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

Month: January 2021

Weeknote v10.4

Week beginning 25 January

Focus for the week

We met all but one of our goals for the application recovery workstream. I promised that I’d move some things from ‘nearly done’ to actually done. By that measure, I failed. The two formal reports I had in mind remain unsigned. Despite that, I feel reasonably chipper. Both reports made sufficient progress that they’re now out of my control and a third report got completed by the deadline. We also circulated an important discussion document to colleagues in social care about where we go next with technology and data to ensure it’s an enabler of their vision and strategy for the service. 

I also found a way of getting two new things started: we’re looking to convene a ‘discovery day’ in customer services where we invite people from other organisations to walk in the shoes of our residents and meet our teams to help us think differently about how we put the customer first. 

I also had a couple of important customer services meetings: with colleagues from our trades union and then with Councillor McKenzie and housing services leadership . It reminded me that I need to make time to share the feedback and reflections from these more widely with the team. Knowing what happens at a more senior level is an important way of helping colleagues to develop their careers

Ones to watch

I was really impressed with how the ‘council tax plan B’ team ended the project. The Plan B won’t be needed because Plan A is now the most viable option. But on hearing the news the team didn’t simply move on but worked hard to document their work on GitHub and as a result it will actually help Plan A be more accurate – as well as setting a standard for how we end other projects. 

Out of hours – we’re thinking carefully about how we can provide the best possible service to residents who need to contact us outside of work hours. We want to ensure it’s a consistent experience, that when things go wrong we are as proactive as possible as well as ensuring it’s as resilient as possible so that we meet basic expectations. Over the next few weeks we’ll be talking to groups of residents to understand their experiences and ideas and using that to inform how we work over the next couple of years. 

Document upload – the team is transitioning the product from a working but incomplete alpha to a more stable, reusable component. Some of that transition has taken longer than we anticipated, and picking it up again required some extra effort with stakeholders that I hadn’t anticipated. But having got over that, we’re now able to push it forward for the next phase. Kudos to Tom and David for sticking with it. I also really like the subtle and important insights they’ve identified through user research

What I’m learning

The Here to Help team had a deliberately self-reflective show & tell after a couple of sprints that hadn’t gone to plan. They said it was an intentional response to the strategy show & tell where we said that it was important to be open and honest if show & tells were to be an effective part of governance. It can’t have been easy because their show & tells involve a wide range of stakeholders and have typically had an energetic, positive spirit. I was really pleased they did it, not least because if they hadn’t identified and addressed the issues now, then there would have been much bigger challenges in 4-8 weeks’ time. The openness was well received by the group and were heard in a very measured fashion. 

I noticed a pattern of learning from observation. It felt like I was able to step out from the ‘thing’ and observe what it meant. From the housing steering group, I learnt how more detail on our customer services vision could help guide teams to a common approach to user experience. From an agency that bid for work, I learnt how we need to adapt our ways of working to enable different sorts of partnership. And from a couple of colleagues, about how to listen to the music beneath the words. If only I knew what was different about this week! 

Moving meetings – it’s amazing how uncreative I’ve been whilst working at home. In the office I’d meet in different locations – standing, sitting at a desk, sitting on beanbags, in meeting rooms, in the kitchen. But most of my days aren’t now spent in exactly the same spot. Three times this week I had a different location. The best were on the treadmill and immediately after throwing a ball with my son in the garden. And it’s still nice to occasionally talk on the phone rather than video. Rob says that’s an age thing. 

Next week

At the end of next week, we’ll be 10% through the year that will shape the decade. I’m simultaneously delighted by the progress we’ve made and daunted by the fact that we’ve only got 90% left. I think we’ve developed a good pattern of achievable short term goals. But I wonder what more I could do to make sure that we’re laying the foundations now to make the whole year a success? We need to avoid imaginary deadlines whilst making sure that the incremental steps of each week add up to sufficient progress over the year. 

Weeknote v10.3

Week beginning 18 January

Focus for the week

I tried to use this week to make sure we could complete the applications recovery goals we’d set for the month whilst thinking just far enough ahead that we could move seamlessly into the next phase of work. I made sure I didn’t do any of this alone whilst also trying to avoid distracting teams from the immediate priorities. That meant not setting an artificial timeframe, simply so I could hit a goal but as a result I’m slightly less clear what I’ve achieved. We now know the areas of focus for February but need another week or so to define what the outcome will be by the end of the month.  

But that focus came at the expense of  some important things which are close to being finished, but not actually finished and didn’t get the attention they deserved. “Basically done” (my favourite description for school work) isn’t the same as “actually done” – particularly when it comes to internal governance. I’ve got a couple of business cases and procurement awards which need pushing from basically to actually.  

I’m also brimming with ideas of things we could do in customer services but reach the end of most weeks not having given them another thought since the previous weekend. I have to find a way to get some of the simpler ones initiated. 

