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

Category: Weeknotes (Page 1 of 6)

What Hackney’s award-winning Link Work has taught me about innovation

Weeknote 25.2022

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. 

One for the routine

Weeknote 12.22

For various reasons I can’t write a weeknote reflecting on the week as a whole, but I don’t want a second week to pass without writing something. 

Firstly, on the challenges of running a frontline operational service and my admiration for colleagues that have been doing so for some time. It’s been a tough fortnight or so in customer services. This time of year is always the busiest. The council tax billing season, rent increases for tenants, leaseholders nad people on benefit together with elections leads to higher demand. 

We’ve also seen an increase in the number of residents coming for help in the Service Centre. There are lots of really good things about this – and we wouldn;t have it any other way. But it’s about twice as quick to help someone on the phone than face to face so it’s put further pressure on the service we provide. We’ve also had more than 10% of staff sick with COVID. 

Large operational services aren’t challenging because each day comes with new surprises. But because whilst all that’s going on, you also need to make things better. And if you do too much of one at the expense of the other, you lose credibility. We’ve got a strong organisational focus on the immediate at the moment but I also know that the seasonality of customer services means we can’t wait to make the more fundamental changes that are needed. 

The other major thing about my week was speaking to a cyber security conference about what we learnt through recovering from the cyberattack. I took a few examples of datasets which I believe are components of critical national infrastructure and explained some of the challenges we faced in making industry-standard business applicaitons conform to NCSC guidelines. In short, it is harder than it should be to run them in a web-first, zero-trust, two factor authentication, cloud-based architecture. This is no one’s fault and everyone’s fault. Only urgent, concerted action across the sector and with the active participation of central government can solve this. I hoped that a dose of self righteous anger helped at least someone in the audience to believe that we can and must change. 

Next week, I’m on holiday abroad. I’ve been lucky that it’s not my first trip since lockdown. But it’s still much needed. I’m getting irritated about things that I can usually brush off. And then when I get back I’ll have to summon the focus to think about something other than the result against City. Whatever that may be, 

Was it just the Interlull?

Weeknote 12.22

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

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

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

  1. Being a good ally

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

  1. The matter with words that matter

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

  1. When to observe and when to act

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

Some positives, despite

Weeknote 11.22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next week

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

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

Out of all the things, some key themes emerge

Weeknote 10.2022

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were some other bits, too:

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

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

Outcomes and feedback loops

Weeknote 9.2022

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

Clear outcomes 

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

Our best work

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

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

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

Feedback loops

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

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

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

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

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

Next week

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

Grappling with outcomes

Weeknote 6.2022

Last week, I mused about the balance between the goals that I need to deliver and the goals for the team. Probably the most effective thing I did this week was to help teams think about how we articulate their work in terms of outcomes for residents. We’ve been using the OKRs approach to strategic planning, so that we can measure progress against the goals regularly, and change our approach when it’s not moving sufficiently towards the objective. 

Given that, I wanted to celebrate some of the ways we’ve been making things better this week:

A better experience for people calling frequently – we’re dedicating time to calling people who have had to phone us frequently in order to make sure we’ve got to the heart of the problem. That requires good preparation – we’d make things worse if we picked up the phone before we understood all the things we already knew – and a skilled advisor who knows how to make our services work for people. Bukkie and the team have done this well so far, and have tangible examples of things we’ve been able to unblock by having a good conversation with a frustrated resident. 

Understanding the planning system – our data platform helps us bring data together, safely and ethically. We can use this to better understand our systems and processes which then enables us to understand what we can do differently. Adam showed the planning service a comprehensive tool that enables the team to start generating hypotheses and plans for how we can improve the customer journeys. 

Staying safe online – there’s lots of maintenance that goes into helping people stay safe online. We’re getting better at how we manage the security certificates that reassure web browsers, and therefore users, that our services are safe. Darren and team essentially brought management of the service in-house and did a good job of this week’s refresh. 

