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

Author: Matthew Cain (Page 2 of 4)

Weeknote v10.18

Week beginning 3 May

Well, it was better than last. At one point, when we had a problem with the phones one evening, I did have a bit of a ‘President Bartlett in Two Cathedrals’ moment. But that was solved by the time we were open for business the next day. And on the things that will matter in the long run, our teams continue to make important progress. 

Focus for the week

One of those weeks where it was helpful to have set some clear goals if only because I’d have forgotten what they were by Wednesday morning if I hadn’t. And as such I did manage to work actively towards them from time to time. The goals are a bit too mundane and internal to share. But they had common themes related to how we manage the bits around project delivery – the relationships between projects, how we land new products so we maximise their impact. 

I’m also experimenting with a ‘watchlist’: things which are bigger than actions and smaller than business outcomes but just need enough attention from time to time to make sure they can still be resolved. 

Ones to watch

Data platform – we’ve been working to develop a data platform to support recovery – a way of securely presenting data from business applications to analysts and decision makers reducing the dependence on any single supplier and the manual engineering so often needed before analysis work can begin. I’m really excited by the opportunity for this to work at scale, but importantly we’ve now got our first application agreed so that we can use a richer understanding of our residents and their circumstances when prioritising housing repairs (in support of our existing policy). 

Find my – Our GIS team has been working hard to develop new skills so that we can provide better maps to our residents. Part of this is about being less dependent on specialist software (which is often better for the expert user) and also about how we can re-use more components. We’ve built a better way for people to find their local councillor, which will be live next week (we’ve four new councillors in Hackney today) and we’re working with public health colleagues to improve further how residents can get more value from our COVID data. 

Documenting Agile – We’ve enhanced our design system recently as we’ve been working through a much broader range of user journeys and used the opportunity to refresh how we present our ways of working. Agile means ‘just enough’ documentation and we’re learning more about where documents add value by making common processes easier. We’re developing a set of playbooks iteratively and also investing in automation particularly where we need a common approach to technology. 

What I’m learning

Designing things around the user – I’ve long believed in the merits of more proportional voting systems. But it was instructive trying to explain the London Mayor ballot paper to people particularly when English was their second language, with a Perspex screen in the way. I don’t think that has to be inherent with proportional voting but will be interested to see how many spoilt ballot papers there were, and what we could learn from making the design easier. 

Listening for the song beneath the words – one of my favourite phrases from my favourite management book. I’m getting better at coaching-style conversations but am still working to hear what’s being meant in addition to what’s being said.  

Next week

I’ve actually got a manageable diary next week: 5 days to work and currently the best part of 7 hours without a meeting already arranged! One of the things that can be harder in a crisis mode is to have enough time to think ahead. We set ourselves 6 targets for the three months to end of June and I’d like to take some time to work out what more we need to do to achieve these. 

Weeknote v10.17

Week beginning 26 April

I always find it hard to say when I’ve had a bad week for fear of the wider impact it could have on other team members. This week I have, and there’s no point in saying otherwise. But here’s why I think it’s interesting. In a way, I got unlucky. A set of things came to pass within the same five days which could have happened over a three weeks and it wouldn’t have felt the same way. Perhaps, with the physical space that travelling to and from work I would have had a bit more perspective on the things. 

But these things (too tedious to mention) all shared three common characteristics. They weren’t quite big enough to be obvious, hadn’t had quite enough attention, and I was too integral to them for there to be either a sufficient safety valve or someone else to sweep up. So, as I was saying last week (ahem), the problem with setting weekly goals is what they don’t cover. The solution isn’t hard – it’s somewhere between a task list and a project plan (a watchlist, if you will). But it requires commitment: to be maintained even when it isn’t useful and to be valued even though its value is what it avoids rather than what it adds. 

Focus for the week

I actually got pretty close to achieving my goals for the week, although none of them can actually be ticked off. Whilst there were three things that were beyond my control I used the goals to make sure that we had done everything possible to make them likely and I’m reasonably confident that they’ll be done within the next few days. For example, we’ve got one remaining blocker to being able to access a central government system but we’ve removed the other three. We’ve got all the documentation ready for a decision on software for two council services, pending answering two outstanding questions. We’ve got a new contract ready, pending some alignment with another team. 

