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

Month: October 2021

Weeknote v10.43

Week beginning 25 October

Well, I wasn’t anticipating that. There were various scenarios that I thought would have a material impact on my concentration levels this week. The one that I hadn’t considered was the impact of wanting to read every word of every article on the fall-out from the match. A diary full of meetings was helpful in avoiding too many distractions.

The biggest challenge at the moment is the experience for tenants calling for a housing repair. I said to a colleague that on becoming responsible for repairs customer services, I haven’t been able to look at a rainy day in the same way. For all the smart things we can do, fundamentally the team isn’t currently large enough to meet the demand. We’re fixing this – and need to address the underlying challenges. But until it’s better, it’ll continue to bother me (and rightly so). 

The football also made me think about how much of my week was played in my head. On Thursday I went for a run on a course which includes a steady hill between miles 4 and 5. I was so focused on the conversation in my head that I hadn’t noticed reaching the top of the hill.  By the end of Friday I felt like it had been a good end to the week. I’m not sure that there was anything materially different about Friday to, say, Wednesday. The same situation approached with a different mindset just felt different. 

We hosted a visit of colleagues from Brent on Friday to share notes about the customer experience of visiting a Council. It was a chance to try and step outside of what we knew and what we thought and view what we did through a different perspective. I was asking myself, ‘If I leave today, will I be proud of what I’ve contributed?’ The truth is that too many of the gains remain fragile and we haven’t confronted enough of the core challenges. But I’m also fortunate that there are a number of issues on which we’re starting to see a moment to change, which hasn’t been available over the last 18 months. 

I spent more time than I expected thinking about brands – this week about the meaning and mission of what comes next for the IT team. We’ve got some big characters leaving us shortly which is great for their personal growth; we’re proud of what they’ve accomplished and grateful for having their dedication over the last year. We’re evolving out of the cyberattack recovery and need to re-cast the story of who we are, what we do and why we do it. We’ve also got some exciting new joiners who’ve brought a fresh energy and determination and we can harness this to build a new proposition. 

Part of the conversations we’ve been having about facilities management is what we’d do differently if our focus was on colleague experience. To state the obvious, managing the facilities isn’t an end in itself. Part of the challenge with FM is that it’s mostly obvious if something isn’t working. So we’ve been thinking about how we can provide reassurance that we’re there, looking after things behind the scenes. It’s important we do this together to avoid ideas that are good in theory but don’t add value in practice. 

I’m looking at my diary next week and again struggling to spot a theme or direction, beyond ‘busy-ness’. So it’s a perfect opportunity for me to work on my balance. There have been slightly too many occasions recently where I haven’t quite got it right. I’ve tried to be more comfortable in setting clear expectations and providing feedback. But occasionally this has tipped into expressing frustration because it’s the easier option, rather than the more helpful one. So next week I’ll try and take it one meeting at a time. 

Weeknote v10.42

Week beginning 18 October 

I spent much of my week thinking about brand, one way or another. There were four different aspects of my responsibilities that prompted this – and highlighted a challenge that I’ve not yet tackled.

The early part of the week was about preparations for work we’re doing to agree what needs to be completed to have finished the recovery from the cyberattack. I had picked up a bit of a theme that some colleagues had heard too much about the things we were proud of at the expense of things we knew we hadn’t done well enough. So the senior managers network was an opportunity to explain why it was reasonable to be proud and optimistic about what else our recovery enabled us to achieve but also be frank about where we’ve fallen short. Humility certainly isn’t part of my brand (even if flagellation may be) but openness in our team is a prerequisite for an effective technology service.

We’ve been exploring how we can use the report to define recovery to update residents on progress. Whether software A or software B is now recovered isn’t interesting or helpful for someone to know, but ‘can I do x?’ is simpler to answer now than previously. But it’d be even more helpful if we could personalise these so that we’re able to provide an update that’s relevant to their circumstances. As always, we’ll need to get the detail right if it’s going to build confidence in what we do. 

I heard more about the proactive, preventative work we’re doing to support vulnerable residents. It’s still in an experimental phase. We’re trying to learn about how we can use our data and our skills to have a meaningful conversation with residents to understand their circumstances and helps us work together to tackle their problems. If we could turn that into a core part of what we do it could have an extremely positive impact. And part of how we know we’ll have succeeded is if we can make it part of the promises we make to residents and their expectations of us.

In amongst all of this, the public health team led a session to consider how our services could help address health inequalities. Through the discussion we talked about trauma informed approaches, psychologically informed environments and the strengths-based approach, Make Every Contact Count. We’re also trying to embed equalities and sustainability in everything we do. It made me think about the richness of what we can achieve by working together and how fulfilling these roles can be for staff. But also the risk of significant confusion for staff. I left wondering: how can we synthesise these into some practical tools that help colleagues actively apply this whilst also remaining effective?

