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

Month: October 2020

Weeknote special – 3

Week beginning 26 October

The only thing harder than managing the response to a cyberattack during a global pandemic? Doing so during half term week. A week that started slowly but gathered momentum towards the end. We finished with a management team meeting that left us all wanting more; quite the achievement on a Friday night. 

Starting well

For the second week running, I barely worked during the weekend. In contrast to last week, I started this week badly. It was a bit like the first 15 minutes of Liverpool against Villa. A bit slow; passes a bit sloppy, frustration all round (it’s all too raw to consider the analogy of passing the ball to the opposition striker). I reckon it’s exacerbated by working from home. You can’t get energy from others. 

Next week needs to be better. Our goals are very clear but maybe feel slightly too big and distant to organise a week; so I will need to make sure I set specific key results that I can work to. And maybe my own resolutions were a bit esoteric. So I’m going to try to set some clearer goals for this week and use those to start the week well. 

Preparing well

I twice used my new checklist on preparing for big meetings. It’s just long enough that I had to check it, which in itself was useful: it prompted me to think about questions I hadn’t considered. I also had my first and second adrenaline rush before a Meet. It usually happened before conference speeches (and it’s a bit disconcerting when it doesn’t). But it just wasn’t happening for video calls. I’m pleased it’s back. It helps me make sure I’ve prepared. 

Knowing when you don’t know

I made two obvious mistakes this week. On both occasions I’d started talking about topics that I knew a little about but not enough. If I’d have been smart, and thought more quickly, I would have deferred to someone else and drawn attention to the things I didn’t know. But I soldiered on and instead made the mistake. On both occasions members of the team stepped in, which is really positive. But I need to be wiser than that. 

What Responsible Leadership means in a crisis

Last year, I did a course on Responsible Leadership. I’ve been thinking about that a lot in the last week or so. Crises typically bring more command and control, less room for doubt, and drive at the expense of understanding. So this week I’ve adopted three practices: seeking out more diverse opinions, finding time to think critically about what I’m doing and leaving spare slots of time for others. There’s a fourth which I’ve been doing anyway and is actually easier in a crisis: being more open about how I’m feeling. But I’m still a long way from the practices and goals that I set myself earlier this year.

When it’s not a project

I realise I’ve spent almost my entire career doing projects – research, marcomms and consultancy are project-based work at the core. Local government technology is well-suited to projects. Councils operate such a wide range of services that we don’t have the resources to do an equally good job on all of the things all of the time, so working on a variety of projects as needs arise helps make sure no service is too neglected for too long. But our best work at the moment is happening in our areas where we’ve got the best relationships and the deepest understanding. So we’re thinking about how to capture this so it becomes routine. 

Next week

Three weeks in, and we’ve got a much clearer understanding of the work that needs to be done, the context in which we’re working and what’s going to be challenging. So I need to get a bit more out of my head and codify some of the things we’ve been doing so that we’ve got a reference point for how we’re working and to make it easier for our teams to work smoothly. And I’ll need to keep an eye on my energy levels, which would be easier if I could dream less about work.

Weeknote – special 2

Week beginning 26 October

It was one of those ‘I can’t believe it’s only Tuesday . . . Gosh, it’s Thursday already’ weeks. Which is probably for the best. There was me thinking that the Merseyside Derby would be a useful distraction. At least we know they weren’t reading my last weeknote in Stockley Park

When a strategy hits reality

The biggest win from this week was that our recovery strategy survived. It was a week where each day a new consequence of the cyber attack became clear. Each of them needed a coordinated effort to support colleagues to make a success of the mitigations or work-arounds. The strategy is putting in place the core building blocks of the response whilst mini projects are delivering the individual outcomes needed. But that’s a lot of moving parts. I twice had to check myself to not give the same team yet another thing to do. Next week is half term so we’ll have to be even more careful not to overload teams when people are on leave. 

Making crises work

We all want to ‘build back better’. But I’m learning more about how to not let a crisis go to waste. To an extent COVID and our cyber attack both have the advantage of having a clear ‘cause’ so we haven’t spent time trying to agree on the problem. But that doesn’t mean we’re necessarily aligned on the solution. And with an immense amount to be done, we have to move at pace and stick on the same course. We don’t have time to build a consensus, but can’t afford not to. There are no techniques which are particular to a crisis, but the layer of stress and uncertainty that it can cause is both an opportunity and a threat. I’m learning the importance of keeping as many options open as possible and understanding as many perspectives as possible. 

