Weeknote w/c 18 and 25 March *and* 1 April : a bit more time with our users

A new record – three weeknotes in one. Gulp. 😞

Learning about libraries and parks

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been continuing my visits to learn more about Hackney’s Public Realm services and I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with the libraries and parks teams.

On Friday 29 March I went to Stoke Newington library. Part of my day was spent with the Community Library Service, including a round of visits in their electric van visiting housebound residents who get a monthly delivery of books, audiobooks, CDs and DVDs brought to their home. It was clear how much those residents value the service and the team have a catalogue of examples showing how they’ve played a part in helping people to live independently. In the afternoon I spent some time in the main library, which was a good opportunity to check in on the progress that’s been made ironing out issues since the recent move to a new library system. We also discussed bigger picture topics such as the impact that easy access to digital media has had on borrowing trends and ways that our work in ICT might be helpful for the service’s future plans.

And last Friday I visited Haggerston Park to spend time with the team based there. This included the opportunity for me to get my step count up by helping to smarten up the borders in Broadway Market Green (I usually manage 10,000 – 12,000 steps a day, but on Friday I got this up to over 24,000!). I found it very interesting to talk with the team and find out more about how they plan and organise their work. It was also interesting to see the many different ways that the Council is working to make sure that Hackney is a great place to live – during my time out and about I saw people from a wide range of different services come by, including housing, waste, street cleaning, enforcement and the Council’s courier service.

I also got to leave a bit of a mark of my visit which will hopefully last for years to come, as we planted a new tree in Haggerston Park. This wasn’t a trivial task as the park is on the site of a former gas works which was destroyed during the war, so the ground has plenty of rubble to dig through. Fortunately I was with experts who had forged their own special poles specifically to break up the ground so it can be dug up for planting.

I was struck by the pride in their work that everyone I met demonstrated. I saw a strong bond between the teams I was working with and the citizens who use their services, and it was great being shown trees that one member of the team had planted as saplings when he first joined the Council over thirty years ago which are now majestic trees bring life to the area. Both teams have published videos on YouTube sharing some of the work they do which are worth taking a few minutes to check out:

LOTI workshop

In previous notes I’ve mentioned the London Office of Technology and Innovation (otherwise known as ‘LOTI’ – https://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/who-we-are/london-office-technology-and-innovation-loti) which is being set up collaboratively by councils across London, led by Theo Blackwell, London’s Chief Digital Officer. This is now rapidly approaching the official launch and on Tuesday last week I joined peers from other councils for a workshop to check in on the preparations. We used the time to look at the governance arrangements and how we will work together to prioritise the work that LOTI will focus on, and we have follow up workshops in a few weeks’ time to agree those initial priorities.

It was a good session and the priorities for me are making sure that we keep the governance fairly light touch so that LOTI can make quick progress and demonstrate benefits from working together during its first 3 – 6 months. I think that this is important as that will set the tone for subsequent work and I’m conscious of the complexities that come with sharing between organisations (regardless of whether they’re in the public or private sectors) and the need for pace.

Other highlights from my last few weeks were:

  • Meeting up with other organisations who use Google’s cloud services. There were lots of helpful updates and it was useful to have the opportunity for us to compare experiences. A key challenge for us is making sure that we are actively thinking about how we can ensure that we remain flexible in the cloud platforms that we use so that we don’t find ourselves caught in a cloud version of the lock-ins that many businesses are now grappling with for their legacy technologies.
  • We’re nearly there with the updated guidance for managing information in G Suite and Amy and Tom have been making the final tweaks to finish this off (including finding some nice tweaks to the layout that I didn’t think were possible!). This is important because it will give us all a clear reference point for questions that our users are asking us and will make it much easier for our users to feel confident in sharing files with colleagues. The work to develop the guidance has involved extensive user research to make sure that it is easily understandable – a really good example of how understanding user needs can be applied to all areas of our work.
  • We’re now into the financial year-end close down, so lots of people across our team are busy making sure that we complete the work needed to finish the 2018/19 accounts and prepare for 2019/20. Some of this has been more complicated than it ought to be, so for next year we are going to need to make sure that we do some quick work to align our budgets properly and make sure that we’re using the monthly budget monitoring process effectively.
  • A couple of weeks ago colleagues from Devon County Council visited Hackney to share information about the way that they are using systems thinking to find answers to some of the tricky problems that the Council needs to tackle. I found it useful to consider how the approaches they’ve used can sit alongside the agile and design led approaches we are using to help services reimagine their work.
  • Matthew and I took some time to catch up on our digital architecture and the work we are doing to rationalise this. I found this very useful and will be interested to see how well the sketch we drew out stands up to scrutiny by more technically expert colleagues.
  • I also popped over to another London council to meet with one of my peers and their new Cabinet Member with responsibility for customer services and digital. We found a lot in common in our views on how technology and data can improve local public services and it was good to discuss ways that the work on LOTI might help support collaboration to accelerate progress and maximise the benefits from different councils’ work.

Something I’m learning

From time to time I’ve heard it suggested that we shouldn’t expect non-office based workers to be able to use digital tools (eg self-service access to internal support services etc). The time I’ve spent recently with colleagues in libraries and parks has reaffirmed me in my view that I disagree very strongly with that! What I think is at the root of this is that many (maybe most?) software packages that have been developed for business use could learn a lot from consumer technology. And all too often poorly thought through processes are then layered on top of poorly designed technology. The result can be unusable systems.

I once came across the view that a particularly dreadful software package was ‘intuitive once you’ve learned how to use it’, and I fear that this mindset can be all too common. I don’t think that there’s any excuse for the systems we use in our work to be any less easy to use than the software that we use in our personal lives. That’s partly about the software and partly about the processes that run on the software, and we need to challenge our suppliers and ourselves to set a high bar for usability so that ‘users can succeed first time, unaided’.

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