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

Author: Matthew Cain (Page 2 of 3)

Weeknote v10.5

Week beginning 1 February

Focus for the week

I set 3×3 areas of focus for the week: the big three were council tax, social care and civil enforcement recovery. The mid-tier were things that should be simpler but risk drifting: legal case work, repairs scheduling and regeneration software. The other three were earlier stage projects that we need to start well: noise, public protection and tenants’ services. 

The upside to defining my week like this, was that it made sure I was able to give some attention to a broader range of challenges. The cost was that, without clearly defined goals I don’t know whether we can judge the week as a success. And sometimes it was just ‘management by progress updates’ which is a particularly expensive way of doing reporting, and isn’t really management either. 

The other challenge I need to keep in mind is how to get the right relationship with key projects. The risk with important projects is holding too tightly onto something for too long and then, when it starts to go well – and the detail means the contribution I can make is less obvious, stepping too far away.  

Ones to watch  

Cloud infrastructure – the team is responsible for creating and supporting the infrastructure to recover our data and applications. They’re tasked with delivering value to users whilst creating the patterns, tooling, skills and culture so that we can continue to do this well. So, with that tightly defined brief in mind (!) this week they battled with competing priorities and overcoming a networking issue. And the weeknotes were another good example of working in the open – they were honest about the challenges and how we need to improve orchestration between teams. 

Blue badges – Another year in local government, another project to improve the blue badge process. It’s no less important or valuable because it’s well-trodden ground. Last year, customer services took responsibility for the first point of contact with adult social care. Within a few weeks we were able to support more residents, whilst referring fewer calls to social care specialists. But nearly half of what remains are related to blue badges – typically progress updates. So Sam and team are building on the work from central government, and colleagues across the country to find out how best to make things easier for customers. And of course we’ll share what we learn in the user research library to make things simpler still for the next council to revisit its processes. 

Find Support Services – We’ve delivered the latest improvement to Find Support Services. The team has invested a significant amount of energy and shown incredible commitment. The new features include the ability to share listings and search for services that are particularly well suited to residents with particular characteristics, whilst the API-based approach remains important for our ambitions to provide a consistent experience for providing early help to vulnerable residents. 

What I’m learning

Using goals, not just setting them – I read back my goals for the year this week to try and assess whether we were on track. One of them has already proved impossible. But I asked ‘do these still make sense, am I still committed to them and what needs to happen now to ensure they can still succeed?’ It was a useful framework to note that whilst no plan survives first contact, without one we’re just prisoners of events.

Small steps – after a few weeks of frustration that I hadn’t done anything to realise some of my bolder ambitions for customer services, I started taking small steps. At my best, I’m good at doing just enough to make something happen. So on three occasions I eeked out just enough time to start thinking about how we can get a fresh perspective on what it means to truly put customers first; about how we can be open about our performance and what we’re learning and what more we can do to provide a consistent experience for residents accessing different services. 

Retaining a habit – It’s taken me 20 years to retain a habitual fitness regime. On at least five occasions between the age of 19 and 35 I joined a gym with a target of going 10 times in four weeks and never made it to the 10th session. Once this week I went for a run that was significantly shorter than normal because I knew that it was better to do something than nothing at all. Similarly, I’ve done a couple of things over the last fortnight which would make a great habit. But I’m yet to retain them.

Next week

We’ve got an emerging challenge: there are three things I’m responsible for that we need to get right before the end of March. None of them will represent ‘job done’ but each will realise significant benefits for residents and staff. But we can’t afford only to do those three things. I want to make sure I get my focus right: providing full support for the most important things and just enough encouragement for other areas of our work that other colleagues and services don’t feel neglected.  

There’s not one way to do that: it’s a combination of setting the right goals, spending my time deliberately and aligning teams. 

Weeknote v10.4

Week beginning 25 January

Focus for the week

We met all but one of our goals for the application recovery workstream. I promised that I’d move some things from ‘nearly done’ to actually done. By that measure, I failed. The two formal reports I had in mind remain unsigned. Despite that, I feel reasonably chipper. Both reports made sufficient progress that they’re now out of my control and a third report got completed by the deadline. We also circulated an important discussion document to colleagues in social care about where we go next with technology and data to ensure it’s an enabler of their vision and strategy for the service. 

I also found a way of getting two new things started: we’re looking to convene a ‘discovery day’ in customer services where we invite people from other organisations to walk in the shoes of our residents and meet our teams to help us think differently about how we put the customer first. 