Holding tasks and owning outcomes

Given a problem, I prefer to step in and try to help when I know I can make something better. But there were a couple of things this week where I felt I put things at risk by holding too much responsibility for the tasks. I spotted one early enough to ask for help – and a delivery manager stepped in to manage it as a mini project. And the other I spotted but wasn’t able to fix as easily. The thing that I’ve found harder is making sure that once I’ve let go of responsibility for the tasks I still own the outcome. I find it easier to move on and find the next problem rather than ensuring I’ve retained sufficient knowledge of the tasks and progress that I still own the outcome. 

Enough of the right preparation

There were a number of occasions this week where I enjoyed the range of topics and issues I had to know about. But I didn’t handle them all equally well. Initially I struggled to spot the differences. But my reflection is that it was about preparation. There wasn’t a clear distinction between how much I prepared but there was a difference between how well I prepared. I don’t have a structured way of preparing for important meetings (I do it as inconsistently as when I used to revise before an exam) so I’m thinking about what a preparation checklist would look like. I’ve got important meetings with social care leaders and then senior politicians – both on Monday morning – which looks like a good starting point. 

Facts, emotions and consistency

One of the key tasks for our ICT management team is to communicate effectively across the organisation, and to enable effective communication with our residents. We want to be as open as possible, within the constraints of a criminal investigation. In some respects it’s fast-moving – each day we learn more about the impact of the attack and what that means for a recovery path. But the question that everyone wants to know is ‘when will everything be back to normal?’ and that will be hard to answer for some time. So in the meantime we need to give the facts, being aware of the changeable daily emotions around this (not least our own) and do so in a way that’s sufficiently consistent that enables people to respond accordingly. I suspect there isn’t a rule book for this and only hindsight will tell us whether we get it right. 

Next week

I didn’t make any particular commitments this week and at times it showed. So next week I will try to ensure:

  1. I get back in the habit of checking in with people before diving in with the detail  
  2. I develop and use a checklist for preparing for important meetings 
  3. I find a way to make sure I own the outcome when I no longer hold the task

Weeknote – special 1

Week beginning 12 October 2020

I started writing this weeknote on Monday morning, I was that determined to write it. You hear a lot from us when we’re good. So it’s important to write when it’s not good. This week, Hackney was hacked. It’s an ongoing criminal investigation so when we know things, it’s for our residents and the police to hear them first. So I will only write about what I felt for the moment. 

I didn’t much feel like working on Saturday after the week I’d had but ended up with three hours on Saturday afternoon, bored without domestic football. So I scored some tenders. And prepared for a whole team workshop on Monday morning. We were going to do some OKRs awards. I’d take Sunday off, I told myself.  

It was some time between finishing my son’s rugby training on Sunday morning and deciding not to open a bottle of wine later on that I realised what we were facing. I did a bit of ‘wow’. And initially wondered whether I could help at all. But I volunteered to join our sitrep at 6pm and in the meantime Rashmi and Selwyn helped me check in on the status of our cloud infrastructure which remained untouched. 

The technical work to respond to the attack was for others to focus on, so I started thinking about how we could help colleagues sustain their critical services. At the 6pm sitrep I proposed two teams: one to focus on helping colleagues maximise what we had and the other to think about what cloud-based services we could put in place to help protect our most vulnerable residents. These would be key planks of our continuity and recovery strategy. We’d have to capture data in a format that enabled us to join it back-up at a later point and we needed to manage our processes well enough that we could make good decisions based on what we knew.  The latter workstream had to start now, based on the insight from setting-up the I Need Help service. We could run on forms spreadsheets for 500 people and a week or so – but we knew that wouldn’t work long for social care.

Before the children had stopped watching Countryfile, we’d sent out a whole team SMS (using Notify, natch) and Marian and Felix were briefed on the two workstreams they were going to lead. We knew this was going to be a marathon, but I was keen that colleagues could arrive on Monday morning, ready for what was to come.

In my weeknote draft I made three commitments: 

  • Not running around unless it’s needed and never without adding value
  • Avoiding disruption to people and teams and a sense of chaos
  • Checking in with people not ‘cutting to the chase’

I’ve been part of major incidents since my first job, aged 17 (sometimes of my own making) and been guilty of all these behaviours. It makes me feel purposeful, tires me out and makes me prone to mistakes.

Monday

Before the morning IT team ‘all hands’ Cate and I identified projects that could be stopped, paused unless they didn’t compromise a higher priority and those which should continue unless they couldn’t (because they’d support continuity and recover). We opened it up for comment from the team in case we were making decisions with limited information.

But I also asked for help – from Steve, to manage the procurement of our new telephony and Kelly in supporting the impact on customer services. I knew they both still needed to be delivered well and wouldn’t if I was involved. I wrote a note to my other teams explaining that I wouldn’t be on the pitch much, but tried also to make clear that I would continue to need feedback to know that we were prioritising the right things.