Ones to watch

Repairs Hub – it’s great to see this work progressing and it’ll form a key part of recovery. Our partners, Unboxed, have developed significant knowledge not just of our repairs service but we’re also benefiting from their work with other local authorities. There were 60 people at the last show & tell so it’s exciting to see that gather momentum, too. As a result, people are starting to look at the application and see how it could benefit work that we assumed we’d need to do differently. Reuse by popular demand rather than architectural design needs much less governance. 

Developer self-service – we’re working with AWS to explore how we might develop a self-service offering for developers (ok, it’s really a portal). There are lots of little frictions in how we do things currently and by having just enough automation and some clear user journeys we’ll be able to make things more efficient, more scalable and more secure. We need to do that well (or it won’t work) but be careful that we clearly explain the benefits for residents as part of the case for investment’. 

Conversation prompts – we developed a ‘conversation prompts’ tool during COVID to help support strengths-based conversations with vulnerable people. We’ve got an opportunity to develop this into a wider knowledge base, whilst exploring how recommendations can help us keep the content relevant and the tool increasingly useful (to avoid the death spiral of so many of these tools). But it’ll also challenge our product skills: how do we make sure we’re demonstrating the value of maintaining the tool, whilst keeping its scope sufficiently narrow that it supports, rather than competes with self-service and simpler customer journeys?

The small things – we often struggle to get small things done well and efficiently. Sometimes it’s because they’re not as small as expected; other times because if they’re no one’s top priority they drift. As part of applications recovery, we’ll have a lot of small things. There are three that I’ve given particular attention to, in order to find out whether, by starting them better, we can get them done better and efficiently. 

What I’m learning

Managing the downs – a couple of things happened this week that I was long-expecting but were no less disappointing for it. Emotionally, I was ready to catastrophise despite recognising that it wasn’t unexpected. But one of the things I’ve learnt over the last couple of years is how buying a bit of time through creating a process can help create a conversation that then opens up the possibility of nuance. So rather than leaping into action, I created a pathway to a meeting and consideration of the options. It’s rather less exciting but it meant that, by the following day, I was more phlegmatic about the outcome.

Embracing failure – when you read about how airlines create safe spaces to report failure it makes you feel safer – and it seems compellingly obvious. But that doesn’t make it any easier “in the moment”. I heard something this week where a team had made a mistake and not just done everything right in response, but thought really carefully about how it could turn it into a teachable moment. Yet still, on hearing the news, I was close to responding emotionally. I think I avoided it – and at one moment stepped back from actually saying the wrong thing. And that was a reminder of how hard it is to do in practice.

Making time for follow-through – I had a meeting this week where I left with three key actions. I was desperate to be useful for the team so I even summarised my actions at the end of the meeting, And still left the meeting straight into another one and got to the end of the day without completing those actions. At the very least, I need to give myself a time to note down things to do. 

Next week

I’d love to achieve three things next week: to develop a clear set of goals for February which we can commit to as a team, having met the 10 goals we set for January; to move things from “basically done” to “actually done” and still find time for actually acting on one of my ideas for customer services. 

Weeknote v10.2

Week beginning 11 January

Focus for the week

I set myself five goals for the week, which were a potted version of the eight outcomes my applications and continuity workstream set for January. To help get these completed, I didn’t take on anything new. Each goal depended on people outside my team so I worked across all five during the week rather than choose different ones on different days.

They were:

  • To agree the proposal for the award of a new telephony provider (we got close, but haven’t completed the approvals)
  • Test the cross-Council recovery roadmap with my peers, which I began to do 
  • Agreed the focus for a proof of concept, which is done
  • Onboard our interim programme manager for social care and health, which was done
  • Ensure I’ve understood and communicated appropriately, the recovery path for two of our applications

Ones to watch

Here to Help – Zoe and team are working to develop the service so that it can meet the changing needs of our vulnerable residents over the longer term. It brings together a number of different components (community partnerships, a multidisciplinary triage, food and emergency supplies) and the governance has iterated from a starting point of being an emergency response. So we’re working on how it can become business as usual in all respects, how we can design evaluation into the operating model and how it should be led without it becoming too resource-hungry. 

Reusable components – we got some feedback from a team on how they’d reused aspects of a tool we’ve built in social care. It was good to hear that the team had found it easy to pick-up and use. The next step is to understand how we can turn the signposting and conversations that led to re-use into something closer to a self-service model. 

Cloud excellence – the cloud deployment team is identifying and prioritising what we need to do not only to deploy applications in AWS but also the processes, skills and tools we need to manage our cloud applications well. This week we agreed the approach to account management and had a good conversation about our initial focus for improving our cloud management. 

Out of hours – we’re finalising our assessment of the bids from prospective suppliers of the service for the next financial year. Councillor McKenzie reminded me we hadn’t worked as openly as we could have done through the formal stages of the procurement, so we need to think about this more carefully over the next few weeks.