Faster product development – we’re using a tool developed by Spotify (Backstage) to make the process of product development faster. That enables us to speed up learning what our users need, which is one of the metrics I’m obsessed about. It’s been a hope for a while, and lots of different people have contributed, but Stuart was able to show the team where we’ve got to, and people were excited about what next. 

A professional, relaxed welcome – we’re evolving how we welcome residents into our service centre, as COVID restrictions continue to change. We’ve got a new reception desk so that we can welcome people into the building, ensure colleagues are safe but also try and shift the power dynamics so that it’s not an overwhelming experience for people who need our help. Well done to Nicola, Paul and the team for pushing this forward.

In the interests of balance, there are a few things we’re grappling with at the moment:

We’ve been grappling with a difficult data migration challenge for some of our licensing services. The old database was complex, expensive and probably over-engineered so it’s taken painstaking work to understand how to map the information to the new system. We’d swarmed around it in the last few weeks to increase the chance of success. And then at the last minute, a key team member was ill. 

We’ve had some complaints recently about one of the systems we use. Given the number of successful transactions, I think I was slow to notice. But it also appears that we’re not the only Council that’s experiencing problems. A challenging integration means we also had to delay making a new system live. The two things aren’t connected – but both indications that it needs extra attention. 

Our refreshed customer satisfaction survey has now been running for a fortnight and revealed that only half of residents think we’ve clearly told them what will happen next. One of our core principles for a good conversation is to ‘be the guide’. So we need to dig into this and identify some improvements that we can make. 

We’ve also been organising a fortnightly meeting for senior leaders to talk about ‘tech priorities, progress and problems’ (because I liked the alliteration). It takes a few hours to prepare for, but seemed important for openness and collaboration. Attendance hasn’t been great, and is falling off, so we need to think about what needs to change. 

Next week I might actually be away. We’ve got a few days in Cornwall, around my wife’s birthday. I’m not optimistic for the quality of the 4G connectivity so I may literally have to switch off. 

The good and the indifferent

Weeknote 5.2022

I’m fascinated by how other senior leaders align their work and agenda to the needs of their teams. If it’s too different, I’ve found you’re talking a completely separate language to your managers – and you don’t have time for the things that matter for them. If you just focus on what your teams are doing at the moment, you can’t set the pace of change. I’ve been think about that this week because of how different my week was to the delivery of customer services. Our service had a really encouraging week, and mine was ok. 

We delivered the best service to residents that we’ve achieved in months, this week. Waiting times were consistently below ten minutes and we answered around 85% of calls. Best of all, we continued to take more time to work with residents who needed extra help. 

One of our link workers helped ‘Maria’ – an older woman who hadn’t asked for a repair to her council home in two years. After speaking to us, we helped fix the carbon monoxide alarm and introduced her to a lunch club so that she could meet new people. Doing things efficiently is important because sometimes that’s all you need. Taking time to do make things better for people who need that extra help makes Hackney better for everyone. The improved outcomes have also had a noticeable effect on everyone’s morale. 

Now, we’ve got a short period that we need to use so that some of the enablers are in place to sustain the improvement. The work we’re doing to support residents who have to call frequently needs to become bread and butter. This week, our single view work has an early prototype which will enable us to test what impact it could have on call lengths. We’ve got a really simple target: for the tool to help us save 189,000 minutes a year. We’re also investing in a rota-ing tool so that we’re matching colleagues with the right skills to support the levels of demand at the right time of the day. 

On Thursday my diary resembled my hair: things came out at a remarkable rate. Previously I’ve found it too easy to waste unexpected time (to the point where I’ve actually got cross that things were cancelled). But this week I had enough energy to make good use of the time and focus on cracking through some stuff that would be far too easy to defer.

