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

Month: February 2021

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.

Weeknote v10.5

Week beginning 1 February

Focus for the week

I set 3×3 areas of focus for the week: the big three were council tax, social care and civil enforcement recovery. The mid-tier were things that should be simpler but risk drifting: legal case work, repairs scheduling and regeneration software. The other three were earlier stage projects that we need to start well: noise, public protection and tenants’ services. 

The upside to defining my week like this, was that it made sure I was able to give some attention to a broader range of challenges. The cost was that, without clearly defined goals I don’t know whether we can judge the week as a success. And sometimes it was just ‘management by progress updates’ which is a particularly expensive way of doing reporting, and isn’t really management either. 

The other challenge I need to keep in mind is how to get the right relationship with key projects. The risk with important projects is holding too tightly onto something for too long and then, when it starts to go well – and the detail means the contribution I can make is less obvious, stepping too far away.  

Ones to watch  

Cloud infrastructure – the team is responsible for creating and supporting the infrastructure to recover our data and applications. They’re tasked with delivering value to users whilst creating the patterns, tooling, skills and culture so that we can continue to do this well. So, with that tightly defined brief in mind (!) this week they battled with competing priorities and overcoming a networking issue. And the weeknotes were another good example of working in the open – they were honest about the challenges and how we need to improve orchestration between teams. 

Blue badges – Another year in local government, another project to improve the blue badge process. It’s no less important or valuable because it’s well-trodden ground. Last year, customer services took responsibility for the first point of contact with adult social care. Within a few weeks we were able to support more residents, whilst referring fewer calls to social care specialists. But nearly half of what remains are related to blue badges – typically progress updates. So Sam and team are building on the work from central government, and colleagues across the country to find out how best to make things easier for customers. And of course we’ll share what we learn in the user research library to make things simpler still for the next council to revisit its processes. 

Find Support Services – We’ve delivered the latest improvement to Find Support Services. The team has invested a significant amount of energy and shown incredible commitment. The new features include the ability to share listings and search for services that are particularly well suited to residents with particular characteristics, whilst the API-based approach remains important for our ambitions to provide a consistent experience for providing early help to vulnerable residents. 

What I’m learning

Using goals, not just setting them – I read back my goals for the year this week to try and assess whether we were on track. One of them has already proved impossible. But I asked ‘do these still make sense, am I still committed to them and what needs to happen now to ensure they can still succeed?’ It was a useful framework to note that whilst no plan survives first contact, without one we’re just prisoners of events.

Small steps – after a few weeks of frustration that I hadn’t done anything to realise some of my bolder ambitions for customer services, I started taking small steps. At my best, I’m good at doing just enough to make something happen. So on three occasions I eeked out just enough time to start thinking about how we can get a fresh perspective on what it means to truly put customers first; about how we can be open about our performance and what we’re learning and what more we can do to provide a consistent experience for residents accessing different services. 

Retaining a habit – It’s taken me 20 years to retain a habitual fitness regime. On at least five occasions between the age of 19 and 35 I joined a gym with a target of going 10 times in four weeks and never made it to the 10th session. Once this week I went for a run that was significantly shorter than normal because I knew that it was better to do something than nothing at all. Similarly, I’ve done a couple of things over the last fortnight which would make a great habit. But I’m yet to retain them.

Next week

We’ve got an emerging challenge: there are three things I’m responsible for that we need to get right before the end of March. None of them will represent ‘job done’ but each will realise significant benefits for residents and staff. But we can’t afford only to do those three things. I want to make sure I get my focus right: providing full support for the most important things and just enough encouragement for other areas of our work that other colleagues and services don’t feel neglected.  

There’s not one way to do that: it’s a combination of setting the right goals, spending my time deliberately and aligning teams. 

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