I was also really pleased to see how two other teams were grappling with different issues. I had a couple of really constructive conversations with colleagues in customer services about the restructure proposals. There were two particular tensions that we were wrestling with: the benefits of a flatter structure vs the benefits of being able to offer a clear pathway to leadership roles; and the benefits of having sufficient capacity for hands-on support for agents in realtime vs the capacity for stepping back to tackle the underlying challenges. Whilst it’s tempting to say ‘more people would fix the problem’ I believe it’s as much about orientation and mindset.

And whilst we’re on customer services, in the last week or so we received nominations in three different categories for the Hackney Stars awards including a first ever for ‘team of the year’. And at the Council’s’ AGM the Mayor specifically referred to the team’s work. When we first met, the team told me that they wanted to be more valued by the organisation. And it’s their hard work which has achieved that. 

I also enjoyed dropping into the facilities team meeting this week. The team’s adaptability and impact in the last year has been particularly impressive. After food hubs, test centres, COVID-safe workspaces and vaccinations, it’s now elections. The administration of elections is a team sport, a cup final if you will, but played every few years. And all of that this year, just without people getting too close to each other. 

Ones to watch

Document upload and evidence store – we’re perilously close to being able to release the next version of the reusable components. We’re just building an audit API so that we can better manage our records and retention responsibilities. If we can get it over the line within the next week or so, there are a number of teams that will be able to get benefit from the tool. It’s hard to build reusable components: to identify sufficient commonality but not so much that the component gets too complicated. To align timescales to deliver against the different drivers for different services. To take a minimum viable approach whilst ensuring that problems don’t happen at scale. But this project has worked really hard to navigate those tensions and I’m looking forward to its delivery. 

Out of hours – the transition of our out of hours service to a new provider has almost gone unnoticed. Which is very much what I hoped – but still significantly better than it could have been. Calls are being answered efficiently and I think the handling of requests made at either end of the day (and therefore involving hand-offs between teams) has got better. More work is needed, but it’s good progress. 

What I’m learning

Energy levels – I’ve talked before about energy levels. Strava says that my fitness is about 20% down on the same period last month, which has its own exhausting impact! But it was most obvious on Friday. I began the day with a list of 14 things to be done by the weekend. By lunchtime I’d completed 10. Four are still there. 

Video – I’m a difficult age: not young enough for the YouTube generation, slightly too young for it to be ok to be bad on video. I spent hours last weekend making a 7 minute video. I get so hung up on not slipping-up that it comes across terribly. I did make it better, just by filming whilst sitting down. For some of our presentations, we need the energy that comes with standing. But we also need to convey the assurance and confidence that is often better when you’re sitting comfortably. 

Starting with what – Mostly, it’s better to start with ‘why’, explaining the reason for things, not just the thing. But I saw a TED Talk which advocated starting what what reduces negativity when reflecting. And it’s good advice. “Why did this happen to me” can provoke a negative spiral whereas ‘What conditions brought about this event” is more constructive. 

Next week

I already fear I’ve over-reached. With the bank holiday and polling day responsibilities, I’ve only got three days available. I’ve tried to get the balance right between finishing enough of the threads from the last week whilst pushing ahead with the next set of challenges. So five goals for the week is probably over ambitious. But managing that tension between the immediate and short term feels like a price worth paying for falling short of the goals. 

Weeknote v10.16

Week beginning 19 April

Focus for the week

I can’t believe there was a time when I didn’t set goals for the week. I should consider handing back a proportion of my salary to previous employers. This week they served to give me a kick on Tuesday evening when I realised how little I’d done to progress them. And now, they’re all pretty much done. But the other reason they’re so valuable is that I can’t actually say that they’re done because they’re written down and visible to my team. 

  • We have a tool to aid collaboration with social care, but it needs a worked example to know whether the tool succeeds. 
  • We had a show & share with more people attending and strong practioner voices – but there’s more work needed to start defining and capturing the value of what we’re doing. 
  • We have a plan for data from our M3 application but it’s currently in my head rather than articulated in the way that;’s needed. 
  • The data platform team didn’t just clearly communicate the value they’ll provide users first but sketched out a coherent roadmap for the initial scope of the project, which was really exciting. 

But we also had some findings this week from our resident satisfaction survey which need attention. One of the exciting things about customer services is the availability of near realtime data. But I know that we need to have the courage and capacity to make strategic improvements as well as managing the day to day. But there’s obviously a balance to be struck between these two – and it’s a balance I’m still learning about. And this week my goals probably orientated me too much towards software recovery to respond to what we’re learning. 