I also had a couple of important customer services meetings: with colleagues from our trades union and then with Councillor McKenzie and housing services leadership . It reminded me that I need to make time to share the feedback and reflections from these more widely with the team. Knowing what happens at a more senior level is an important way of helping colleagues to develop their careers

Ones to watch

I was really impressed with how the ‘council tax plan B’ team ended the project. The Plan B won’t be needed because Plan A is now the most viable option. But on hearing the news the team didn’t simply move on but worked hard to document their work on GitHub and as a result it will actually help Plan A be more accurate – as well as setting a standard for how we end other projects. 

Out of hours – we’re thinking carefully about how we can provide the best possible service to residents who need to contact us outside of work hours. We want to ensure it’s a consistent experience, that when things go wrong we are as proactive as possible as well as ensuring it’s as resilient as possible so that we meet basic expectations. Over the next few weeks we’ll be talking to groups of residents to understand their experiences and ideas and using that to inform how we work over the next couple of years. 

Document upload – the team is transitioning the product from a working but incomplete alpha to a more stable, reusable component. Some of that transition has taken longer than we anticipated, and picking it up again required some extra effort with stakeholders that I hadn’t anticipated. But having got over that, we’re now able to push it forward for the next phase. Kudos to Tom and David for sticking with it. I also really like the subtle and important insights they’ve identified through user research

What I’m learning

The Here to Help team had a deliberately self-reflective show & tell after a couple of sprints that hadn’t gone to plan. They said it was an intentional response to the strategy show & tell where we said that it was important to be open and honest if show & tells were to be an effective part of governance. It can’t have been easy because their show & tells involve a wide range of stakeholders and have typically had an energetic, positive spirit. I was really pleased they did it, not least because if they hadn’t identified and addressed the issues now, then there would have been much bigger challenges in 4-8 weeks’ time. The openness was well received by the group and were heard in a very measured fashion. 

I noticed a pattern of learning from observation. It felt like I was able to step out from the ‘thing’ and observe what it meant. From the housing steering group, I learnt how more detail on our customer services vision could help guide teams to a common approach to user experience. From an agency that bid for work, I learnt how we need to adapt our ways of working to enable different sorts of partnership. And from a couple of colleagues, about how to listen to the music beneath the words. If only I knew what was different about this week! 

Moving meetings – it’s amazing how uncreative I’ve been whilst working at home. In the office I’d meet in different locations – standing, sitting at a desk, sitting on beanbags, in meeting rooms, in the kitchen. But most of my days aren’t now spent in exactly the same spot. Three times this week I had a different location. The best were on the treadmill and immediately after throwing a ball with my son in the garden. And it’s still nice to occasionally talk on the phone rather than video. Rob says that’s an age thing. 

Next week

At the end of next week, we’ll be 10% through the year that will shape the decade. I’m simultaneously delighted by the progress we’ve made and daunted by the fact that we’ve only got 90% left. I think we’ve developed a good pattern of achievable short term goals. But I wonder what more I could do to make sure that we’re laying the foundations now to make the whole year a success? We need to avoid imaginary deadlines whilst making sure that the incremental steps of each week add up to sufficient progress over the year. 

Weeknote v10.3

Week beginning 18 January

Focus for the week

I tried to use this week to make sure we could complete the applications recovery goals we’d set for the month whilst thinking just far enough ahead that we could move seamlessly into the next phase of work. I made sure I didn’t do any of this alone whilst also trying to avoid distracting teams from the immediate priorities. That meant not setting an artificial timeframe, simply so I could hit a goal but as a result I’m slightly less clear what I’ve achieved. We now know the areas of focus for February but need another week or so to define what the outcome will be by the end of the month.  

But that focus came at the expense of  some important things which are close to being finished, but not actually finished and didn’t get the attention they deserved. “Basically done” (my favourite description for school work) isn’t the same as “actually done” – particularly when it comes to internal governance. I’ve got a couple of business cases and procurement awards which need pushing from basically to actually.  

I’m also brimming with ideas of things we could do in customer services but reach the end of most weeks not having given them another thought since the previous weekend. I have to find a way to get some of the simpler ones initiated. 

Ones to watch

Repairs Hub – it’s great to see this work progressing and it’ll form a key part of recovery. Our partners, Unboxed, have developed significant knowledge not just of our repairs service but we’re also benefiting from their work with other local authorities. There were 60 people at the last show & tell so it’s exciting to see that gather momentum, too. As a result, people are starting to look at the application and see how it could benefit work that we assumed we’d need to do differently. Reuse by popular demand rather than architectural design needs much less governance. 

Developer self-service – we’re working with AWS to explore how we might develop a self-service offering for developers (ok, it’s really a portal). There are lots of little frictions in how we do things currently and by having just enough automation and some clear user journeys we’ll be able to make things more efficient, more scalable and more secure. We need to do that well (or it won’t work) but be careful that we clearly explain the benefits for residents as part of the case for investment’. 

