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

Month: February 2022

Looking long and acting short

Weeknote 8.2022

Just last week I was on holiday. It did actually feel like one. Little did I know that when I started reading Dresden by Sinclair McKay, there would be war again in Europe. Two years ago I heard the Army CGS say that global terrorism would look like a pimple on the nose compared to interstate conflict. The ability to look long yet deliver now, was a key theme of my week.

One of the big things I did this week was convene structured chats with team members to explore how we’re responding to the staff survey. The survey is a crucial annual temperature check of whether we’re working together well enough to respond to what residents need. There are changes we’ve already made and some more things starting so I needed feedback on whether these were right. 

We changed a lot, quickly in customer services as I started at the beginning of the pandemic. We’ve achieved some really big things which I assumed would take years, when I first got the job. But there are a number of things we’ve done which we need to keep reinforcing to make sure they stick (I talked earlier about how transformation remains dynamic not just an achievement). We need to work harder to discuss performance by taking a complete view. The unique ability to manage performance in real-time can lure us into actions that improve one thing only to create a problem elsewhere.

The second cohort of Link Workers completed their academy this week. This group has achieved some impressive outcomes for residents by listening to their problems and finding creative ways of brokering the support they need. It was particularly rewarding to spend time in my regular meeting with the Mayor – as our political lead – discussing the problems we tackled. Now we need to create the environment so that they can take the experience into the fundamental way they work so that the impetus doesn’t fade after the first experience. 

The recovery board had a retrospective this week (which I blogged about separately). One of the themes in this work is how we make the right decisions for now, whilst also looking at the longer term. Some of the biggest complexity associated with our work is navigating around things that were initially planned as tactical fixes or ‘quick wins’ which have become embedded through years of custom and practice. 

I had three conversations this week that helped me think differently about roadmaps. I’ve always been sceptical, frankly. Yes to a set of clear, mid-term outcomes. Yes to an immediate set of tasks. But articulating the route between those two points can be fraught with difficulty. But firstly, one of my peers said “you underestimate the value of roadmaps in showing staff that their area isn’t going to be forgotten”. And in a different conversation one of my team said “when you don’t have agency, a roadmap can help you look forward to when you’ll see improvements”.

I’m excited about next week. I’ve got three full days where I can focus on a single thing each day: we’re doing strategic planning on Monday, I’m at a conference on Thursday and Friday currently looks like a miracle. So there’s an opportunity to put some of this into practice.  Obviously it’s more likely that by midday on Monday I’ll be faced with so many different issues flying into the inbox that I’ll have forgotten all about it. But it’s nice to pretend. 

Grappling with outcomes

Weeknote 6.2022

Last week, I mused about the balance between the goals that I need to deliver and the goals for the team. Probably the most effective thing I did this week was to help teams think about how we articulate their work in terms of outcomes for residents. We’ve been using the OKRs approach to strategic planning, so that we can measure progress against the goals regularly, and change our approach when it’s not moving sufficiently towards the objective. 

Given that, I wanted to celebrate some of the ways we’ve been making things better this week:

A better experience for people calling frequently – we’re dedicating time to calling people who have had to phone us frequently in order to make sure we’ve got to the heart of the problem. That requires good preparation – we’d make things worse if we picked up the phone before we understood all the things we already knew – and a skilled advisor who knows how to make our services work for people. Bukkie and the team have done this well so far, and have tangible examples of things we’ve been able to unblock by having a good conversation with a frustrated resident. 

Understanding the planning system – our data platform helps us bring data together, safely and ethically. We can use this to better understand our systems and processes which then enables us to understand what we can do differently. Adam showed the planning service a comprehensive tool that enables the team to start generating hypotheses and plans for how we can improve the customer journeys. 

Staying safe online – there’s lots of maintenance that goes into helping people stay safe online. We’re getting better at how we manage the security certificates that reassure web browsers, and therefore users, that our services are safe. Darren and team essentially brought management of the service in-house and did a good job of this week’s refresh. 

Faster product development – we’re using a tool developed by Spotify (Backstage) to make the process of product development faster. That enables us to speed up learning what our users need, which is one of the metrics I’m obsessed about. It’s been a hope for a while, and lots of different people have contributed, but Stuart was able to show the team where we’ve got to, and people were excited about what next. 

A professional, relaxed welcome – we’re evolving how we welcome residents into our service centre, as COVID restrictions continue to change. We’ve got a new reception desk so that we can welcome people into the building, ensure colleagues are safe but also try and shift the power dynamics so that it’s not an overwhelming experience for people who need our help. Well done to Nicola, Paul and the team for pushing this forward.