Ones to watch

Care package builder – the focus of our social care work has necessarily been on the practitioner experience of case recording. But one of the other important tools we’ve been lacking is to enable the creation of care packages. Our partners Nudge have been beavering away to understand the user needs, map the business process and use some of our common components to develop something and we’ve now got some UIs to help show the thing.

Single View – I had a thrill this week when I saw a tool that Jaye had put together to automatically commit an email from gmail to our single view tool. It’s a really nice example of how working with smart, creative people can surprise and delight if they’ve also got a little bit of space, and I can see all sorts of potential use cases. 

What I’m learning

From knowing to learning – I gave a presentation this week. I was excited about it and instinctively knew that I had a lot to say. I thought it would be easy. But when I had to prepare the presentation, that long list of things that I thought I knew didn’t immediately form into a coherent set of thoughts. I was struggling to convert what I knew into what I learnt.  I’d spent time thinking about what I knew but I hadn’t forced myself into enough depth to convert that into things I’d learnt. 

Energy – I was slightly too effective at finishing work at around 5.30pm, this week and an extra 10 hours across the week would have been particularly helpful. But I’m also back running after a calf injury so the start to the day has improved by becoming more focused. It matters because I reckon I need my energy for all the things that don’t naturally generate their own energy. 

Next week

I’ve set myself goals which aren’t entirely within the gift of our team but where I reckon a bit of focus can reduce the risks of it not being achieved because we don’t anticipate what needs to be done next. But I’m also spending a bit of time looking forward. One of the consequences of our current position is that it reduces our planning horizons to ‘what next’. There are some really positive aspects of this, But we’re almost 25% through the year to define the decade, so it’s good to use that to look forward so that we can work backwards.

Weeknote v10.15

Week beginning 12 April

Focus for the week

I set four goals for this week and spent just enough time on each to feel like I contributed towards their progress (one is probably better not shared openly). 

  • An agreed approach for document management in revenues and benefits which is clear communicated
  • Define the remaining  work & timeframes involved in providing access to services over PSN and connecting an older application which requires access over VPN 
  • The data platform project is clear what value it will deliver first to users

Whilst two are still work in progress, it felt like a week with more comprehensive progress. I also avoided the Friday morning anxiety that I get most weeks as we prepared the update for ‘Silver’ – the Directors and Heads of Service meeting to discuss recovery progress. 

In addition to the work I expected at the start of the week, we also grappled with a system outage over the weekend and in to Monday afternoon. I didn’t contribute much, in truth, but tried to hold the ring between teams but not so tightly that I was a blocker. We were fortunate that it resolved on Monday because I suspect that any longer would have had a material impact on the rest of the week. 

The process of setting the goals across the different workstreams is also starting to generate a useful conversation both amongst the workstream leads and at our recovery meetings. We’ve been working in this way for four weeks now so it’s a helpful reminder that sometimes it takes a few goes before it something new starts to take hold. 

Ones to watch

Find my polling station – You can’t choose where you vote and it isn’t necessarily the closest place to where you live. It doesn’t change much, but before you know, you need to know. There’s a clear user need to find my polling station. And Democracy Club, an independent social enterprise, has built a service that’s better than what we can do. So we’re making sure the data about our polling stations is in good shape for Democracy Club’s tools to provide the right information to residents. 

Delivering and improving – we’ve got a couple of teams that are delivering significant new features whilst also listening and responding to user feedback about what we’ve done already (Repairs Hub and social care case recording are probably the best examples). That creates a challenge in everything that we do: How can show & tells find space to reflect and learn, whilst talking about what’s new? How do we make space for improvements whilst delivering new features? How do we prioritise improvements sufficiently to keep users’ confidence whilst focusing on the big things? How can we use the performance of the live service to teach us about prioritisation? 

Managing our housing finances – a significant number of council services found ways to design interim approaches for continuing through the cyberattack. And as we start to put those on a firmer footing, we need to manage the data as was, the data processed whilst the software was unavailable, and the new data. The work we’ve done in housing services with our partners Nudge conducted a Service Standard assessment to ensure we’re doing that as well as we can. It’s pretty damn bold not just to be recovering from the cyberattack but also be aiming high. 

