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

Month: January 2022

Squinting through the fog

Weeknote 4.2022

This week was harder. It felt like all the things that I haven’t done or (worse) where I had presided over things deteriorating, came together. By Wednesday evening I was asking existential questions about what value I really brought. 

But I did have three goals for the week. They may have taken up around five per cent of my time but probably account for 95% of the value. And it was motivational enough that I felt ok by Friday evening. Three teams now have a set of draft OKRs and two more have a process for getting there. I’ve designed a workshop to help us explore opportunities and blockers to articulate the outcomes expected from projects. And we’re starting to understand what’s needed to operationalise a regular response to frequent callers in customer services.  

Our recovery board is starting to show its value. We identify a handful of projects each week from the register where the weeknotes, show & tell or colleague feedback suggests they might need help. And then we agree how we’re going to find that help. The danger is that sort of meeting just becomes an information gathering exercise without creating any new value. But we’ve helped make progress on three projects over the last two weeks.

We had a challenge with our Technical Design Authority, though. I’ve written an internal weeknote on that. But the big thing is how we create a safe space where we can examine technical risks and communicate that to colleagues in a way that remains situationally aware and user centric without seeming aloof or high-handed. 

One of the big things I’m learning about running a high profile operational service (IT is both those things, but somehow still different) is the things you need to continue to care for because they’re dynamic. There are some things which, once achieved, don’t get un-done. But there are practises and behaviours that you need to continue to work at because otherwise they fall backwards. The challenges with those things are making time to continue to pursue them, alongside all the new things you want to do. They can also be hard to spot because you’ve mentally ticked them off the list. 

We’d made some really good progress to improve customer journeys with our planning service last year, but over the last three months some of those benefits have been lost. We made some changes to how we prioritise questions mid last week which led to an immediate improvement, but more work will be necessary to get back to where we were. 

Over the last year I’ve not been able to invest nearly enough time in relationships with colleagues across the Council. Some of that is about remote working – I used to make sure I bumped into lots of folks around the campus. Complacency probably played a part, too: lots of new senior leaders have arrived and I haven’t caught up. It was good to spend some time this week with a new colleagues in our adult social care team and it reminded me how much more of that I should do. 

Next week really does feature all the things – ranging from elections planning to cybersecurity; temporary accommodation to business licensing. So my goals are going to be important to give me a sense of purpose and focus. I’m going to stick with three: a clear roadmap for our temporary accommodation work; a Technical Design Authority meeting that helps embed our principles and starting the next conversation about how we can re-use our work to help other Councils.

Finding Fizz


That’s two positive weeks in a row. How do I know? Because this week (in contrast to last) I also committed to a clear area of focus, and three goals and delivered. That felt good, and the week felt good. I wanted to spend time carefully working through the process of reintroducing the OKRs structure to how we commit to clear outcomes, and deliver measurable results rather than just complete projects. This is so important to me because we need to be able to talk clearly and confidently about how our work is improving services for residents, we’ve got a good team who need the motivation that comes from a clear sense of purpose, and the freedom that comes from being able to organise around measurable outcomes. 

I’m also looking to extend the approach to customer services as well. By the end of this week we had a clear set of desired outcomes for our Document Products team and our Single View work. We’ve also talked through what success looks like for our data & insight service, and Lisa’s developing that further over the next week or so. 

For all that positivity, I know that we still need to do better by our residents in accessing some services. Last week our repairs service was contacted 5,500 times, which is 42% more than normal for this time of year. We’ve got some new starters, recruited from our Hackney Works employment scheme beginning on Monday which will bring short term relief. But we’ll only deliver a consistently good service if people need to call us less often and the conversations we have with people are typically shorter. 

One of the big steps forward this week and last was that, for the first time, we can identity who is calling most often. We’re experimenting with identifying when people are calling too often and following up to make sure that we’ve understood the whole problem, done everything we can to fix it efficiently and also set clear expectations for what will happen, when. This is a key part of our vision for customer services and ultimately it will help us provide a better service. But we need to be really careful to strike a fair balance between that work and the needs of people who are calling us ‘at the moment’. 

Our Technical Design Authority had the first meeting to review specific proposals for the design of services. We considered how we manage permissions for accessing Manage My Home, where it’s important that everyone has access to the right data and that users can be managed without having to change the software code each time. We reviewed how we’ll make sure that attachments to the social care software remain secure – because the system works by downloading a copy of the attachment onto the PC. And we explored how an open source ‘rules engine’ might enable us to develop and then continue to change, rules determining how we take action against people who owe us money. The conversation was valuable, and I was particularly pleased that everyone took part in a constructive spirit but not fudging the real challenges presented by each proposal.

One of my other small pleasures from this week was to hear of the work we’re doing to increase the number of people who register the birth of their child within 42 days. Most people can get an appointment now within a few days of asking for one, which is a fantastic level of service. Our behavioural insights expert has worked with the registrars team to help them identify different ways we can encourage people to register an appointment sooner. We’ll be tracking the impact of this through February. 

But ultimately I knew I had my fizz this week because I was also coming up with ideas. I like finding new ways of doing things – not least because it actually feels helpful rather than getting stuck in the management trap of being just a conduit of information. 

My goals for next week are for three more teams to have clear objectives and key results for their work, to know how we’re going to develop our predictive and proactive approach for housing repairs and to design a workshop to help our teams articulate their outcomes. Hopefully within that there’s enough room for creativity and focus to keep the fizz. 

Put it in the net, then let’s talk

Weeknote 2.2022

I basically had a really good week, with lots to feel energised about. My tasklist, optimistically titled ‘tomorrow’ isn’t complete, but there are 19 things ticked off. 