I was invited to participate in an event with colleagues from easyJet Holidays and the DfE about customer experience. I used the words of our Resident Liaison Group as the starting point for my theory: “don’t call us customers, we don’t have a choice”. I explained that as a local council there’s no good that comes of an experience that doesn’t meet someone’s expectations but that we should aim higher than a transactional service that ‘doesn’t make me think’, towards a citizen relationship. The subsequent conversation helped me reflect on how much more we could do to define our brand, and therefore the experience we want to offer. 

It’d be lovely to think that I could do something with all of these thoughts next week. But it’s currently feeling like a very different challenge. I’ve got 42 meetings scheduled about (roughly) 30 different things; three reports to write and then somehow to find some time to spend on things that need to happen to resolve issues and challenges that have emerged over the last couple of weeks. None of that will really matter if we beat United on Sunday. But in the meantime, it’s probably time to start making a list.

Weeknote v10.41

Week beginning 11 October

It’s hard not to view this week entirely through the prism of Friday. That’s not what I expected. But before I get too self-indulgent, whilst Friday was personally challenging, the tragic and foul news of David Ames’ murder was a reminder that what I faced wasn’t that difficult. 

I’d ended Thursday so well. I felt productive and full of energy to such an extent that I had to make an effort to actually stop working. That had all disappeared by Friday morning. And by the afternoon the thought of looking at my inbox was intimidating. 

There are two things that I’ve found harder in my current role than I expected: the realtime pressure of customer services is different even compared to when I was responsible for running our (then not particularly robust) business applications. And even for a gadfly like me, one way I manage the breadth of my responsibilities is to try and reduce my focus. So when it feels like I’m fighting on multiple fronts in realtime, I’m still adapting. 

Friday began when a technology options paper that we’d invested a lot of time and care to in preparation for senior leaders, didn’t land well. We had limited time so had to move beyond how we felt about that towards what we’d do about it. The commute into the office was really helpful for me, because I used it to try and separate my investment in the work to date in order to view the feedback we’d received differently. Whilst we were writing it, my inbox started to fill up with another concern from a tenant whose home needed repairs work. I immediately thought back to the fortnight last winter when we had no heating – but also knew how privileged I was by comparison. And then in the afternoon, some difficult news about one of our buildings and how people reacted to that, created a different flurry of activity and concern. 

Early in the week I felt as though I was making good progress. I wasn’t exactly ticking this off a task list but a startling number were moving forward. I even had a chance on Wednesday to check against the goals that I’d set and recalibrate what I was doing on Thursday to manage the gap between my tasks and the goals. It hasn’t stopped me having a few chunky reports and proposals to work through over the next couple of days, but there’s something about that feeling when you’re getting things done on your own terms which is satisfying. 

As part of my theme of leaning in to complex challenges, I ran a short session to learn from a recent application outage. We’re exploring how product teams could give clearer responsibility and skills for tackling these sort of challenges and I wanted to learn what the experience meant for those proposals. The answer, interestingly, was less than I assumed. But it also identified two specific things we can improve around our processes. Because they’re important but no longer urgent, I’ll need to try particularly hard to find time to move these forward next week. 

I also presented work to our Cyber GOLD command on recovery from the cyberattack. We’ve always known that there will be differences between the points at which software will be available, data will be recovered and the service that residents receive will be efficient. The challenge I heard wasn’t unique to recovery but can be found in any transformation initiative: How do you make a clear commitment to residents about the future which will not only be reflected in their own experience of a service but also amplified by staff? 

Next week I’m most looking forward to taking part in a Forward Institute event on engaging responsibly with consumers and citizens. I’ll get to learn from some peers in easyJet and the Department for Education whilst reflecting on where the relationships between citizens, residents and customers (the same people, where the language implies different values) can both improve and inhibit public service delivery. My particular challenge for the event is how to balance between provocative and interesting whilst remaining considered and thoughtful. But I’ll be taking the words of the Resident Liaison Group into the session: ‘don’t call us customers – we don’t have a choice’. 

Weeknote v10.40

Week beginning 4 October

We called it a year to define a decade and there’s now just 12 weeks left. That’s enough time for me to influence the extent to which we can end it on a high.