What I’m learning

Digital chairing – I spend far more time facilitating or leading meetings than chairing. And I did a pretty ordinary job of chairing one meeting this week. Partly I’m blaming the software. Bad workmen do tend to blame the tool. But I reckon the video algorithm gives more prominence to those more active in the meeting. And when you’re chairing, that means they’re more visible to you in a way that silent participants are more visible when you’re face to face. 

Feedback – I received some feedback this week which was hard to hear. I knew it was right, I know it’s harder to solve than it looks. And I don’t know if I can. This was also the week where the determination to tackle the last piece of feedback started to fade. I think that the right thing to do is make sure I’m consistently adopting the previous piece of advice, not forget this, and promise to tackle it when I have the time.

Next week

I’ve set goals that aren’t the most pressing issues for any of the workstreams. There’s a logic, which I’m interested in setting: the pressing issues are well attended to and they may or may not be resolved in the next five days but my shadow won’t help that positively. Therefore, I’m better off setting goals which are about making the most of some important but not urgent tasks and thinking ahead to what next. It’ll be interesting to see how well this works or whether it risks causing a disconnection with the teams and their work.

Weeknote v10.14

Week beginning 5 April

Focus for the week

This week will have been dominated by the launch of the consultation on our new structure in customer services for some of the team. We’ve achieved an immense amount in the last 12 months – in fact 32 new ways to help our residents. 

A set of initiatives introduced in customer services in the last year

But mostly that’s been despite the way we’re organised. The proposals for a new structure are designed to make it easier to continue our ambitious plans and are the product of lots of conversations – with residents, colleagues in the service, people across the Council and our senior leaders through the Mayor’s customer services steering group. As a result, I hope they’re not surprising. Change can always be worrying but I hope we’ve reduced the stress by clearly signposting the direction of travel.

It’s taken longer than I wanted to get to this point and the nature of these things is that when I had to work hardest on the proposals, I had the least to say. But next week we can meet to discuss them together and I can start to get a sense of how they’ve been received. And whilst we’ve worked hard on the proposals, it’s important to listen carefully to the thoughts and ideas of the team. They know better than me what it takes to run a successful customer services operation. 

The vast majority of my time remains on the software and data recovery, cloud unless and data platform workstreams that I’m leading. After a week away, it took me a day to get up to speed But I was well supported by coming back to a number of handover notes – thanks particularly James and Soraya – and weeknotes. Yet even now, there remain 45 unattended-to emails in my inbox. I wrote three well-crafted goals for the week:

  1. A clear way timeline and process map for document processing in revenues and benefits that we have communicated to the heads of service, is consistent with our technology strategy
  2. Timeframes and documented tasks for establishing access to two important services which can only be accessed over a VPN 
  3. A social care show & tell which works towards a practitioner-led conversation and shows that we’re delivering value early and often

In hindsight they were too ambitious to achieve in 5 days, let alone just the three that I had available. However, we made progress on all three fronts. I was particularly pleased with the social care ‘show & share’ because we heard directly from practitioners and had useful feedback on how we could improve the record history for a service user. 

Ones to watch

Repairs Hub – I’ve been watching from the sidelines as Repairs Hub gets rolled out to more contractors. As our head of housing transformation told the Mayor on Friday, it’s a good example of where we’re building back better. It gives us visibility of a repair from start to finish, regardless of who does the job – as well as a view of possibly related jobs. After a period of gestation it’s good to see things really accelerating. 

Change Support – we’ve been incubating the Change Support Team for a little over a year. We thought its success would be judged on whether it made visible and calculable impact in the Council (done), whether it would stimulate further demand for those skills (done) and have a compound impact. The team has started to create a microsite to share its stories of change, underpinned by the tools of change (more powerfully, in my view). It’s still early days but I’m really pleased they’ve made this step.  

Housing register – this project is just beginning and I caught up with the early progress at the recent show & share. But perhaps the most exciting thing was to see how the project is enveloped in the way the benefits and housing team now work. The team has been communicating through weekly show & shares for more than a year and the housing register work was just one of four initiatives they showcased at the session. 

What I’m learning

A fresh perspective – One of the consistent benefits of having a break is being able to take a fresh perspective. Our rhythms and routines are great for creating predictability but the familiarity has costs, too. I used to work for someone who would routinely reorganise the office every six months and every time she did, it would have a ‘first day back at school’ affect. I’d particularly like to contribute towards making sure the good things are even better.  