Conversation prompts – we developed a ‘conversation prompts’ tool during COVID to help support strengths-based conversations with vulnerable people. We’ve got an opportunity to develop this into a wider knowledge base, whilst exploring how recommendations can help us keep the content relevant and the tool increasingly useful (to avoid the death spiral of so many of these tools). But it’ll also challenge our product skills: how do we make sure we’re demonstrating the value of maintaining the tool, whilst keeping its scope sufficiently narrow that it supports, rather than competes with self-service and simpler customer journeys?

The small things – we often struggle to get small things done well and efficiently. Sometimes it’s because they’re not as small as expected; other times because if they’re no one’s top priority they drift. As part of applications recovery, we’ll have a lot of small things. There are three that I’ve given particular attention to, in order to find out whether, by starting them better, we can get them done better and efficiently. 

What I’m learning

Managing the downs – a couple of things happened this week that I was long-expecting but were no less disappointing for it. Emotionally, I was ready to catastrophise despite recognising that it wasn’t unexpected. But one of the things I’ve learnt over the last couple of years is how buying a bit of time through creating a process can help create a conversation that then opens up the possibility of nuance. So rather than leaping into action, I created a pathway to a meeting and consideration of the options. It’s rather less exciting but it meant that, by the following day, I was more phlegmatic about the outcome.

Embracing failure – when you read about how airlines create safe spaces to report failure it makes you feel safer – and it seems compellingly obvious. But that doesn’t make it any easier “in the moment”. I heard something this week where a team had made a mistake and not just done everything right in response, but thought really carefully about how it could turn it into a teachable moment. Yet still, on hearing the news, I was close to responding emotionally. I think I avoided it – and at one moment stepped back from actually saying the wrong thing. And that was a reminder of how hard it is to do in practice.

Making time for follow-through – I had a meeting this week where I left with three key actions. I was desperate to be useful for the team so I even summarised my actions at the end of the meeting, And still left the meeting straight into another one and got to the end of the day without completing those actions. At the very least, I need to give myself a time to note down things to do. 

Next week

I’d love to achieve three things next week: to develop a clear set of goals for February which we can commit to as a team, having met the 10 goals we set for January; to move things from “basically done” to “actually done” and still find time for actually acting on one of my ideas for customer services. 

Weeknote v10.2

Week beginning 11 January

Focus for the week

I set myself five goals for the week, which were a potted version of the eight outcomes my applications and continuity workstream set for January. To help get these completed, I didn’t take on anything new. Each goal depended on people outside my team so I worked across all five during the week rather than choose different ones on different days.

They were:

  • To agree the proposal for the award of a new telephony provider (we got close, but haven’t completed the approvals)
  • Test the cross-Council recovery roadmap with my peers, which I began to do 
  • Agreed the focus for a proof of concept, which is done
  • Onboard our interim programme manager for social care and health, which was done
  • Ensure I’ve understood and communicated appropriately, the recovery path for two of our applications

Ones to watch

Here to Help – Zoe and team are working to develop the service so that it can meet the changing needs of our vulnerable residents over the longer term. It brings together a number of different components (community partnerships, a multidisciplinary triage, food and emergency supplies) and the governance has iterated from a starting point of being an emergency response. So we’re working on how it can become business as usual in all respects, how we can design evaluation into the operating model and how it should be led without it becoming too resource-hungry. 

Reusable components – we got some feedback from a team on how they’d reused aspects of a tool we’ve built in social care. It was good to hear that the team had found it easy to pick-up and use. The next step is to understand how we can turn the signposting and conversations that led to re-use into something closer to a self-service model. 

Cloud excellence – the cloud deployment team is identifying and prioritising what we need to do not only to deploy applications in AWS but also the processes, skills and tools we need to manage our cloud applications well. This week we agreed the approach to account management and had a good conversation about our initial focus for improving our cloud management. 

Out of hours – we’re finalising our assessment of the bids from prospective suppliers of the service for the next financial year. Councillor McKenzie reminded me we hadn’t worked as openly as we could have done through the formal stages of the procurement, so we need to think about this more carefully over the next few weeks.

What I’m learning

A common thread – I’ve held a general principle that you can have structure and templates or creativity and iteration. But we were already on a transition from ‘’start-up to scale-up’ in the team and the complexity of our recovery demands more clarity than we’ve needed before. My hypothesis is that we need a clearer common thread in the tools we use to communicate. Working out what ‘just enough’ looks like, and how disciplined we need to be, is the next, bigger challenge. 

Show & Tells – I’ve been known to get angry when show & tells lead to one team openly criticising another team before they’ve explored more tactful routes to resolving a problem. But less obviously I also switch off a bit from show & tells where everything appears to be fine. So I’ve been trying a couple of different routes to finding a happier midpoint. 

