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

Month: March 2021

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. 

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