The importance of teams, for better and worse – I read four books* about accomplishments last week. Three were historical accounts and one was a theory of how to achieve change, based on the author’s experience. And it reminded me that nearly every advice book underestimates the impact of people and their teams. And nearly every book that’s about a person is actually about a team. 

* The China Mission: George Marshall’s Unfinished War, 1945-1947 by Daniel Kurtz-Phelan

The Code Breaker by Walter Isaacson

The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple

Accomplishment: How to Achieve Ambitious and Challenging Things by Michael Barber

Next week

I’ve got two important papers to produce at the start of the week for senior leaders so I need enough space to do those well leaving enough energy that I’m not playing catch-up for the next four days. 

Weeknote v10.12

Week beginning 22 March

So that’s how it feels. Thursday: a feeling I’ve not had for at least 12 months. The feeling of release that comes with a release. Of knowing you did the right thing, a bold thing and an important thing. We recovered case notes from the social care system and could present them in the new case recording tool we’ve developed. 

There have been others of course, plenty of others. The work on Here to Help, the annual billing for council tax, webchat and now Repairs Hub. They were all important too. It’s not even my achievement. 

But I sat there, in front of anxious social care professionals in early January and told them we’d do this. That in March social workers would have access to this data. I said we would do the things that were fastest, safest and most sustainable to recover council services, and we did. And I had the Thursday team all-hands. And I think I kept on a level, although inside I was all Steve Ballmer

Of course there’s ample room for modesty. There are plenty of council services that aren’t yet back to where they need to be. Important aspects of social care remain work in progress. We’ll learn about what more we need to do next with this piece of work through next week and beyond. 

But none of those facts, important, big and challenging, can dilute the feeling. 

Focus for the week

I had six goals for the week of which the above was only one. And objectively, two of the other five weren’t achieved. I wanted to align teams around the cloud engineering roadmap, but we won’t do that until next week. I wanted to complete some software selections and actually just generated a flurry of management activity.

But the data platform team did an important and early first show & tell and I’m confident will do the right things in the first sprint. The show & tell highlighted some of the early reasons why the work is going to be important but hard. But the team also did a really nice job of taking the high-level concept that we’d stumbled across and already developed the next level of detail to be able to show people how it could work. 

We’ve also got a clear plan for recovery of our Comino records management software and work is starting. I’ve mixed views about some aspects of our software suppliers but it’s been really notable how many of the people who work there really care about the impact of the cyberattack and are invested personally in supporting our recovery. 

Ones to watch

Housing finance spine – a team led by our partners, Nudge Digital, has been working to develop the tools to help us close our annual accounts by coming to a clear view about account balances and payments since the attack. They’ve not only built a highly usable service but also the basis for how we’ll migrate the data from our old housing application. It’s particularly exciting to see projects where the scope means we are able to do the right thing for recovery, whilst also building a bridge to what we need in the future.

Case recording – Now’s the time to push not pull back, if we can summon the reserves of energy. We’ve got an exciting and important roadmap for the next four sprints. And we need to balance two modes: finding the right answers through careful research, prototyping and iteration with releasing features early and finding the product/market fit through observation and iteration. 

Document upload and evidence store – we knew in October that we would need the capability to manage residents’ documents and evidence. The work started in the context where people were struggling to see its immediate value and the bar for ‘good enough’ was quite high. So the team has been labouring away doing the hard work to understand user needs and make things simple. And it’s now a couple of sprints away from being able to make a really important contribution to our supporting key council services. 

What I’m learning

I had a great piece of feedback this week about how I’ve managed performance. It was specific, right and well-timed. You may have noticed, depending on the day of the week we spoke.  I find it particularly challenging because it’s easy to do, but hard to do well and done badly it has terrible consequences. I’ve sometimes shied away because of a fear (which can also be a bit arrogant) that my expectations might be unreasonably high.

Next week

I’m having a break. It’s not going to be easy. But I’ve worked hard to get ready for it. And I’m going to fill my time to the nearest second in order to stay off my devices. It’ll be Kindle all the way. 

Weeknote v10.11

Week beginning 15 March

The first week in a couple where I’ve ended it feeling relatively energetic and never dipped into ‘beleaguered’ territory. And no football this weekend. It’s all looking up. 