But I didn’t clearly define some goals. And so whilst I know I had a good week, it doesn’t have the same objectivity that it would have if I could prove it. I spent ages thinking about my goals but by the end of Monday still hadn’t committed. On Thursday I chatted to some of our security team over lunch and remembered the old Shankly quote: “if you’re not sure what to do, put the ball in the back of the net and then we’ll discuss it”. 

My main achievement was making sure our refreshed governance arrangements started well. We’ve got a weekly recovery board, a new Technical Design Authority and a fortnightly update for senior leaders, which I’ve called ‘Priorities, Progress and Problems’ (because I liked the alliteration). 

We expect recovery board members to arrive having read the outputs from each of our projects and come with some issues for discussion, so that we identify blockers and agree how to move things forward. It’ll quickly become second nature, but understanding how we can contribute will be hard to begin with. But it was a good discussion and I only needed one of my three prompts, because some colleagues were also well prepared. Following the meeting, I also produced a simple project evaluation framework so that next week, the board has a shared way of understanding what we mean by project health. 

The membership of the TDA overlaps with the recovery board, so I needed to find a fresh way of exploring our scope and ways of working. We used the anti-pattern exercise ‘If we did this really badly, how would we do it’. It was fun, but also enabled us to identify the big risks. 

Lastly, I was keen that the senior leaders briefing was more engaging than previously when it was too easy to slip into an informational update rather than a genuine exchange and development of a shared sense of purpose. 

There haven’t been many opportunities since the cyberattack to really invest in how we do things, given the relentless march of delivery. So at the very least it was good to dust-off some of those lingering skills . 

The other important step forward this week was work to help residents who had to call us too often. Our new phone system gives us more data than we’ve ever had before so we can quickly identify people who keep calling us and try to solve the problem. Of the first eight people we spoke to, we were able to make things better for all of them, which was essential to build trust in the service. It’s less efficient than responding to calls but sometimes it’s the right thing to do so next we’ll need to work out how it fits into our overall approach. 

I had also promised myself that I’d do two things to develop our strategy (consulting on our guiding principle, and designing another proactive service). I almost did one of them and because it was important rather than urgent, kept excusing myself for not doing it. Must do better. 

I did finish off reading The Great Circle. By the last 100 pages, I just wanted it to finish, but the twist at the end just about warranted the final mile. The thought of starting another book was too much so for the rest of the week I watched Borgen, the old Danish political drama. It took me back to the first time I watched it – sitting in our basement room in Dalston, with two young children, drinking too much red wine (me, not them, I hope). The plot has aged well, but there isn’t a smartphone in sight. And yet Borgen is still more modern than most of the commonly used local government software. 

I’m going to make next week all about our OKRs. I’ve been starting to extend the approach to customer services and I’ve got some hypotheses for how we can bring it back to our work in IT without it either being a bit false or distorting work that’s in flight. But if I start with how I work, then I’ll be better equipped to help others. 

Hello, fresh

Weeknote 1.2022

I used to start the New Year with bold ambitions which would fail because, despite the changing date, I remained me. I’m older now, and (a bit) better at setting realistic goals. But it hasn’t prevented me from starting afresh in the New Year. 

I’ve also noticed a disconnect, though, between the emotional freshness and the reality of trying to get back into the groove – exacerbated by working from home. 

Those thoughts remained with me for most of the week. 

First, the freshness. 

At the IT strategy show & tell, we explained why 2022 will be the year of outcomes. It can be easy to get lost in the technology so by spending time really understanding how our work enables residents and businesses to get a better service we’ll make sure we’re making the right choices. The reaction suggested it wasn’t quite the inspirational, insightful narrative that I’d dreamt of, but I was able to follow it up by finding a couple of opportunities to show teams what we meant. 

I was involved in a couple of projects before Christmas where something didn’t feel right, but where I’d probably only sounded irritated. The Christmas break helped me filter out the things that were personally irritating and focus on the bits that mattered. By starting the year thinking clearly about what mattered I had more confidence to tackle the things that were eroding our ability to deliver. 

I spent quite a bit of time this week thinking about the objectives and key results for the Single View project which is starting shortly. It’s a project bursting with opportunities – and therefore has the potential to under-deliver – so if we can set some really clear outcomes then we’ll empower the team to make good choices. There’s something about fewer contacts and faster calls – but we also need to be mindful about the unintended consequences. So we’re not there yet. 

I was also able to crank through two business cases for forthcoming projects. Part of me hoped 2021 marked the end of seemingly endless business case and procurement documentation. But at least I’m now reasonably quick at it. 

There were a few areas where it was harder to get back into the groove. 

I’ve been thinking carefully about how we might frame a service promise for residents which also enables colleagues to solve problems. I’ve got a nascent idea and I know how I want to test it. But I completely ran out of time / failed to work sufficiently efficiently to do anything about it. 

There were a couple of administrative tasks that I’d meant to do over Christmas and were never became more compelling than The Great Circle. I got some of them done, but too many still remain. (I also read a book about the emerging field of quantum biology. That was bafflingly complex.)

And on Thursday I was asked to share my goal for the week at the DMT huddle. I didn’t have one. That’s the kind of sloppiness that I’d be unforgiving of in others. 

As I was finishing off my weeknote, I learnt that Jack Dromey had died, briefly a former boss. I have vivid memories from the experience of working for him, during the summer of my finals. I learnt a substantial amount about patience, consistency and sheer indefatigability from Jack who, in the 1970s, learnt some Gujurati to help represent the women in the Grunwick dispute (if I remember rightly). Late on a Sunday, whilst I’d be watching the end of the 4pm Premier League game, Jack would be leaving me voicemail lists of things to do the next day (one voicemail didn’t last long enough for Jack). But looking back, what I remember, and probably learnt from the most, was the extraordinary relationship he had with Harriet. Thank you, Jack. 

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