Checking in – When I worked in consultancy I could never really fathom why it was so hard to speak to most people. And now there is a virtual list of people who I’m avoiding where a conversation would be both nice and helpful, but I know that it’s not time-sensitive and that I don’t have the capacity to do anything beyond that conversation. I feel morally obliged to find a way to fix this because it’s a poor way of behaving, but of course that requires finding time to dedicate to the problem. 

Next week

I need to get the balance right between giving enough care and attention to the outcomes for January whilst thinking forward to what happens next. I’ve often made mistakes managing those transitions – either doing it too much myself that it’s hard for the team to see what’s happening, or doing it too early so it becomes a distraction.  

Weeknote v10.1

Week beginning 4 January

I’ve returned to a weeknote format that had the best reception from my teams – a response to my reflections from the end of 2020. 

Focus for the week

I’ve only a dim recollection of my focus for the week. I *think* it was something about onboarding the new interim programme director for social care and health recovery. Probably just as well. Midweek we learnt of the publication of data breached during our cyberattack (the proper place for information on that is: https://news.hackney.gov.uk/cyberattack-update/). I’m not leading that workstream but it still dominated my thoughts.. 

I did, though, set a focus for each day – part of my Agile new year’s resolutions (it’s ok to laugh or groan). That helped – and I met them all. They were:

  • Monday: to firm up my goals for the year, in consultation with members of my teams
  • Tuesday: Deliver a galvanising HackIT All Hands
  • Wednesday: Set-up the first week for the programme director 
  • Thursday: Build out the recovery roadmap with key influencers
  • Friday: Ensure we met the goals we’d set for the week

Ones to watch

I need to refresh the Trello board I was using for projects to watch. In the meantime, the following list is heartfelt but fundamentally a random selection. 

Repairs Hub – I was really pleased to catch up with the Repairs Hub show & tell from this week. The team’s talking openly about how we’re working with the HACT data standard and the directional roadmap and it’s helping me get a clearer picture of 

Cleaning insourcing – the team that cleans our offices joined the Council this week. Paul, who leads our facilities contracts has worked on this with the waste team. Despite disruption to a number of aspects of the plan along the way, as well as some external challenges, this has been achieved on time with lots of care, but no drama. 

Planning customer journey – we’ve been working away to try and improve customer satisfaction by increasing the number of enquiries we can answer first time under Soraya’s direction. This has involved improving website content (collaborating with Croydon) getting better management information and introducing a better phone system for planning duty officers so we get better at managing availability. This week, the planning team were onboarded to the phone system thanks in no small part, to William’s gentle persistence and Natalie’s amazing patience. 

Noise reporting – this has been one of those projects that’s been much harder than it could have been. But next week, we will be able to launch a new way to report noise online, which is important to lots of residents. It won’t solve the whole problem but it will leave us better equipped to do so. There are a whole group of people who’ve helped us through various stages of the project under the persistent leadership of Councillor Selman, supported recently by Councillor Fajana-Thomas. 

What I’m learning

Realism – Breaks are good. But for as long as I can remember, I return from breaks with an unrealistic sense of what I can do differently. This New Year my bubble didn’t last the first working day. I wasn’t able to tick off any of the tasks that I’d set myself to complete before the day began. Indeed, I have only just been able to archive the list.

Ending the day – I’m trying to do a short reflection at the end of each day, as a way of actually finishing work. I don’t know how effective it is: the earliest I’ve done one was 18.11 on Friday. But at the very least, keeping it private might make my weeknotes less self indulgent. 

Operating in two modes – Lots of us are operating in two modes at the moment: crisis and BAU. Crisis is short-term, reactive and decisive whilst BAU looks longer, needs to be proactive and is often deliberative. Both have their own rewards. But switching between the two modes can be hard, and being in the wrong mode in the wrong moment is bad.  

Next week

Tuesday’s HackIT All Hands declared this to be a year to shape the decade. I’ve got 51 weeks left to make that true. I think the fundamental tension this month is in making sure we’ve got the right teams in place, focused on the right things whilst knowing that we haven’t yet found the optimal formula for how we deliver. So we need to be set-up to work at greater scale and at pace whilst making sure we haven’t made things too fixed, too complicated or too rigid to change. 

What I’ve learnt this year

Which 2020 should I reflect on? The first 3 months which was about adopting the OKR framework in HackIT and preparing for new responsibilities with customer services? The next five months which was about creating Here to Help to support our vulnerable residents through COVID? Or the last three months, leading the business continuity and applications recovery from our cyberattack? The problem with the cliches about 2020 is that they’re worn out. 

But these three, disparate segments of my year have some enduring commonalities even if I haven’t been able to link them together (as you’ll see if you work through this monologue) . 

