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

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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.  

Weeknote v10.7

Week beginning 15 February

Focus this week

What’s the only thing that’s harder than managing the software and data recovery from a major cyberattack during a global pandemic in half term week? I was about to find out; mostly on Tuesday, which was also my wife’s birthday.

One of our recovery projects is necessarily ‘waterfall’. There’s a tight plan where the odd technical issue has eaten away at the contingency. And on Tuesday, it went down to the wire. But it was only resolved after lots of senior folk had started to get anxious (and rightly so). 

But by then, I was already too distracted from the birthday. The day began with an irritating email – something which was done with the best of intentions but with incomplete information that made something else harder. Then the news that 5,000 or so more residents would be asked to shield, so we needed to be ready to support them in customer services. And then plans to start making phone calls to support the vaccination programme.  

Oh – and it was the first day in years when I missed a Liverpool match. And they won for the first time in seemingly months. Not sure what to do about the Derby later.

Yet by the end of the week, as I compiled my weekly update to Silver command about the recovery actions, it became clear that we’d moved some pretty important steps forward. And, pleasingly, smaller things had moved forward too. I also added two ‘brave’ slides: one acknowledging some key blockers we were facing and another with a short forward plan (see weeknote v10.6).

Somewhere in there I had set myself a focus for the week. But I couldn’t claim any great relationship between defining my focus on Monday and what had been done by Friday. And right now, I can’t quite find what the goals were either.  

Ones to watch

Here to Help – we received a grant from LOTI this week to develop our Here to Help service. Our investment was, I think, vindicated by the extension of the service to encourage take-up of the vaccine. We knew something else would happen and wanted the flexibility to remodel our tools to support the unexpected. More excitingly, we’ve also got some money to do an independent evaluation of the service. I’m really keen to learn about the impact it’s having and how we can further improve the quality of what we do. 

Closing the feedback loop – I was thrilled to hear of a ‘better everyday’ initiative in customer services this week. We’re using the feedback from our satisfaction survey to call residents who’ve not had a good experience; to acknowledge it; and fix it where we still can. We learnt in user research in the autumn that without visible signs we’re acting on feedback, we lose the trust of residents. So I’m really pleased we’re making this simple effort. 

Cloud deployment – the cloud deployment team gave our strategy show & tell this week to talk about the roles and skills that we’ll need in cloud engineering. It’s important to me that we’re open with the team about how the cyberattack will change how we work. Yes, it’s probably unsettling for some people but better to be open than to add to the worries by being silent. And by being up-front I hope we’re giving more people a chance to develop the skills we need. 

What I’m learning

From desiring something to making it happen – I experienced a mildly painful case study this week in the difference between management that desires something to happen and leadership that makes it happen. There was a problem which I had anticipated emerging in November which came to pass this week. I had willed it not to, and vaguely told some people to avoid it, but I’d not actually committed to seeing that through. So it’s on me that it came to pass. 

In contrast, I had a positive reflection in the same week. We were sharing our customer services framework with another team. And I reached back to the complex customer journeys work that we did a year ago this month. And what we’re doing today on Here to Help is entirely consistent with those intentions – just much better and it’s actually happening. 

The first thing was relatively small and the second is big. But the accumulation of small things often causes more pain than fewer, big successes. So I need to find a way of being more consistent and insistent in tackling smaller things. 

Next week

I’m expecting a more stable week, next week. And miraculously, my diary has some big time slots without meetings. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the week will be to use this to do some big things well. So I need to set some clear goals but also ensure they’re the right ‘size’. I think I’ll start by joining in with the team calling back residents to learn from their feedback. 

Three metrics to understand your capability to change

I’ve been thinking hard about how you know if you’re getting better at making change. In sport you can play well and lose. But modern coaching is about increasing the likelihood that you do the right thing often enough to reduce the elements of chance. I’d like to see a similarly methodical approach to how public services assess their capacity to deliver complex change. 