In the interests of balance, there are a few things we’re grappling with at the moment:

We’ve been grappling with a difficult data migration challenge for some of our licensing services. The old database was complex, expensive and probably over-engineered so it’s taken painstaking work to understand how to map the information to the new system. We’d swarmed around it in the last few weeks to increase the chance of success. And then at the last minute, a key team member was ill. 

We’ve had some complaints recently about one of the systems we use. Given the number of successful transactions, I think I was slow to notice. But it also appears that we’re not the only Council that’s experiencing problems. A challenging integration means we also had to delay making a new system live. The two things aren’t connected – but both indications that it needs extra attention. 

Our refreshed customer satisfaction survey has now been running for a fortnight and revealed that only half of residents think we’ve clearly told them what will happen next. One of our core principles for a good conversation is to ‘be the guide’. So we need to dig into this and identify some improvements that we can make. 

We’ve also been organising a fortnightly meeting for senior leaders to talk about ‘tech priorities, progress and problems’ (because I liked the alliteration). It takes a few hours to prepare for, but seemed important for openness and collaboration. Attendance hasn’t been great, and is falling off, so we need to think about what needs to change. 

Next week I might actually be away. We’ve got a few days in Cornwall, around my wife’s birthday. I’m not optimistic for the quality of the 4G connectivity so I may literally have to switch off. 

The good and the indifferent

Weeknote 5.2022

I’m fascinated by how other senior leaders align their work and agenda to the needs of their teams. If it’s too different, I’ve found you’re talking a completely separate language to your managers – and you don’t have time for the things that matter for them. If you just focus on what your teams are doing at the moment, you can’t set the pace of change. I’ve been think about that this week because of how different my week was to the delivery of customer services. Our service had a really encouraging week, and mine was ok. 

We delivered the best service to residents that we’ve achieved in months, this week. Waiting times were consistently below ten minutes and we answered around 85% of calls. Best of all, we continued to take more time to work with residents who needed extra help. 

One of our link workers helped ‘Maria’ – an older woman who hadn’t asked for a repair to her council home in two years. After speaking to us, we helped fix the carbon monoxide alarm and introduced her to a lunch club so that she could meet new people. Doing things efficiently is important because sometimes that’s all you need. Taking time to do make things better for people who need that extra help makes Hackney better for everyone. The improved outcomes have also had a noticeable effect on everyone’s morale. 

Now, we’ve got a short period that we need to use so that some of the enablers are in place to sustain the improvement. The work we’re doing to support residents who have to call frequently needs to become bread and butter. This week, our single view work has an early prototype which will enable us to test what impact it could have on call lengths. We’ve got a really simple target: for the tool to help us save 189,000 minutes a year. We’re also investing in a rota-ing tool so that we’re matching colleagues with the right skills to support the levels of demand at the right time of the day. 

On Thursday my diary resembled my hair: things came out at a remarkable rate. Previously I’ve found it too easy to waste unexpected time (to the point where I’ve actually got cross that things were cancelled). But this week I had enough energy to make good use of the time and focus on cracking through some stuff that would be far too easy to defer.

The key thing on Friday was our housing IT steering group. We’re at one of those difficult stages in a change project. Having been through a few I’ve now got enough experience to not over-dramatise them in advance. But the conversation also enabled me to reflect on how change needs momentum to succeed. The allure of ‘pragmatism today, change tomorrow’ is as effective as when my parents painted over mould in my bedroom as a child. 

All of this is a long way of saying that I didn’t quite meet my three goals for the week, but didn’t get far off. We do have a clear roadmap for the temporary accommodation work. It landed well with the leadership of the service and we’re going to use it to structure our show & tells. The Technical Design Authority meeting did help support our principles and remained action-oriented. I’m keen that we evolve the way we’re working now that we’re four weeks in, so that we don’t establish a pattern too soon and that habit reduces our creativity. I didn’t start the re-use conversation I wanted, but that was a matter of diaries and availability rather than a lack of focus on my part. 

There were also two things where we made progress this week after letting them drift for too long. In both examples, I would have been unforgiving on discovering the length of time it had taken to get it done, at the point at which I started working in Councils. Now, I can also see completely valid reasons why they’ve dragged. But I’m not comfortable with entirely abandoning the me of 2015. Part of the answer is to get more comfortable with saying ‘I can’t’, particularly when under pressure. But another part is just being a bit more candid when I’m letting things drift so that colleagues can make a more active choice about how to proceed. 

Next week is an opportunity to return to the work I’ve been doing to help teams articulate the outcomes we’re seeking to achieve. So my stretch goal is that three teams can confidently express the outcomes they’re seeking from work that’s currently underway. But I’ve also got three significant bits of paperwork to attend to – two of which have been festering on my to-do list for a fortnight. So I’d better formalise that as my second goal for the week. I’ve also got my eye on a trip to Anfield on Thursday – so two goals will be sufficient (no jokes about whether 2 goals is enough with a high line). 

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