It’s striking quite how supportive colleagues continue to be. I treasure that because it’s the harder choice. At Friday’s Council Silver command (the 46th cyber I’ve done) we shared an early draft of a status report of the work done, in progress and still to do; broken down by search service. My hunch is we’d all benefit from an agreed definition of ‘done’. More than ever we’re now also delivering key outcomes beyond cyberattack recovery whether to upgrade the Wi-Fi, or upgrade our Academy database. So we need to make sure we’re not leaving important things un-done and that we can deliver the next phase of work sustainably.

I also had to revisit the early days of the attack this week in a presentation to technology leaders from European cities. It was a year ago on Sunday that everything changed. It’s a story that’s important to tell and I’m passionate about sharing what we learnt. But it’s getting harder, not easier, to go back there. Nevertheless, I’m toying with doing a personal retrospective. Working in a crisis does compromise your ability to be truly reflective and I should spend a bit of time assessing where I’ve been least effective.

Coincidentally, I also visited a bar on Thursday night that I’d last been in the night before lockdown. It’s part of my commitment to investing in local businesses, of course. But Friday afternoon might have been more energetic if my commitment wasn’t quite so strong.

Over the last week or so I’ve been actively working on responsible leadership. In particular the importance of setting clear standards. It led to me twice being cross on a single day which has almost never happened (as far as I know). I’m not sure that’s a particularly good thing. It’s not inherently bad but it doesn’t leave you very far to go and it’s not particularly constructive. More helpfully I’ve been trying to eek out time to confront some of our thornier challenges. I’m partly culpable for many of these things and I can see the frustration that they cause. They still exist because there aren’t easy answers so I also need to make sure we can focus on actually developing solutions or else bringing the issue into view could lead to greater frustration.

Next week’s a bit of a TK Max week – a jumble of things where it’s hard to work out where to find the value. It’s the first week in a while. But it also coincides with our new head of customer experience starting in Hackney – so that’s exciting, and hopefully I can find enough time to make that focussed and fulfilling rather than vaguely overwhelming and scattergun. 

Weeknote v10.39

Week beginning 27 September 

Objectively that wasn’t bad. Three of those four important meetings went well. I left having given a good account of the current position and had a mandate to do what was needed. The other was cancelled – which wasn’t a bad sign. I didn’t actively work the goals for the week but for one that I delayed (on which, more later) the others have all made satisfactory progress. I also had time for the other issues I needed to care about immediately meaning the goals didn’t distort. 

Most importantly I felt as though we made progress in developing a shared understanding that we needed to work together to improve the experience for residents in one of our most in-demand services. Previously we’ve been stuck in a bit of a silo and we’ve now got an opportunity to be ambitious and look at addressing the whole problem. The team had gone to considerable effort to help me prepare well. I also remembered the importance of taking a piece of work on the last mile myself. It helps me really question and internalise the argument. 

We spent some time working together to improve how we use our specialist skills following an initial workshop a couple of weeks ago. It’s almost certainly a wicked problem or at least the wrong question to ask. The competing demands and overall too many activities required of some people are a consequence of a myriad of other issues. They need to be tackled too. But as we discussed at the workshop, the causes are also related to our culture and mindset. My hypothesis is that if we were to attempt to fix one of these problems in isolation, we’d find that the problem wasn’t solved. 

I found myself asking people for updates slightly too many times. That’s a criticism of me, not them. I’ve always felt that as a senior manager spending someone’s time to update you on their work is asymmetrical – you’re the only person getting any value and you’re providing an explanation to someone for whom it is more important, which is typically because priorities aren’t aligned. It highlights that you’re not close enough to the work to know what’s happening and that you may not have prioritised the right things. Yes, that’s sometimes necessary but I’m not pleased with myself when I have to do it. 

I’ve also been ineffective at making good time from things cancelled at short notice. I had three or four spare hours this week. But rather than seize them as an opportunity to do one of the longer, more involved tasks on my list I tended to fiddle with lots of things. I’ll pay for that over the weekend!

Subjectively it wasn’t a good week. There were one too many things where I understood the issue but I was just grumpy about how other people positioned themselves on the issue. Perhaps it’s better than being surprised by their positioning. But it’s still not good. Possibly the biggest difference between working in-house for the long haul and consultancy or shorter term missions that I’ve done previously is the importance of sustaining long term relationships through the ups and downs. By Thursday evening I was delighted to be able to sit in a pub on my own. Although the feeling hadn’t gone by Friday. 

There’s lots I’m looking forward to next week. I’m attending an event for digital leaders in a number of European cities. We’re getting better at learning from our peers in England but I know far too little about digital in other cities. We’ve got two important meetings with senior stakeholders about our strategy in customer services. We’re interviewing for a growth opportunity for team members. And generally it’s one of those weeks where most days are sufficiently busy that they will take care of themselves. 

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