything – yet. But it could. 

We are all very proud of how quickly we pivoted – from booking repairs to dispatching food. From asking for your postcode to helping you access befriending services. But we’re still counting the outputs, not evaluating the outcomes. 

The challenges of next year won’t be test & trace support grants or lateral flow tests. They’ll be something else. We worry whether we’ll all be too knackered, or finally taking that foreign holding. And soon enough there will be new political agendas. 

The legitimacy of public services comes not from our ability to do yesterday more efficiently but to adapt to tomorrow’s agenda. Yet we’re still using yesterday’s techniques to manage complex change. What if leaders could actively work to increase the capability of their organisations to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur?

In Hackney, I set a target that a new developer code deploy code on day one of a project. Most projects don’t. But the ability to do so meant that before day 1 we had contracts signed, ID badges issued, email accounts created, GitHub access permitted, cloud infrastructure available. 

That was an ok measure of our readiness to start. But it was built around a project-based paradigm that’s inherently limiting. Now we’re dealing with more complex change, I’d like to experiment with three new metrics.

Time to define

Peter Drucker said: “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”. When working in a complex system it’s too easy to lurch from stasis to action without adequate understanding of the problem to be solved. The time it takes for an organisation can define a problem is a key measure of its capacity to change. Some are too good at leaping to action before the problem is defined. Others to slow to agree what should be done.

Decreasing your time to define means that the organisation is using data to understand ‘why’ not just ‘what’. It means that qualitative and quantitative data are being used actively. A multidisciplinary team has probably explored the issue so your internal comms is working horizontally. Your facilities frees up space for teams work together. There’s a culture of active challenge. And the governance is coordinating and enabling discovery rather than delaying or blocking it.

Time to deliver value

One of the biggest cultural shocks I experienced on joining local government was how many things took two years to achieve (plus or minus side months) regardless of their size or complexity. COVID showed we could deliver significant change in weeks. It should be the new normal. Whether Agile or just agile, the time to deliver value is my second key metric: how many teams go from problem statement to value. 

If you’re able to reduce your time from definition to delivering value then your business case process is efficient and you can marshall financial resources to solve problems. Procurement is enabling the creation of value. HR helps you recruit and retain talent. Your information governance is designed-in from the start. The IT just works and security is determined efficiently. 

Then you’ve got a team that prizes working solutions over documentation. Your governance is open and enabling – risk aware, not averse. You’ve got the tools to ensure branding and communication is consistent. And you’re working with service users to understand how to land the solution. 

Time to decide

The biggest illusion of NPM is that you know when it’s working. Initiatives where success is equated with completion. Projects that save money by pushing cost elsewhere. Effort that ceases at outputs. But a truly system-oriented, entrepreneurial organisation will be good at failing and iterating. The time from delivering value to deciding how to proceed will be the third critical measure. 

Reducing your time to decide means you’ve started at the end and worked backwards. You’ve got a clear evaluation framework. It means you’re sufficiently user-centric to know if it’s working. You’ve got governance ready and able to challenge and decide. Business operations comes together to end things quickly and elegantly. A way of working that’s open by default. A culture that prizes learning. 

Actively working to reduce the time to decide in turn will decrease the time to define. It will systematically make the identification of challenges faster and more accurate. And it will ease the process of moving from problem definition to delivering value. It’s the fly-wheel of an organisation that can think like a system and act like an entrepreneur. 

These aren’t the only metrics that matter, of course. Each administration is judged on its outcomes. But to continue refining the engine room, the art and science of achieving change must be continuously optimised.  

Weeknote v10.6

Week beginning 7 February

Focus for the week

I think I lost my way a bit this week. On Sunday morning I ran a half marathon distance in 90 minutes – an ambition I’ve held for five years. On Sunday afternoon Liverpool were taken apart by Man City and it didn’t get much better from there. 

On writing this week’s note I had to check back and work out what I’d thought I was going to focus on. It was a bit esoteric. And then on Monday morning, a meeting I was well-prepared for didn’t actually happen; the discussion was about totally different things and it was followed up by some interviews that took me away from the regular goal-setting session we do at Council Silver. So this week happened, I did some things and then it ended. And when it ended all I had to show for it was that I had completed the tasks I’d set myself last weekend (my to do list is typically titled either ‘weekend tasks’ or ‘Monday morning’).  

Ones to watch 

Document upload and evidence store – One of the common capabilities we knew we needed was when residents need to provide documents. It was one of the big reasons for people visiting the Service Centre. Successfully scanning and uploading a document is hard if you’re not confident online and/or unless it’s really easy to do. Services like AirBnB have set a new standard in making this easier. We’d built an alpha, but knew more work was needed. The team is starting to deliver tangible benefits to residents whilst learning the sort of subtle but crucial details that make the difference between a service that works for people sufficiently motivated and something so good, people prefer to use it. 

Land charges – We set a goal in December of being able to provide access to our land charges data by the end of January (it was divided across multiple systems and we’ve currently been able to extract data from just one of those). We’re reluctant to make distant commitments when too much is unknown and that means when we do, it increases the importance of delivering. There were a couple of points during January when the team’s weeknotes showed that they worried whether they would succeed. But they kept going, and it was good to see this week that we’re able to restore a partial service – an important step towards our goal of full recovery of this important service. 

Here to Help – I was pleased to hear this week that we’ve got some funding to evaluate Here to Help, the service to support vulnerable residents which has emerged out of our COVID response. We’ve worked hard and made some important investments and naturally think we’ve done a good job. But if we’re to develop it into a common approach to supporting vulnerable people we need to know that it’s effective. 

What I’m learning

Creating a shared language – for most of the last four years, we’ve preferred to avoid explicit prioritisation in favour of a growth mindset (how can you compare a Comino migration to an M3 upgrade). But first COVID then the cyberattack has made those choices essential. I wager that colleagues have been more understanding of these choices than I ever thought likely. As we get past the first phase of applications recovery, those choices will become trickier. So we’re trying to create a common language, in terms of the capability that recovery will enable for our services ‘we can . . .’ I’m really interested in how this might become a shared language for how we work together beyond the pandemic and cyberattack recovery. 

Declarations – Local government IT requires all sorts of messy compromises. And we’ve been clear that our recovery from the cyberattack will look different depending on the service and context. However, we’ve also identified a number of areas where we need to make clearer declarations of intent to help guide the team. Our ‘cloud, unless (it can’t work)’ policy is a really important foundation of that and I drifted off to sleep one night thinking of soundbites to encapsulate some of the guardrails that will guide our recovery – keeping us clearly focused on our strategic goals while remaining sufficiently flexible to respond to uncertainty. 

Courage – it’s easy to create a story for yourself which you believe to be universally true. I’m courageous. Except, of course just because I can be doesn’t mean I am. There were three occasions this week when I was tipped into being more courageous in a circumstance where I hadn’t been previously. I suspect, in retrospect, it wasn’t a coincidence that they came together. 

Next week

Back to basics next week, I think. My meta-goal is to start filling the orchestration graph in the applications and data recovery workstream I’m leading. But I’ll do this through returning to clear articulated goals, linked to the ‘we can’ language of the roadmap. It’s not new but I need to get back in the habit. 

Of course at the current time of writing Liverpool and England haven’t yet played – so it could all fall apart by 4pm today.

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