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

Month: March 2022

Was it just the Interlull?

Weeknote 12.22

If you don’t have anything good to say, don’t say anything at all – my Mum used to say. She probably still does. But that’s never knowingly prevented me posting a weeknote. 

The reasons this week was one of the most personally challenging I’ve ever had at work don’t lend themselves well to working in the open. Or maybe I’m just suffering from the consequences of an international break. The one that happens just as the season is reaching its crescendo is almost always the cruellest. 

But here are three broad themes that I have found interesting. 

  1. Being a good ally

The Child Q case has affected lots of colleagues deeply and I feel like our internal response has been empathic and comprehensive. Coincidentally, the IT strategy show & tell provided a space to a group of non White men to share their fears and thoughts about what our team could do differently to provide more opportunities for career development and advancement. I’ve been learning a lot about white privilege and thinking carefully about diversity and inclusion over the last 18 months or so. But I suspect I’m not yet a good ally. 

  1. The matter with words that matter

I’ve received feedback, up and down, recently which has made me reflect on words that matter. In particular, how one person’s off-hand statement can be the thing that sticks with the listener for some time after. It’s equally true of emails. I know that personally, I’ve been less careful with what I’ve said of late. A crisis can do that to you but so also can comfort and certainty. As I was drifting off to sleep one night, I reflected: this is the problem with the onset of middle age. You’ve seen enough that you think you know what’s right and you come to decisions quicker. But it also makes you less attuned to other perspectives.

  1. When to observe and when to act

We’ve been observing a problem for some time, and acted decisively this week. For some of our challenges, there aren’t a significant number of options. For example, if you’re tied into a long contract for something that isn’t working both parties know that – other than getting cross – there’s not actually much you can do. And posturing is tiresome. But weighing up the scale of problems and balancing them against the costs of change is more judgement than science. What we’ve learnt this week suggests we did the right thing. I suspect the next few weeks will help us understand if we did it in the right way. 

Some positives, despite

Weeknote 11.22

I suppose I’m fortunate not to have many weeks like this. Perhaps I should have spotted the pattern before I attempted my first ever shave with a cutthroat razor on Friday morning. Somehow emerging from the bathroom covered in small nicks felt a fitting end to the week. 

It all began with a list of all the things that needed something from me. Writing them all down wasn’t helpful. It just highlighted how many there were. At least last week I just had a general sensation of there being too many. There aren’t any fewer today. 

With that whinge out of the way, here are some things to celebrate:

  • We’ve developed an SROI model to guide our Link Work, assessing the financial equivalent cost to the interventions and the value for each resident we’ve supported. We’re showing a 6% return at the moment which isn’t overwhelming but also feels credible
  • One of the residents we helped through Link Work was sufficiently motivated that we’re now exploring whether they could come and work for the Council
  • Our Events Team in customer services put on their first social – and colleagues were looking particularly smart in the office on Friday
  • I was particularly impressed by colleagues in the finance systems team as they briefed me on the challenges we’d had with Mastercard payments – and the work that they do to support the end of the financial year; part of my responsibilities running the applications team
  • The Techncial Design Authority had a healthy retrospective. We did it through the medium of a ‘letter to a significant other’ to help us talk about the work in non-technical ways and find an accessible way of talking about the outcomes we’ve achieved. Rob reminded us that we can’t just ‘bank’ the things that have been positive about the first 10 meetings; we’ll need to continue upholding our values
  • The Delivery Healthcheck meeting was clearly different from the recovery board which showed that we’d learnt from that retrospective, and I could see the added value in the conversation about priorities and people (rather than tactical issues with projects; though they still have their place)
  • I promised last Friday to help move forward a procurement (for Child Protection Information Sharing services), which I did
  • We used the OKRs that we established for our Documents Products team to assess the progress we made. My take-away was that we’d made better progress towards our objectives than towards our Key Results. I’d certainly prefer it that way around!
  • We had a good conversation with colleagues in our recruitment service about a new approach that we’re going to try. They were really supportive and enabling, which was energising

Personally, I got a massive buzz from seeing To Kill a Mockingbird at the Gielgud Theatre with my children on Monday night (which wasn’t ideal, but COVID meant the performance was reorganised twice) and then, of course, the Liverpool game on Wednesday night. It wasn’t quite enough to provide perspective on other things, but they were a good distraciton. 

One of the challenges that I’ve long grappled with is when to sweat the small things. Done to a micro level, you disempower teams, entangle yourself in problems and leave undone the job you’re paid for. Look too large and you can write off almost all problems as something that will be forgotten in a year’s time. This week helped remind me of three things that are never too small to forget about:

  1. What interactions between good people says about the health of your team
  2. What the speed of feedback loops says about the health of a piece of work
  3. What you can learn from how people articulate something they need to do 

For much of the last eighteen months, I haven’t been able to give these things much attention. We’ve been fortunate not to have to, but I need to be more active in making those matter. 