Focus for the week

I set five goals for the week and discussed these with the team over Chat:

  1. We understand what needs to be done to form the plan for onboarding the new telephony solution
  2. The data platform team has a clear and achievable goal to begin shaping their work
  3. We identify improvements we can make to the out of hours service and have a clear direction for its management over the next 3 years
  4. The team working on the housing register could begin work with a clear focus and access to the tools they need to avoid repeating previous work

Nobody said whether these were right or wrong, which typically leaves me a bit disheartened and then I remember that when Rob asked me for feedback on his goals for the week, I also struggled to engage with the question. 

We also refreshed our rhythms for Cyber Silver so we’re now setting goals for the week on Friday. It’s good to agree them as a senior team and have a common way to know what’s important to each other.  And I was really pleased to get feedback on my draft. It also coincided with me asking better questions: ‘is this achievable next week’, and ‘am I missing anything important? ‘

Ones to watch

Out of hours – I had an important conversation with a group of residents about our out of hours service on Tuesday night. I went from being worried about whether anyone would attend to having to close the meeting before every contribution was exhausted, after we overran. Helpfully we identified six potential improvements and got a much better understanding of the problem. 

Cloud engineering – No one really thinks that cloud is just someone else’s computer. But 15 years since I first used cloud computing, seeing the extent of the work we need to do to become a mature cloud organisation makes me admire even more the few organisations that have successfully made that transition. We’ve now got a clear vision for what this could look like in Hackney and a roadmap to show the extent of work we need to do over the next 3-6 months. And I hope we’ll be compelling advocates for not just why the transition is important but also quite how profound the change can be.

Design system – the team launched a refreshed design system tool for our work. We learnt through our COVID response that this was a critical part of our infrastructure to enable us to deploy digital services quicker and to a higher standard. And wow: it’s really exciting. We had a connected conversation about why we’ve found it so hard to recruit and retain front-end developers. A design system as cool as this has to help. 

What I’m learning

Community organising – a few years ago I was lucky enough to attend a weekend training session on the principles of community organising. Some of the ideas were similar to the Systemcraft approach we learnt about with the Forward Institute. And there were three occasions this week when I was able to draw on that experience. We built the out of hours discussion around the idea of ‘hearing testimony’ rather than the more structured, interactive workshop or formal presentation that I’d ordinarily have done. And when discussing the future of the change support team with Zoe I drew on the same idea to think about how we could create the conditions for an idea to emerge rather than preparing a solution to present to people. 

The value of experience – I had a meeting this week that would have previously caused me to invest at least a few days’ worth of energy and probably one interrupted sleep. It didn’t, this time, because I knew what was going to happen. In a (flash of brilliance) recently I defined confidence as the product of a deliberate action producing the anticipated and desired outcome. It’s a shame there aren’t shortcuts for these things. 

Next week

Over the next few weeks, I’m expecting to have a set of things maturing which will show what we meant by ‘a year to define a decade’. Work in social care, housing as well as our common components will be making some significant strides forward. We need to deliver these as well as we can, learn from what they could do better, whilst spending just enough time to think ahead three months to ensure we’re doing the right things now to ensure we will be making similar strides three months hence. 

Weeknote v10.10

Week beginning 8 March

Focus for this week

I’d resolved to set myself some clear, measurable goals for the week and actively use them to guide my time. I also wanted to build a bit of routine into the start and end of my days so that I was thinking actively about whether I was doing the right things, rather than the things that came my way. It was a qualified success. 

I set myself four goals: 

  1. To follow-up a decision from our Cabinet Procurement Committee on Monday night to initiate the project to onboard a new phone system
  2. To ensure the team could start work on the housing register;
  3. To model the initial costs of our new cloud infrastructure
  4. To ensure our cloud engineering team has the resources it needs

On reflection, it would have been better if I’d been more explicit in committing to the goals and then worked more actively with relevant team members to ensure they were met. Then I wouldn’t be sitting here, asking myself whether I’d fully achieved them. 

And actually, the most important things I did this week wasn’t any of the above. I spent a significant chunk of time with Rob, Cate and Henry thinking about how we were organising ourselves for recovery and what that could mean for the longer term shape of the team. We don’t have all the right answers ourselves but need to set out the opportunities so that we’ve got a starting point for discussion. 