Local government hasn’t recovered from New Public Management. We still obsess over output measures. How fast the phones are answered; How many repairs; How many registrations within 42 days. We’re relieved, apparently, that there are fewer than ‘the old days’. Though, inevitably, they haven’t quite died. Some still appear greyed out on the reporting dashboard. COVID hasn’t changed everything – yet. But it could. 

We are all very proud of how quickly we pivoted – from booking repairs to dispatching food. From asking for your postcode to helping you access befriending services. But we’re still counting the outputs, not evaluating the outcomes. 

The challenges of next year won’t be test & trace support grants or lateral flow tests. They’ll be something else. We worry whether we’ll all be too knackered, or finally taking that foreign holding. And soon enough there will be new political agendas. 

The legitimacy of public services comes not from our ability to do yesterday more efficiently but to adapt to tomorrow’s agenda. Yet we’re still using yesterday’s techniques to manage complex change. What if leaders could actively work to increase the capability of their organisations to think like a system and act like an entrepreneur?

In Hackney, I set a target that a new developer code deploy code on day one of a project. Most projects don’t. But the ability to do so meant that before day 1 we had contracts signed, ID badges issued, email accounts created, GitHub access permitted, cloud infrastructure available. 

That was an ok measure of our readiness to start. But it was built around a project-based paradigm that’s inherently limiting. Now we’re dealing with more complex change, I’d like to experiment with three new metrics.

Time to define

Peter Drucker said: “there is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all”. When working in a complex system it’s too easy to lurch from stasis to action without adequate understanding of the problem to be solved. The time it takes for an organisation can define a problem is a key measure of its capacity to change. Some are too good at leaping to action before the problem is defined. Others to slow to agree what should be done.

Decreasing your time to define means that the organisation is using data to understand ‘why’ not just ‘what’. It means that qualitative and quantitative data are being used actively. A multidisciplinary team has probably explored the issue so your internal comms is working horizontally. Your facilities frees up space for teams work together. There’s a culture of active challenge. And the governance is coordinating and enabling discovery rather than delaying or blocking it.

Time to deliver value

One of the biggest cultural shocks I experienced on joining local government was how many things took two years to achieve (plus or minus side months) regardless of their size or complexity. COVID showed we could deliver significant change in weeks. It should be the new normal. Whether Agile or just agile, the time to deliver value is my second key metric: how many teams go from problem statement to value. 

If you’re able to reduce your time from definition to delivering value then your business case process is efficient and you can marshall financial resources to solve problems. Procurement is enabling the creation of value. HR helps you recruit and retain talent. Your information governance is designed-in from the start. The IT just works and security is determined efficiently. 

Then you’ve got a team that prizes working solutions over documentation. Your governance is open and enabling – risk aware, not averse. You’ve got the tools to ensure branding and communication is consistent. And you’re working with service users to understand how to land the solution. 

Time to decide

The biggest illusion of NPM is that you know when it’s working. Initiatives where success is equated with completion. Projects that save money by pushing cost elsewhere. Effort that ceases at outputs. But a truly system-oriented, entrepreneurial organisation will be good at failing and iterating. The time from delivering value to deciding how to proceed will be the third critical measure. 

Reducing your time to decide means you’ve started at the end and worked backwards. You’ve got a clear evaluation framework. It means you’re sufficiently user-centric to know if it’s working. You’ve got governance ready and able to challenge and decide. Business operations comes together to end things quickly and elegantly. A way of working that’s open by default. A culture that prizes learning. 

Actively working to reduce the time to decide in turn will decrease the time to define. It will systematically make the identification of challenges faster and more accurate. And it will ease the process of moving from problem definition to delivering value. It’s the fly-wheel of an organisation that can think like a system and act like an entrepreneur. 

These aren’t the only metrics that matter, of course. Each administration is judged on its outcomes. But to continue refining the engine room, the art and science of achieving change must be continuously optimised.  

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.

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