People can achieve more than they know

“I don’t know if we can meet the expectations of the new manager” someone said in a feedback exercise. Yes, you can. Most people are capable of achieving more than they assume, given the right circumstances. 

We gave the team the five missions that guide our OKRs framework but expected them to develop the objectives for the year and key results for the quarter. In my second week responsible for customer services, the team started working remotely for the first time, taking a strengths-based approach to vulnerable customers at some point between April and May. In October we came together in new ways to put in place over 50 work-arounds to help deliver Council services. 

These things, and the hundreds of things that sit behind them show how much more we achieved this year than ever before. I don’t look back on those objectives for 2020 and think about what could have been. And they’re all a result of people committing to the purpose, being open to doing what’s needed and finding ways to apply their talents to a scenario. 

Committing to outcomes is hard

I had to dedicate time to making sure that I was content with our objectives for the year. That I wouldn’t be tempted to start new things that were outside the framework or regret what we hadn’t achieved. Then COVID came along and central government put new obligations on local authorities. Typically the ‘what’ was over-specified and the ‘why’ was either un-articulated or sufficiently tangential to be immaterial to the design of the intervention (for example, of course it was about reducing the spread of the virus; but at what opportunity cost?) It put into perspective my experience of the discussions I’d seen at BAE Systems about the bonus scheme but I could also see that committing to one course of action makes it harder to contemplate the existence of an alternative.

Operations is mostly undervalued, and operations undervalues strategy

I’ve been part of setting up three new operations this year – food for vulnerable people, local contact tracing and the payment of the self isolation grant. At every occasion I was faced with questions about detail which I simultaneously found frustrating but also knew mattered. A recurring theme this year was that designing something that works for people is hard and undervalued. 

But by the same measure, I struggled to get traction with developing a vision and strategy for an operational service. I was acutely aware that what I was talking about just didn’t seem particularly relevant to the people involved. One recurring theme about change in the public sector is a lack of capacity – a prioritisation of operations over strategy. 

I’d like to learn next year more about how to break through this stand-off using the next year – finding a way of using operations to test strategy and ensure that strategy shapes operations.   

‘Innovation’ isn’t what it’s cracked up to be

I’ve always wanted to achieve something unique, of lasting value – radical innovation. Last year I was frustrated that I’d fallen short of creating something new of value to residents but was optimistic about the prospects of succeeding this year. We did that with Here to Help, even if it was copied in various forms across the country. 

But what was most interesting about our journey was less the new things we created and more how we re-purposed the old. Whether it was the previous relationships that got us through sticky weeks, the data or code that enabled us to create intuitive services quickly or taking the Make Every Contact Count approach and applying it to customer services. I was also particularly pleased of some small projects in planning and parking to take insights from other councils and apply them to improve the customer experience in Hackney. All of those are examples of incremental innovation that isn’t exciting, but is infinitely more sticky. 

Controlling the temperature

My favourite book on leadership talks of the need to control the temperature – knowing when to make something certain (cooler, or more technical) or uncertain (hotter, more adaptive). Actually I think both can coexist – certainty in an uncertain situation. For example, giving a team a structure to work in even when the outcomes or the context may be uncertain. 

I remember the occasions when I got this wrong more than the occasions I got it right this year – the teams that were given too much uncertainty or felt they had too little space. The hard thing is spotting when it’s happening, and being able to do something about it. It requires trust, time and honesty. It can be easy to trade these factors off against each other – ‘because I trust that person, I can let them get on with it’ or ‘because I’m trusted it’s better not to shatter that illusion’. 

Fighting for perspective

This is the first year I haven’t mostly read The Economist most weeks. Something about the loss of the commute has removed the routine. My world is smaller as a result. 

I always try and assess a situation using two perspectives – the critical outsider and the proud team member, knowing that neither are fully fair but the truth will be somewhere in between. It’s been harder this year to judge where the balance lies. There’s not one dominant reason. It feels like remote working denudes you of some of your senses; the working day fades rather than ends removing some of the natural closure. I reckon my work network has shrunk too, as I see fewer people. I’ve also a growing sense that in more senior positions, the air gets thinner – you have to take in a lot more information to get the same amount of feedback.

As much as I’ve tried, I just haven’t done enough to do the small things that help build openness throughout a team. The small notes, thank yous and well dones are typically the bit to fall off my list of weekend tasks. That needs to change.

Multiple modes

We’ve mostly stressed the importance of doing change with people over the last four years. We’ve used Agile approaches to guide our work. But not all tasks are well suited to this. We’ve introduced new printers, for example, and this has been unpopular in some of my teams (there are fewer). We launched the Here to Help service with the sort of bang and deadline that Agile avoids. 