Next week

I need to define success on my own terms next week, partly as a way of dealing with the things where I’m not succeeding. Bits of the goals need to remain private, but to give you a glimpse, I’m wondering:

  1. Does our SROI stand up to scrutiny and can we use some of our customer insights to guide priorities for action?
  2. How might we explain one of our digital services so that we understand how it compares with a commercial alternative?
  3. How do I ensure I understand the priorities for our applications teams and where I can most help them?
  4. How might we use the support we need to provide to colleagues in adults for our case recording tools to provide an exemplar for other services to follow?

Out of all the things, some key themes emerge

Weeknote 10.2022

I’m absolutely convinced I put in a significant shift this week. Yet on Friday when I compared progress against my goals for the week I was left spluttering: surely there had to be a mistake? I couldn’t have failed this badly! Maybe two nights out distorted my sense of how much I’d actually done.

So here’s a flavour of what the week entailed, so you can come to your own conclusions. 

I will take temporary charge of our applications management teams from next week, following some recent departures from the team. I had a detailed discussion with the team about the key pieces of work involved to ensure we had the right support arrangements in place for our social care products, whilst recognising where we would need to ‘respond to events’. I also designed a format for the weekly meeting that would help us get a shared sense of the priorities, blockers and performance. I’m feeling energised by the opportunity. 

We briefed a group of councillors on the software we’ve developed in partnership with FutureGov to manage applications to join the housing register. I sprang a surprise on the team by asking them to show it on a mobile, as they began the demo. Of course it worked! At the end of the week the Product Owner and I started scoping out the roadmap for further improvements – particularly around applicants recording a change of circumstances. The project also represents an interesting design challenge; for most people, joining the housing register isn’t their best option for securing appropriate housing. So whilst we want to make it easy for people who need to, the user need is more complex than the transactional service suggests. 

I also dipped into the design of the service to distribute the government’s energy rebate to council taxpayers. For residents in receipt of direct debit, it’s really quite straightforward. But it quickly becomes complex for those that aren’t and where people live together but don’t share money (students sharing a house, for example). The guidance makes a number of assumptions about how the service will be provided but doesn’t provide any of the tools to enable it to be done. There have been lots of pan-London conversations so we’re learning from each other but inevitably pace and capacity will produce different processes to achieve the same outcome. 

On Thursday morning I joined an executive education course run by DLUHC and AWS. We heard some great examples of digital transformation from around the world, thanks to Liam Maxwell. I feel pretty confident that I know where innovation is happening across England but know that I’m completely unsighted on innovation in other cities around the world. GDS was much-mimicked on a national level, but I’d love to know more about regional and local initiatives. Mark Thompson was at his provocative best (which, given the format, is particularly impressive). I’m sure he both managed to criticise the sector for being too dependent on too few suppliers and not collaborating enough. 

Our fortnightly repairs improvement board met, The board is focused on a significant number of short term actions to address a backlog of repairs. Part of the discussion was focused on our work to enable a major contractor to use our systems. This will enable us to provide a significantly better experience because currently we have to put a tenant on hold and phone the contractor before we can update them on the progress of a repair. We’re also gearing up to provide the ability to book a repair online, reusing the work developed by City of Lincoln (which in turn, built on work we did in 2019). 

The previous day, the Chief Executive had convened a small group to discuss transformation in the borough. The starting point was very different – our capabilities, our budgets and the challenges in our communities. Both of these perspectives are vitally important. We can’t deliver meaningful change if we don’t truly understand where we are. And we can’t change radically if we don’t understand how things could be profoundly different. But the contrast between these three conversations (repairs, AWS and our transformation) made me reflect on how often the different horizons, drivers and lived experiences more frequently constrain rather than enable transformation. 

Different perspectives was also an underlying feature of the retrospective that our management team had on Monday. We’ve talked previously about being aware of where we might be in danger of being too similar. So this was a healthy exercise, and I hope that I listened more than I spoke because I learnt more about my own strengths and weaknesses. 