The key thing on Friday was our housing IT steering group. We’re at one of those difficult stages in a change project. Having been through a few I’ve now got enough experience to not over-dramatise them in advance. But the conversation also enabled me to reflect on how change needs momentum to succeed. The allure of ‘pragmatism today, change tomorrow’ is as effective as when my parents painted over mould in my bedroom as a child. 

All of this is a long way of saying that I didn’t quite meet my three goals for the week, but didn’t get far off. We do have a clear roadmap for the temporary accommodation work. It landed well with the leadership of the service and we’re going to use it to structure our show & tells. The Technical Design Authority meeting did help support our principles and remained action-oriented. I’m keen that we evolve the way we’re working now that we’re four weeks in, so that we don’t establish a pattern too soon and that habit reduces our creativity. I didn’t start the re-use conversation I wanted, but that was a matter of diaries and availability rather than a lack of focus on my part. 

There were also two things where we made progress this week after letting them drift for too long. In both examples, I would have been unforgiving on discovering the length of time it had taken to get it done, at the point at which I started working in Councils. Now, I can also see completely valid reasons why they’ve dragged. But I’m not comfortable with entirely abandoning the me of 2015. Part of the answer is to get more comfortable with saying ‘I can’t’, particularly when under pressure. But another part is just being a bit more candid when I’m letting things drift so that colleagues can make a more active choice about how to proceed. 

Next week is an opportunity to return to the work I’ve been doing to help teams articulate the outcomes we’re seeking to achieve. So my stretch goal is that three teams can confidently express the outcomes they’re seeking from work that’s currently underway. But I’ve also got three significant bits of paperwork to attend to – two of which have been festering on my to-do list for a fortnight. So I’d better formalise that as my second goal for the week. I’ve also got my eye on a trip to Anfield on Thursday – so two goals will be sufficient (no jokes about whether 2 goals is enough with a high line). 

Finding Fizz


That’s two positive weeks in a row. How do I know? Because this week (in contrast to last) I also committed to a clear area of focus, and three goals and delivered. That felt good, and the week felt good. I wanted to spend time carefully working through the process of reintroducing the OKRs structure to how we commit to clear outcomes, and deliver measurable results rather than just complete projects. This is so important to me because we need to be able to talk clearly and confidently about how our work is improving services for residents, we’ve got a good team who need the motivation that comes from a clear sense of purpose, and the freedom that comes from being able to organise around measurable outcomes. 

I’m also looking to extend the approach to customer services as well. By the end of this week we had a clear set of desired outcomes for our Document Products team and our Single View work. We’ve also talked through what success looks like for our data & insight service, and Lisa’s developing that further over the next week or so. 

For all that positivity, I know that we still need to do better by our residents in accessing some services. Last week our repairs service was contacted 5,500 times, which is 42% more than normal for this time of year. We’ve got some new starters, recruited from our Hackney Works employment scheme beginning on Monday which will bring short term relief. But we’ll only deliver a consistently good service if people need to call us less often and the conversations we have with people are typically shorter. 

One of the big steps forward this week and last was that, for the first time, we can identity who is calling most often. We’re experimenting with identifying when people are calling too often and following up to make sure that we’ve understood the whole problem, done everything we can to fix it efficiently and also set clear expectations for what will happen, when. This is a key part of our vision for customer services and ultimately it will help us provide a better service. But we need to be really careful to strike a fair balance between that work and the needs of people who are calling us ‘at the moment’. 

Our Technical Design Authority had the first meeting to review specific proposals for the design of services. We considered how we manage permissions for accessing Manage My Home, where it’s important that everyone has access to the right data and that users can be managed without having to change the software code each time. We reviewed how we’ll make sure that attachments to the social care software remain secure – because the system works by downloading a copy of the attachment onto the PC. And we explored how an open source ‘rules engine’ might enable us to develop and then continue to change, rules determining how we take action against people who owe us money. The conversation was valuable, and I was particularly pleased that everyone took part in a constructive spirit but not fudging the real challenges presented by each proposal.