We briefed senior managers across the council on Monday morning. I felt shame and embarrassment and was braced for an angry reception. Colleagues couldn’t have been kinder. We were telling them that they were facing serious and prolonged disruption to their jobs, on the back of 6 months of COVID. They were calm and supportive. Many took time to send personal messages of support. 

The day was meant to end with a 15 minute stand-up with Felix and Marian. They’d built teams and a Trello board and were already delivering value to users. It was really energising. Then I found a bunch of other tasks that needed to be done, which helped me miss most of Prison Break (we’re labouring through season 4). 

Tuesday

We began the day with a 15 minute stand-up with Felix and Marian. I reckoned I could do most by making sure they had a clear goal for each day and they trusted that I had the longer-term covered. The end of day catch-up would help us set realistic goals. And between times, I just needed to stay out of the way. 

Actually the day began with me feeling short tempered. I took it out on my son who didn’t practice his cello particularly enthusiastically. I didn’t run in the morning, or take him to school. 

I also needed to do more to explain the strategy to managers. We couldn’t put timescales on the recovery so we knew ‘sit it out’ wouldn’t work. But it’s a hard balance to strike. I don’t want to be alarmist or push people to make snap judgements with a potentially significant impact. But I don’t want to spend the next month muddling through. 

I was pleased to be invited to a number of management team meetings so that I could understand the impact and where we best needed to help. It meant a bit more ‘running around’ but felt purposeful. 

By the end of the day the team had created a new virtual desktop so that the local contact tracing team could resume their important work. 

At the end of the day I enjoyed some LocalGov Digital virtual drinks. We were all so touched by the offers of support that it felt more important than ever to contribute to the community. 

Wednesday

I’d already lost track of the day of the week. It felt eerily similar to the end of March (without the bored children nagging for attention). We were settling into the daily Silver Group meetings; crises tend to make meetings but these were sufficiently tightly defined that they were useful. 

At lunchtime, the Mayor and Chief Executive were scheduled to do the last of the Chief Executive Roadshow events. Most of the questions were about IT and whilst some colleagues were rightly concerned, most were also incredibly supportive. The Mayor also particularly recognised the role of customer services during COVID which was rewarding for the team.

I did duck out for a run. It was a cracking day. It felt like hard work, like not being able to breathe properly hard work, but I ran a near-record pace motivated by my Apple Watch and the need to get back for a meeting. 

In the afternoon, there was a more detailed briefing to all senior managers. It clashed with the school pick-up. I wore my Hackney customer services tie (which continues to divide opinion) to convey a sense of focus and command. And then interrupted the presentation as I worried that my son was walking into the road, which put a stop to the sense of focus and command. But it was also a useful opportunity to explain to colleagues why we needed to put forms and data in place so that we could recover quicker, what support we could offer to creating basic workflows, and how we could help manage demand. Again, the supportive reception was touching. You can’t capture that in a recruitment advertisement. 

I cooked with my son in the evening. It’s going to be a long haul and I can’t take it out on the children every day.

Thursday

I was going to go out for a run. And then meetings kept arriving. At lunchtime Cate and I led the ‘all hands’ briefing for our teams. I gave a bang ordinary account which included the memorable reference to a ‘criminal crime scene’. Now they know why I usually do Slides. But I also did the Jerry Springer bit which had the benefit of being unexpected, coming from me.  

I headed into the Hackney Service Centre in the afternoon to meet trade union representatives to discuss how we were keeping customer services staff safe during COVID. Going into the HSC was a reminder of the gravity of the situation. I was pleased to leave. 

I didn’t do the normal end of day session with Felix and Marian. I felt that if I was tired, they were probably more so. And I was confident they were doing all the right things.

Friday

Was glad to have steered clear of the pub with just the 14 scheduled meetings to attend (and a further 2 I ducked into). Almost went for a run – like, had my PE kit on – but two further meetings that put a stop to that. One of those was a bit tricky. But I hope I was open about the right things and robust about the rest. 

In the evening, I took my daughter swimming and tried to swim myself to have something else to think about. The routine was good. 

The Trello boards were better. Team Marian and Team Felix hit their goals. They’ve achieved an incredible amount already. More people with a broader range of skills have been involved in this than any other effort we’ve made. And it’s only day five. Rob insists we don’t work over the weekend and build our reserves of energy for the week ahead, rightly, so I’m bashing out my weeknote on Friday night. 

Next week, we’ll give users the first release of a very basic system to view, create and update records about vulnerable residents. Built from the ground up, natively in the cloud. Data in an open source database, the logic in the API layer presented through accessible interfaces developed using the Hackney Pattern Library. That’s what we’d prefer to be known for. Because as our manifesto says: People First. Trust the Team. Think Big, Act Small. Open Up. Learn More. And Act Ethically Always. 

It’s been 8 years since I’ve needed Liverpool to win a Derby this bad.

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