There were some other bits, too:

  • We’ve been working closely with Idox on the launch of a new piece of software to manage building control, which also enables residents to self-serve. After a couple of irritating delays due to small but important bugs, we’re expecting to be able to launch it next week – thanks to the persistence and patience of Sachin and Soraya
  • I caught up with Chris to learn more about his experiences as a solution architect on our Single View project which, in turn, helped me think more carefully about how we work with agencies
  • Our customer services management team met to develop our service OKRs for the next financial year
  • I was quizzed as part of a review of how our facilities management and property teams work together
  • I organised a set of short check-ins with some of our new joiners in customer services to learn more about how we welcome, train and support new colleagues 
  • There’s a piece of work where we’re not sure if we’re making the right decisions about what to buy and what to build, so we’re agreeing how we best explore that at pace – delivering where we can but ensuring we don’t spend money that we later regret

So, maybe I just didn’t set the right goals. Maybe I wasn’t disciplined enough in saying no. Probably a bit of both. So I’d love to commit publicly to my goals for the next week. But right now, I need to take a bit of time to filter. And right, right now, I need to do a bit of Cello practice. I’ve a concert in 11 hours and the Cello’s start two of the pieces. If the tuning isn’t bang-on, we’ll lose both members of the audience. 

Outcomes and feedback loops

Weeknote 9.2022

I skimmed through my last weeknote before beginning to reflect on this week. It seems laughable now. I actually thought I might spend three days getting stuck into something meaty. Such naivety. It mostly felt like bouncing between multiple topics and issues without much structure or meaning. Looking back, though, there were some clear themes. 

Clear outcomes 

We’ve been working hard to develop a clear set of objectives and key results for our key projects. I feel increasingly confident in framing objectives and spotting ones that lack the clarity they need to know when they’re achieved. We’re starting to spot opportunities to use them to guide prioritisation. And looking back I can see projects we did previously that would have been easier if they had a clearer framework to guide their work. One of my fears and hopes is that the clarity of the objectives gives teams sufficient freedom to design, and change their work as they learn more about how to meet the objectives. At the moment I don’t have quite enough evidence in the ‘for’ or ‘against’ column to be completely confident. 

Our best work

Our ICT strategy show & tell heard from some of the team that have been working to increase the number of people who get Discretionary Housing Payment in Hackney. The team is empowered to meet a set of clear outcomes, is multidisciplinary (including behavioural insights, benefits expertise, service design, user research) and iterating their approach weekly in response to data. And each week we can see how many more people in Hackney are getting this support. The approach is guided by user-centred, Agile approaches but the process is worn lightly and they’ve been particularly thoughtful in working out how to lead the change with colleagues who’ve been working in the same way for many years. 

Not all projects can work like this. But we can be clearer about the opportunity costs associated with the time and effort that goes into projects that don’t have that clarity, leadership and purpose. 

I spoke to the GovICT conference in Westminster on Thursday about our work to develop APIs and how that enabled us to provide better, safer services more quickly to residents. I was giddy with the excitement of not talking about cyber security. The presentation was easy to pull together because we’ve worked in the open throughout. And it was great to be reminded of how the long term investment is starting to pay dividends, even though there’s much more we can do. 

Feedback loops

I have a pet theory that the core competence of any large organisation is managing complex change and that a key measure of its ability to do so depends on the speed at which it can observe, implement and evaluate change. 

We’ve tweaked the way that the IT recovery board is working, following a retrospective last week. We will be alternating the running of the group and dividing our time between focussing on specific projects and focussing on key themes. We decided not to do the same for the nascent Technical Design Authority (TDA), because the two need to learn from each other (whilst remaining distinct). 

There’s another piece of work I’m involved with where an action plan was developed in November and each fortnight we meet for 90 minutes to discuss progress on implementing the actions. My personal view is that not all of those actions are as relevant now and we’ve learnt that some other actions might also be necessary. But we don’t have a space in that piece of work to reflect and so we’re continuing on the hamster wheel of checking that we’ve done what we said we’d do, almost regardless of the consequences.

With that comparison in mind, I floated some tweaks to the TDA this week. We already had a packed agenda so I did it over email. I’m a bit uncomfortable canvassing views like that because it’s rarely a good way of making proposals better. But it felt more important to make the changes now rather than letting things drift for another couple of weeks.

We also had a couple of important escalation meetings with suppliers this week. Many of our suppliers are more comfortable with working in a waterfall fashion – because that’s what the sector is used to, and because often line of business applications are better suited to ‘all or nothing’ adoption. But one consequence of this is that it’s hard to spot problems until they’re big. One of the most important things we discussed was how to have regular touchpoints which enabled an open dialogue which is often so hard at a project board. 

Next week

Looking through my diary for the next couple of weeks, it would be easy to just bounce from one meeting to another. I’d certainly feel busy but not necessarily achieve much. So I’m going to carve out some time to define some clear goals. But right now, my son wants to play FIFA and I haven’t mopped the kitchen floor in a fortnight and I’ve learnt that goals set in haste don’t normally survive to Monday lunchtime. 

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