What I’m learning

A common thread – I’ve held a general principle that you can have structure and templates or creativity and iteration. But we were already on a transition from ‘’start-up to scale-up’ in the team and the complexity of our recovery demands more clarity than we’ve needed before. My hypothesis is that we need a clearer common thread in the tools we use to communicate. Working out what ‘just enough’ looks like, and how disciplined we need to be, is the next, bigger challenge. 

Show & Tells – I’ve been known to get angry when show & tells lead to one team openly criticising another team before they’ve explored more tactful routes to resolving a problem. But less obviously I also switch off a bit from show & tells where everything appears to be fine. So I’ve been trying a couple of different routes to finding a happier midpoint. 

Checking in – When I worked in consultancy I could never really fathom why it was so hard to speak to most people. And now there is a virtual list of people who I’m avoiding where a conversation would be both nice and helpful, but I know that it’s not time-sensitive and that I don’t have the capacity to do anything beyond that conversation. I feel morally obliged to find a way to fix this because it’s a poor way of behaving, but of course that requires finding time to dedicate to the problem. 

Next week

I need to get the balance right between giving enough care and attention to the outcomes for January whilst thinking forward to what happens next. I’ve often made mistakes managing those transitions – either doing it too much myself that it’s hard for the team to see what’s happening, or doing it too early so it becomes a distraction.  

Weeknote v10.1

Week beginning 4 January

I’ve returned to a weeknote format that had the best reception from my teams – a response to my reflections from the end of 2020. 

Focus for the week

I’ve only a dim recollection of my focus for the week. I *think* it was something about onboarding the new interim programme director for social care and health recovery. Probably just as well. Midweek we learnt of the publication of data breached during our cyberattack (the proper place for information on that is: https://news.hackney.gov.uk/cyberattack-update/). I’m not leading that workstream but it still dominated my thoughts.. 

I did, though, set a focus for each day – part of my Agile new year’s resolutions (it’s ok to laugh or groan). That helped – and I met them all. They were:

  • Monday: to firm up my goals for the year, in consultation with members of my teams
  • Tuesday: Deliver a galvanising HackIT All Hands
  • Wednesday: Set-up the first week for the programme director 
  • Thursday: Build out the recovery roadmap with key influencers
  • Friday: Ensure we met the goals we’d set for the week

Ones to watch

I need to refresh the Trello board I was using for projects to watch. In the meantime, the following list is heartfelt but fundamentally a random selection. 

Repairs Hub – I was really pleased to catch up with the Repairs Hub show & tell from this week. The team’s talking openly about how we’re working with the HACT data standard and the directional roadmap and it’s helping me get a clearer picture of 

Cleaning insourcing – the team that cleans our offices joined the Council this week. Paul, who leads our facilities contracts has worked on this with the waste team. Despite disruption to a number of aspects of the plan along the way, as well as some external challenges, this has been achieved on time with lots of care, but no drama. 

Planning customer journey – we’ve been working away to try and improve customer satisfaction by increasing the number of enquiries we can answer first time under Soraya’s direction. This has involved improving website content (collaborating with Croydon) getting better management information and introducing a better phone system for planning duty officers so we get better at managing availability. This week, the planning team were onboarded to the phone system thanks in no small part, to William’s gentle persistence and Natalie’s amazing patience. 

Noise reporting – this has been one of those projects that’s been much harder than it could have been. But next week, we will be able to launch a new way to report noise online, which is important to lots of residents. It won’t solve the whole problem but it will leave us better equipped to do so. There are a whole group of people who’ve helped us through various stages of the project under the persistent leadership of Councillor Selman, supported recently by Councillor Fajana-Thomas. 

What I’m learning

Realism – Breaks are good. But for as long as I can remember, I return from breaks with an unrealistic sense of what I can do differently. This New Year my bubble didn’t last the first working day. I wasn’t able to tick off any of the tasks that I’d set myself to complete before the day began. Indeed, I have only just been able to archive the list.

Ending the day – I’m trying to do a short reflection at the end of each day, as a way of actually finishing work. I don’t know how effective it is: the earliest I’ve done one was 18.11 on Friday. But at the very least, keeping it private might make my weeknotes less self indulgent. 

Operating in two modes – Lots of us are operating in two modes at the moment: crisis and BAU. Crisis is short-term, reactive and decisive whilst BAU looks longer, needs to be proactive and is often deliberative. Both have their own rewards. But switching between the two modes can be hard, and being in the wrong mode in the wrong moment is bad.  

Next week

Tuesday’s HackIT All Hands declared this to be a year to shape the decade. I’ve got 51 weeks left to make that true. I think the fundamental tension this month is in making sure we’ve got the right teams in place, focused on the right things whilst knowing that we haven’t yet found the optimal formula for how we deliver. So we need to be set-up to work at greater scale and at pace whilst making sure we haven’t made things too fixed, too complicated or too rigid to change. 

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