One of my other small pleasures from this week was to hear of the work we’re doing to increase the number of people who register the birth of their child within 42 days. Most people can get an appointment now within a few days of asking for one, which is a fantastic level of service. Our behavioural insights expert has worked with the registrars team to help them identify different ways we can encourage people to register an appointment sooner. We’ll be tracking the impact of this through February. 

But ultimately I knew I had my fizz this week because I was also coming up with ideas. I like finding new ways of doing things – not least because it actually feels helpful rather than getting stuck in the management trap of being just a conduit of information. 

My goals for next week are for three more teams to have clear objectives and key results for their work, to know how we’re going to develop our predictive and proactive approach for housing repairs and to design a workshop to help our teams articulate their outcomes. Hopefully within that there’s enough room for creativity and focus to keep the fizz. 

Put it in the net, then let’s talk

Weeknote 2.2022

I basically had a really good week, with lots to feel energised about. My tasklist, optimistically titled ‘tomorrow’ isn’t complete, but there are 19 things ticked off. 

But I didn’t clearly define some goals. And so whilst I know I had a good week, it doesn’t have the same objectivity that it would have if I could prove it. I spent ages thinking about my goals but by the end of Monday still hadn’t committed. On Thursday I chatted to some of our security team over lunch and remembered the old Shankly quote: “if you’re not sure what to do, put the ball in the back of the net and then we’ll discuss it”. 

My main achievement was making sure our refreshed governance arrangements started well. We’ve got a weekly recovery board, a new Technical Design Authority and a fortnightly update for senior leaders, which I’ve called ‘Priorities, Progress and Problems’ (because I liked the alliteration). 

We expect recovery board members to arrive having read the outputs from each of our projects and come with some issues for discussion, so that we identify blockers and agree how to move things forward. It’ll quickly become second nature, but understanding how we can contribute will be hard to begin with. But it was a good discussion and I only needed one of my three prompts, because some colleagues were also well prepared. Following the meeting, I also produced a simple project evaluation framework so that next week, the board has a shared way of understanding what we mean by project health. 

The membership of the TDA overlaps with the recovery board, so I needed to find a fresh way of exploring our scope and ways of working. We used the anti-pattern exercise ‘If we did this really badly, how would we do it’. It was fun, but also enabled us to identify the big risks. 

Lastly, I was keen that the senior leaders briefing was more engaging than previously when it was too easy to slip into an informational update rather than a genuine exchange and development of a shared sense of purpose. 

There haven’t been many opportunities since the cyberattack to really invest in how we do things, given the relentless march of delivery. So at the very least it was good to dust-off some of those lingering skills . 

The other important step forward this week was work to help residents who had to call us too often. Our new phone system gives us more data than we’ve ever had before so we can quickly identify people who keep calling us and try to solve the problem. Of the first eight people we spoke to, we were able to make things better for all of them, which was essential to build trust in the service. It’s less efficient than responding to calls but sometimes it’s the right thing to do so next we’ll need to work out how it fits into our overall approach. 

I had also promised myself that I’d do two things to develop our strategy (consulting on our guiding principle, and designing another proactive service). I almost did one of them and because it was important rather than urgent, kept excusing myself for not doing it. Must do better. 

I did finish off reading The Great Circle. By the last 100 pages, I just wanted it to finish, but the twist at the end just about warranted the final mile. The thought of starting another book was too much so for the rest of the week I watched Borgen, the old Danish political drama. It took me back to the first time I watched it – sitting in our basement room in Dalston, with two young children, drinking too much red wine (me, not them, I hope). The plot has aged well, but there isn’t a smartphone in sight. And yet Borgen is still more modern than most of the commonly used local government software. 

I’m going to make next week all about our OKRs. I’ve been starting to extend the approach to customer services and I’ve got some hypotheses for how we can bring it back to our work in IT without it either being a bit false or distorting work that’s in flight. But if I start with how I work, then I’ll be better equipped to help others. 

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