Ones to watch

Vaccines – we had a really helpful session with the Mayor this week, sharing experiences of supporting our GP surgeries contact residents to promote the COVID vaccine. It’s a different type of conversation to the ones we’ve been having through the Here to Help service and we’re deliberately focusing on residents who may be less receptive to the conversation. It was good to hear how the team is adapting to the challenge. 

Data platform – we’re exploring how the creation of a data platform team can accelerate our work to capture data once and use it many times (where appropriate). We’ve now got a shortlist of potential opportunities ready to start work next week. 

Modern tools for housing – the discussion at our steering group this week felt really positive, and it was evident how Cate, Francois and Jasmeen had prepared for it. Managing the programme won’t always be easy. Taking the time to understand what’s making people nervous, confronting things that aren’t right and then working rapidly to take action will always require time and energy. But it will usually be worth it. 

What I’ve learnt this week

The power of doing the right thing. We had a brief period of controversy last week when two things we did created conflict unexpectedly. In the moment, both were frustrating and even alarming for the team. But I was also sure that we were right. So we dealt with the concerns but stuck to our position. And this week both of the outcomes we were seeking were achieved. Now, we need to use that to gain confidence that change may not always be popular but if we do it in the right way, and have courage in the quality 

Working at work may not be so productive. I’ve been into the office a handful of times in the last year. After the initial shock of quite how empty it is, and quite how hard it is to get energy when sat on a bank of empty desks, the experience has stabilised. But I haven’t got any more productive. For most tasks I actually work more effectively at home with fewer distractions, even if it’s less rewarding. That couldn’t be more different to a year ago when I considered a day working at home to be a generally lighter experience.

Next week

Out of hours – next week we’ll be talking to councillors, and then to residents, about our out of hours service and how we can develop it to better meet the needs and expectations of residents accessing this vital service. Longer term, we’re thinking about how we can provide a wider service by delivering this in-house. I spent some time sketching out the critical path this week and it looks very achievable; if it was the only thing we had to focus on!

Both children are expected to be at school for most of next week. That will be properly weird. In theory it ought to be more focused time. There’s a danger that with no-one to look busy in front of, that I’ll find too much laundry to distract me. 

So to mitigate that, I’m going to commit to some clear goals, discuss them openly with the team and work them through the week. But I’ll also need to make space at the end of each day for reflection before the childcare kicks-in. 

Weeknote v10.9

Week beginning 1 March 2021

A colleague said this week that I’d started to look ruffled. Truthfully, I felt beleaguered for the most part. There was plenty to take comfort from but just enough on the other side of the ledger, too. And it’s hard when you’ve lost five games at home and barely looked like scoring since December. 

Focus this week

I’m actually finding it hard to commit to goals at the moment. I keep telling myself I will and then the week starts and I can’t quite get enough time or control for it to happen on my terms. But as best as I can remember, there were three things I wanted to get right. I wanted to ensure that we were able to send council tax and business rates bills after weeks of hard work by lots of other people (I just wrote the summaries of each day). I wanted a positive start to our work to create a data platform team. And the first of our social care recovery strategy meetings needed to help align us around a positive vision and clear objectives. So in the sense that these things were achieved, it was a qualified success. But it would be over-stating it to suggest that I had a great deal to do with them. And there were just enough little irritations to make the week feel long. 

Ones to watch

There were two things that happened this week which I was surprised and delighted to see. The first was a performance dashboard for customer services. For various reasons, we do more reporting on our service than I’ve experienced before, and I was keen to ensure that all of the effort also created value for residents. I also want to ensure that we put residents at the heart of everything we do in the service; not just the day-to-day contact or through user research in projects (both of which are vital) but also in shaping how we identify and prioritise improvements. The performance dashboard is the first of a set of things that we’re using to try and open-up those conversations. Granted, most residents don’t get up in the morning hoping to tell their council whether to improve the blue badge process ahead of the housing repairs service. But when that does become important to people, we need to show that it’s not just a customer service but a citizen’s service. 

The data and insight team have also been doing a recovery job on the data we were managing in our business intelligence tool, Qlik. They’ve been able to recover data for a number of services that, in the words of one colleague, helps them feel they’ve got their life-blood returning. 

What I’m learning

Building back a routine – I’ve got a steady morning routine which involves a bit of year 5 maths, followed by a run and then a shower in just enough time for my first meeting. It no longer involves the sport pages of any website. But I need to bring back more of a work routine. I’ve talked about it often enough in my weeknotes. But somehow, once I’ve cleared my task list on a weekend, the noise of the week means the simple patterns get lost. 

