Hackney Council’s Link Work programme won an award this week. It’s the most impactful thing I’ve achieved in my career to date, and it’s taught me that much of what I’ve assumed about innovation is wrong, so I wanted to share the story.
A loosely held vision
Most of my life, I’ve driven visions that have come to me ever so quickly. They’ve been unmistakably mine. This was different. The development of Link Work had a long genesis.
One evening, I told my boss that I was interested in expanding my responsibilities to incorporate customer services. I could see opportunities to make the face to face service a bit less ‘municipal’ and thought there were substantial opportunities to introduce automation into the service but I didn’t have a clear vision.
Months later, I embarked on a leadership course and committed to finding a way of using the techniques of responsible leadership to help the Council save money through designing better services. I convened a set of conversations with my peers to understand what support they needed and designed the concept of an in-house Change Support Agency – a short-term experiment of a multidisciplinary team that would work to the agenda of our services over short engagements to accelerate their transformation initiatives.
One weekend, I had a sleepless night and so read Radical Help by Hilary Cottam. I didn’t agree with its conclusions but it was impossible not to be excited by the core concepts: that strong relationships, drawing out people’s strengths and designing a range of different support around their needs, was more effective and probably cheaper than making eligibility criteria for statutory services more strict.
In late 2019, the Mayor convened a steering group to focus on customer services and my big pitch was ‘we’ve got better at delivering transactional services. Now we need to focus on the role of customer services in high cost, relational services’. To help bed-in Zoe Tyndall, who joined to lead the Change Support Agency Zoe focused on four complex customer journeys (hoarding, noise, debt and digital inclusion).
And then, a week before lockdown, I was made responsible for customer services in Hackney. Shortly thereafter I had a call from the Head of Communications asking me to set up a phone line and a form for people to ask and offer help. I was determined the phone line would be 3111, mirroring the 111 NHS service and used verbs to describe ‘I Need Help’.
Simultaneously, I knew from a previous discovery that our adult social care front door was under pressure. I offered that customer services take the calls so that, with the greater productivity we were seeing with remote working, we would alleviate the pressure on the team in adult social care. The ‘Three conversations’ approach was being trialled in adults, so I also sought to provide reassurance by training customer services staff in those techniques. Our public health team was integral in helping the customer services team use the Make Every Contact Count method to have better conversations with residents and then provide them the space and confidence to develop reflective practices.
I distinctly remember a hot day shortly before Easter 2020 where I had a really clear view of the product landscape that would enable us to scale Link Work. I wasn’t able to corral my team around this, but the way that we pulled together Find Support Services, Better Conversations and I Need Help was part of that. The arrival of the Data Platform to help us identify people who might benefit from Link Work wasn’t coincidental but it was more than opportunistic.
Each of these things could have taken us to a different outcome. They could have existed largely independently of each other. We also didn’t bring them together too soon, which I think is equally important. There was no large programme of change. The smaller initiatives had space to develop at their own pace, connecting them up when ready.
A success with many owners and few losers
I dont feel the same relationship with Link Work that I do with some of our other accomplishments. Because I know what a small part I’ve played in making it real and how many more people have put a personal stamp on its design.
There are lots of different people who could all legitimately claim to be a co-founder of Link Work. Without each development, incarnation, tweak it wouldn’t be what it is today. Rashmi and Selwyn developing the database and form the first weekend of lockdown and Emma’s work on the pattern library was invaluable. Sonia and the Community Partnerships Network that turned Find Support Services from a map to a network of advice organisations. Kate, the conversations method and the reflective practice. Liz, Daro and the team that built the single views with flags of potential vulnerability. Tim and the team of brave customer services advisors, supported unfailingly by Kelly. Then Zoe and Claudia who turned Link Work into what it is today. And leaders like Ilona and Jen who supported us at show & tells and through reflective practices, rather than wasting time worrying about whether we were encroaching on their professional expertise.
Too often in public services the hangovers from the days of ‘best value performance indicators’ means focus gets put on one measure without paying attention to the bigger picture and people’s end-to-end experience of services. In customer services that can lead to a singular focus on waiting times, without considering deeper issues that cause demand and repeat contact when people don’t get the service they need or when getting something done becomes too complicated. The Link Work approach is exciting because it’s putting people first, taking complexity away from residents, and our analysis shows that as well as being a better experience it’s also cheaper for the Council (Josh and Claudia’s work is starting to demonstrate the social ROI too).
Innovation not revolution
Most of my big ideas in life have been NEW. Even the ones that other people thought of first.
All the elements for Link Work existed before we created Link Work. Customer services advisors helped people find solutions to problems. We had a Directory of Services. Frontline staff were trained in Make Every Contact Count. We had data on which residents were most likely to face challenges. There are versions of Link Work happening in Newham, Barking & Dagenham, and Wigan, to name just a few.
The things we brought together, the order in which we brought them together all made Link Work what it is today.
Relentless focus on quality over scaling
Founders are under pressure to achieve scale rapidly. Sometimes that’s vanity, sometimes that’s funding. In our context, that could have looked like a significant publicity drive or even just a significant amount of internal awareness-raising. Occasionally I’ve even been frustrated by how little I’ve seen people get excited by Link Work.
Zoe gently resisted this at the right times. Much of the importance of Claudia’s work has been the focus on the quality of Link Work. The review by UCL’s IIPP was intended to give further challenge to ask if we were doing the right thing. I think we’ve spent far more time making sure we’re ‘getting it right’ than pushing its development into something bigger.
Energy for opportunism
There’s a lot of innovation chat about the importance of focus and strategy. Often, Link Work benefitted from opportunism. Zoe was hugely effective at spotting new government initiatives that required the Council to ‘do a thing’ and turning them into opportunities for the Link Work approach. By consistently making customer services ‘open for opportunities’ we put the service at the forefront of problem-solving for other busy, over-stretched departments.
The right leadership
Link Work has benefitted from the right kinds of leadership at the right times. Councillors Kennedy and Maxwell asked all the right questions but continued to be gently supportive through the gestation. The Mayor was emphasising the importance of really listening to what resident need and comfortable in prioritising talking to frontline staff to learn from, and reward their development.
The senior leader who once summoned me to a meeting for mentioning a ‘social work-informed approach’ to instruct me that only Social Workers could practice Social Work because Social Work is special, stepped out of the way.
In some of the longest days of my life, I made sure to find time to have conversations with a range people to get their ideas about how to develop the service. Most of these had no obvious actions or conclusions. Many times I wanted to do something to demonstrate my commitment to succeeding but couldn’t find the right thing to do. I hope that I achieved more by letting things happen around me.
Very occasionally we have insisted on Link Work. Sometimes we set targets for Link Work to make sure it happened regardless of events. The new leadership team in customer services had no choice but to whole-heartedly back Link Work – though were of course supportive anyway.
Rewarding the right things
Innovation in public services can be found up and down the country. There’s always an intrinsic motivation. But it doesn’t have quite the same glamour as being the founder of a unicorn. That’s why recognition like the Digital Leaders Innovation award we received are also important. People respond to positive reinforcement. Bros, hoodies and garages will always have a place in our consciousness as drivers of innovation but there are less visibly heroic approaches to innovation that can also make a positive impact on people’s lives.