Largely, it’s been a relief not to be discussing how to do something and to focus instead on achieving the outcome. But sometimes method matters. When you’ve got a dominant way of doing things, the opposite can be discordant. So I wonder whether we could have been more nuanced and how we might further develop how we work so that we can apply different approaches to different problems. 

Digital change is also about the technology

It’s become common to say that digitally-enabled change is all about the people. That important insight can mask the fact that it’s also about the technology. Good people with bad technology (or even without technology at all) can achieve much less. Who could have guessed that managing the delivery of regular food parcels to 500 people via spreadsheets could have been so visceral?  

Technology, done well, can provide the support people need to do their best. Over the next year we’ll need to constantly work through what the right technology choices are which enable us to do the right thing.  

Deliberate practice

I tried to deliberately practice responsible leadership this year. Being responsible was  significantly easier than deliberate practice. I suffered from a lack of concentrated and sustained effort. Too often I wasn’t deliberate enough. And I didn’t get a sufficient response to know if anything was getting any better. 

Meanwhile, I set out to run 450 miles this year. I think I did 390 in 2019. Thanks to running most mornings during lockdown, I hit that target in July and by October I could see the prospect of clocking up 1,000 miles for the year. I did it, and shaved about 20 seconds a mile off my average pace. Funnily enough running often and quicker means you travel further, faster.  

Sometimes I fear I’m clever enough to make things complicated and not clever enough to make them simple. 

Returning to useful weeknotes

The small but committed group of public sector weeknoters are right that it can force an important transparency and display of leadership. But they do actually have to be useful for someone to read.

I’m still developing my resolutions for 2021. But I’ve realised that I can write reflective, if self-indulgent notes each week which occasionally help me to account for what I’ve done. Or I can write notes that communicate to the team. I’ve achieved both fewer than ten times this year. So I’m going to commit to writing weeknotes my team wants to read. 

Being truly grateful – and privilege

There have been times this year when it’s been hard to be truly grateful. My desktop picture of the town hall, taken on my first morning in the job, hasn’t always triggered a sense of wonder, privilege and opportunity. It should. 

I learnt more about white privilege this year, thanks in particular to a couple of members of my team. And whilst there’s been a humanising impact of seeing people working at home there’s also the reminder of how fortunate I am to only have to share a WiFi connection with my wife, for example. 

And I should do more to remember the opportunities I’ve been given and work harder to make the most of them.

Weeknote special – 9

Week beginning 7 December

I found it a hard week to judge. People often ask how I am and it’s usually more than a nicety. It still depends on the moment. At the moment it’s the small and unexpected things that are causing disproportionate pain. That might be deflection on my part and/or it might be that I can manage the stuff that I know will be difficult but am less ready to tackle the unexpected.

But on Friday, I noticed a new dimension. Because on Friday, dear reader, I put on a suit, got on the train, and went to work. It was exhilarating. There were about 80 of us in the Hackney Service Centre (there would normally be over 1,000).  I had a meeting room for most of the day, all on my own. And I didn’t have a hot meal for lunch (didn’t have to stack the dishwasher either, mind). Probably got less work done, too. And the whole experience cost more than a week at home. But I was bouncing all day. 

Some good things

There’s a bit of me that always worries about calling out the good things for fear of missing others. But I also trust the team knows the process is sufficiently random to not take offence. 

I enjoyed the Here to Help show & tell. The project has built a broad, multidisciplinary team and understands exactly how to deliver value to users. The challenge is in designing something that supports an intricate workflow (and all the recording that’s needed) whilst ensuring it’s sufficiently adaptable to the changing needs of our COVID support.

Recovery plans – we’re doing a couple of bits of work with AWS so that we’ve got more than one way of recovering council services. It’s asking a lot of the teams to be able to incorporate more people and be ready for different eventualities on top of all the other things. But in the two strands of work that are now starting to take shape as a result of the openness and adaptability of the people involved. 

One of the other benefits of doing to the HSC was seeing how the facilities team have adapted again to the challenge of the ventilation work in the building. After designing the one way system and signage, it’s now changing again. And the work needs to be re-done. And the team just get on and deliver. 

Similarly, the team came together to discuss how we could support social care with providing a safe way of retrieving documents from our statutory partners. In less than 48 hours we had explored three options, made a recommendation and put it in place. 

We’ve been able to recover Earthlight, a map-based application that’s important for lots of teams that deal with our local environment. It took a bit longer than expected, but we’ve been able to deploy the system securely via the cloud – which I was impressed with. 

I’m confident in my ability to start new things, and less so of my ability to continue to push them. So I was particularly pleased to see our customer services teams working this week to reinforce the importance of having time for self-reflection; for people to listen to their own calls and identify where they’d been able to exhibit the behaviours we’re looking for: be human, make things simple and be the guide. 