Space for reflection – I’ve never really struggled to make space for reflection. It’s too deeply ingrained in how I think. But I fear the loss of the commute has chipped away at the natural time it provides. I’ve worked deliberately to create an end to the working day at home. It’s not glamorous: it involves either making food or tidying the kitchen. But I fear that the clean break means that I just switch and so reflect less. More of a routine might also provide a more obvious space for reflection. 

Next week

Well – it wouldn’t hurt if I aimed a bit lower and simple tried to put into action a good intention from my weeknote and see if it survived until Monday lunchtime. 

Weeknote v10.8

Week beginning 21 February

Focus for this week

There were five things I wanted to get right this week. The first was a piece of management theatre I’m doing so that we can keep track of annual billing for council tax – each morning I meet Chris who’s actually leading the work and write-up a mini stand-up. The project is exactly where we said it would be, which is gratifying. I also wanted to make sure we released new functionality for our social care case recording tool. I’m chalking that up as a win even though the release is on Monday, because I helped find a compromise on the issue that was blocking us. Thirdly, we geared-up to start the work to develop a data platform team. 

There were two other goals where I failed. The first was because I hadn’t thought far enough ahead and that’s a mistake Imake rarely. The second was a qualified failure – I spent some time helping a team define a piece of work but managed to find the opportunity to do it by accident rather than design. 

I had lots of gaps in my diary this week, and didn’t use them as well as I could have done. Partly that’s coincidence – the things I needed to do didn’t need long chunks of time. But I did spend a bit of time calling residents who had left us negative feedback in response to our customer satisfaction survey. One of the things we learnt in the research we did to validate our performance framework was that people are reluctant to give feedback out of a belief that it doesn’t matter. So I wanted to lead by example and understand for myself where we fall short of providing the service we aspire to.  

Ones to watch

The one that releases too soon – we prefer Agile approaches but we often encounter waterfall releases – for example, when a release will change how people work. In the business continuity phase of recovery we were introducing a greenfield solution so anything was an improvement. But now we’re delivering software that changes an established way of working. And sometimes the closer we get, the more we identify versions of Columbo syndrome. That can mean the release becomes more significant and harder, which becomes a vicious flywheel.  So this is a challenge to the team that can get the prize for releasing too soon. 

Out of hours – we’re working to improve the quality of service that residents get from our customer services outside normal office hours. Whilst lots of people would prefer to do this online, there are some problems where you just need to talk to someone. And without the resources of a large corporation we sometimes struggle to provide the service people need. We’re talking to a range of people to better understand what we can do to support them whilst recognising the cost constraints. 

Document upload – I love learning the apparently small insights from user research that make the difference between a service that’s intuitive and one that confuses users. The team developing our document upload and evidence store component are doing the hard yards to make it reusable but also learning about the subtleties of what users expect vs the service we provide. One of the hardest challenges is presented by the tension between ‘you’re just the council, why do I have to choose for my document to be re-used’ and building for privacy first.

What I’m learning

This is the second week in a row where I’ve reached the end and really struggled to think about what I’m learning. It might not be a coincidence and I’m toying with taking a bit of leave despite it only being 8 weeks since Christmas. I also noticed that I’m spending too much time thinking about things that really only ought to be briefly irritating. 

But the big theme of the year so far is about the conditions for transformation: what they are, where they exist and the extent to which they can be created. The conditions aren’t static and if there are moments when they converge, they are also transitory. Moreover, where is it responsible to persist despite the barriers and where is it better to accept that you may be right but you can’t succeed. 

Linked to this, I’ve also been spotting just how flawed the Aaron Sorkin world-view is. In the Sorkin view, you build an argument towards a denouement where one approach prevails and that sets the course for subsequent events. I increasingly see a world in which a set of smaller things happen and the inevitability of the course becomes visible only in the rear view mirror. 

Next week

I’m working with James to develop our software and data recovery into a more stable programme. I’m nervous about over-complicating this and creating avoidable levels of governance. But we’ve got a number of emerging challenges which require the involvement of more than one team. And we find those challenges particularly difficult to deal with efficiently. So if we can strike the right balance between simplicity and coordination then we can establish a way of working that will add value beyond the scope of the programme.  

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