And something I learnt

I had a couple of important presentations this week: an all staff presentation and the weekly update to Council Silver. Neither were new – I’ve done several in the last few weeks but I got better feedback and learnt more from them than before. Somehow I achieved that sweet-spot of being confident of the material and relaxed in the environment. I used to think there was a way of forcing this but am increasingly resigned to the fact that sometimes it just clicks.

Next week

Only nine days left, folks. It’s like that hateful last three miles of a half marathon. Close enough to know you’re going to get there. Not close enough to be there. And the only thing to do is focus on the next step and not think about how much further there is left. The most important thing is that we close the year well so that we can rest properly and return rejuvenated and focused. 

Weeknote special – 8

Week beginning 30 November

In lots of respects this was a much better week for me personally. I started strongly. Before the end of the day we had:

  • a clear set of priorities for our document upload and evidence store; a plan for recovering scheduling software; 
  • a draft evaluation of the potential Communications as a Platform solution that best meets our needs and;
  • a new proposition for our cloud deployment service. 

And by Wednesday (and I bear almost no credit for this) we’d released a new service for residents to check their bin day and order replacement recycling bags etc. We’ve partnered with IEG4 for the resident experience and Yotta for the business process: these solutions represent the usability, accessibility and interoperability that we need from suppliers.  

It was almost as though spending Friday walking round Kew Gardens with my children, taking an enforced break triggered by their day off school was good for me. Possibly as predictable as discovering that the greenhouses were shut.

This was also the week when I ran at least 4 miles a day, in pursuit of my goal to hit 1,000 miles for the year (my New Year’s Resolution was to run 450 miles in the year so: thanks lockdown and Cyber attack) and ran out of episodes to watch of This Is Us. Someone described me as ‘disciplined’ on Wednesday evening which I was about to dispute, but realised it was in vain. 

But like the Liverpool teams of the Benitez years, I couldn’t quite put a string of results together. By Friday morning I had had enough. There wasn’t one cause. But too many little things (all from outside the team) chipped away at my focus and sense of purpose. What frustrates me most is they all represented ‘avoidable harm’. I’m not the most naturally tolerant person. And particularly struggle to manage my emotions when people make avoidable mistakes. But it also makes me particularly grateful for the areas of responsibility which are ticking over smoothly, with very little help from me (it would be unkind for you to draw conclusion from this observation!)

I also suspect this is a particularly tough period for the digital and data parts of the team. We’re working so hard. And so much of what we’re doing is really good. But we don’t have enough to show for it yet for colleagues to appreciate it. There’s no single reason. We’re rightly being more cautious with security and that’s adding friction to the release cycle. We’re struggling to align stakeholders on a couple of projects where we most need to show progress. And some of the progress is slower because we’re learning new skills and using new tools because we’re without our familiar solutions. With a bit of luck, though, we should be able to head to the Christmas break with some big hurdles overcome. 

One of the other things that really helped this week was being able to tap into colleagues in other councils. From the outside the level of repetition and duplication in the sector looks insane. And some of that criticism is justified. But when you’ve got someone you can contact, the willingness of people to help and openness of the conversation is really helpful. 

Next week

We’re mid-sprint in our business continuity response workstream at the moment and currently I’m feeling optimistic about meeting all our sprint goals. But we also need to prepare for the New Year. We’ll have to be able to set-up some more clusters of activity and project teams. And we’ll need to have just enough oversight of these to enable them to work – and so that we understand the solutions – whilst recognising that we’ll be working at a larger scale than ever before. Finally, we’ll also have to end some things well enough that people can have a proper break over Christmas and New Year. Just those things, then, for next week;)

Weeknote special – 7

Week beginning 23 November

I suspect there are lots of valid interpretations of this week. Through one lens, we’ve made good progress in understanding better and enabling the path to data recovery of key systems. Through another, we keep hitting unique obstacles that mean that almost everything is taking longer than expected. On one hand, colleagues across the Council continue to show incredible patience and understanding at the end of a tough year. On the other, the complexity of an organisation with as many different service lines as a local Council means that if you were to arrive afresh and look at our portfolio activities the easiest observation would be ‘no wonder things hit blockers – you’re spread too thinly!’

For my part, I tried to ‘do no harm’ for most of this week. I tried to help team members focus on successfully completing our goals for the fortnight and left alone things that I couldn’t make any better. By that low bar, I think I succeeded. We met four of our goals and partially met four more. The two that weren’t met were for reasons that we now understand but couldn’t have identified beforehand. I promptly dealt with most things that came my way.

But at times I also felt lost. The freneticism of the early days wasn’t required. Some of our most important projects have either settled into rhythms or don’t yet require them. I’d promised myself not to focus on new things. And so I had a bit of space in my diary – but wasn’t sure how best to use it. It’s one of the side-effects, I think, of setting team goals rather than personal goals. 

I also realised how extraordinarily fortunate I’ve been during lockdown. For two days this week the dining table, where I’ve been working, was out of action. And it coincided with a flaky internet connection. So my wife and I were switching between the couch and the bedroom, and I was constantly trying to find a stable signal. For most colleagues, that will have been the norm every day for eight months now. It’s tough.

There lots of positive things that caught my eye, including:

  • I’d asked a team to look at some business continuity options around council tax processes and the initial analysis was really impressive
  • The data and insight weeknote is turning into a ‘must read’ and Beth has really captured Daro’s voice in this week’s
  • Soraya has done a nice job pulling together the next phase of the project plan for recovering land charges data
  • I was lucky to catch the ‘Here to Help’ service show & tell and particularly enjoyed hearing from so many different people in that multidisciplinary team
  • Cyber Silver reviewed detailed but really clear explanations of some of the networking and infrastructure options for how we support connectivity for our print room and ID card systems
  • The GIS team has worked hard and with typically little fanfare to recover a version of Earthlight which colleagues use to view our physical assets around the Borough

Next week

I’m really keen to start the week well. The last couple have felt like I’ve eased into them rather than confronting them. The challenge, I think, is how to take the goals for the fortnight and then convert those into a set of specific things I need to do, ensuring that those things are in support of the team, adds value and fits into their way of working. 

Weeknote special – 6

Week beginning 16 November

I managed to find a sense of purpose and direction this week, which is so often hard during a period FIFA-imposed purgatory. And I managed to think about topics other than who might play centre-back tomorrow. And despite exercising twice a day still wasn’t able to beat Rob in our Apple Activity competition. 

Setting goals

I set ten goals to the end of the month. Unusually (for me), none of these were mine alone. I worked on them over the weekend so that when we committed to them on Monday I was sure I didn’t want to add any others. And then I made sure I was keeping track of where we needed to unblock progress to these goals. I haven’t felt such a clear sense of direction in several weeks. 

Staying calm

It’s felt like a week to stay calm. We’re past the point at which we’ve delivered a lot of important but quick wins to help services with their business continuity plans. And we’re not yet at a point where we can show demonstrable progress towards recovery. So for the last couple of weeks we’ve had to explain where we are without being able to show. It’ll be different in a fortnight, probably. So for now we have to stay calm and focus on the horizon. 

New ideas

I introduced two new ideas to the team this week. One was received well and the other, well, wasn’t. I introduced both differently and with care, on reflection (my initial assumption was that I hadn’t). But what I got wrong in both cases was that I was thinking about only how some stakeholders would hear the news. I was helped to recognise this by the feedback I received from the team. But it was also a reminder that it’s so much harder to understand how people are hearing things when you can’t really see how they’re reacting. 

Stating the obvious

In last week’s note I was reflecting on how I was bad at stating the obvious. That fault manifested itself differently this week. The team explained that they didn’t know what the recovery position was with software that we weren’t talking about (which was totally fair enough). I was initially frustrated, thinking that the answer was obvious. But that wasn’t fair. So we got together and talked about how to handle questions where we didn’t know the answer. And I understood why there was a gap between the things that were obvious in my head but why they might not be obvious to others.  

Learning a new space

I felt myself slipping back into old assumptions this week by trying to make the roles of teams more distinct than was helpful. In this case, the distinction between cloud infrastructure, and application development. We’re on a journey to understanding what DevOps really means and how it works in our technology context. I spotted the mistake I was (am?) making but am still struggling to figure out how to avoid making it. My gut instinct is that in a crisis leadership needs to offer as much clarity as possible to create safer spaces for people to work. But we also know that the way out of our crisis looks like accelerating our strategy rather than reverting to what’s familiar. 

A different sense of satisfaction

I used to get most satisfaction at work from being able to point at things and know that ‘I did that’. There’s much less I can credibly claim as my own in this job than I’ve ever experienced previously – not least because it’s the first time that I’ve been responsible for things that I know I can’t do. But I encountered a different sense of satisfaction this week when I saw Claire and Glyn present the service redesign of benefits and housing needs to a group of Councillors on Thursday night. Their work, and that of their colleagues and the FutureGov team is entirely their own. I’m not sure I could point to much that I’ve actually done. Yet I still got a huge sense of satisfaction from the work. 

Next week

More of the same, hopefully. We’ve got ten goals. A couple have been met, most others look on track. One has fallen by the wayside due to circumstances beyond our control. And I have to do something that you’ll know isn’t my strength: make what we’re doing the best it can be rather than get distracted by what’s next. 

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