Weeknote w/c 8 April — w/c 22 April: Easter comes and goes

I hope that everyone’s had an opportunity to enjoy a bit of a springtime rest, even if just for the long bank holiday weekend. I’m enjoying spring arriving, although I’ve not been enjoying the seasonal hayfever quite so much…

Suppliers committing to a more open approach

Matthew and I met recently with some senior representatives from one of our suppliers to discuss our strategic direction and goals. Reflecting on this afterwards, there were a couple of aspects of the conversation which I thought were Weeknoteworthy.

My first observation was that software vendors can find it tricky to reconcile competing demands from councils in terms of the standards and approaches that they’re expected to adopt. One example of this was that while some councils (us included) are working to apply design standards based on the principles developed by GDS, others find these ‘too bland’ and expect systems with more dynamic visual content (including pictures and video) in their user interface design. There is plenty of evidence to show that paring back on visual clutter can make it easier for users to find what they need to do and complete tasks without needing help, but evidently there are still buyers who favour ‘pretty’ designs over functional design focused on user needs. While I do think software vendors have a responsibility to advocate for better technology and user experiences, the imperative to secure sales can work against that. In short — maybe as a sector we are getting the technology that we deserve…?

There were also indications of a positive shift in approach. Traditionally the established software suppliers into local government have adopted strategies based on steering councils towards an ‘all in one’ model, where the suppliers encourage us to buy a bundle of systems (often including software that they have acquired by buying up smaller companies) which they hope will extend the reach of their software across as many service areas as possible. Often this relies on a scary number of flakey Heath Robinson ‘integrations’ whirring away behind the scenes to provide a façade of connectedness, and typically the result is services that are only partially joined up and systems that are inflexible and unreliable.

I was encouraged to hear that in this case the supplier are actively looking to move towards a more open system model, where their software is conceived as part of an ecosystem where APIs allow data and processes to be joined up across different systems more easily. I’m going to keep a bit of healthy scepticism about this until we see the results, but I’m pleased to see the conversation shifting.

Although, as I’ve been banging on about this since at least 2014 I think we’re right not just to wait for enough suppliers to ‘get it’ and instead take positive steps ourselves to shift things forwards: https://bytherye.com/2014/04/06/an-applications-strategy-fit-for-digital/. This is why I think the work we’re doing on our APIs is so important (as Matthew outlined in this blogpost last year: https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/Developing-our-API-strategy).

Our office space

Since moving into the Hackney Service Centre just over a year ago, it’s been really pleasing to see how having better office space is helping us work together better as a team. I’m still thrilled by the buzz when I come into our office area and the reaction from both internal and external visitors is really rewarding (I’ve lost count of how many people have commented that it feels very different to a traditional local government IT environment — in a good way!).

It’s great to see people interacting across teams and sharing the work they’re doing. And I love how well the presentation space and stand up meeting desks are used. I’m convinced that collaborating in this way is much more effective than any process or governance protocol in making sure that we deliver great results.

We are still looking at ways that we can make sure that we all get the best use out of the space, in particular making sure that it’s easy for everyone to find space to work. Our recent check on desk use showed that while we normally have enough space places, we do still have a large number of desks that are ‘taken’ by coats and other personal stuff but aren’t actually being used by anyone. Please can everyone make sure that they’re following the simple steps that Henry set out following the review last autumn so that we are all able to use our space well: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1WOkJ8koizHOVO7W15peEsGEUvhQUqwHcBRJm-Erh0mA/edit#bookmark=id.nec6j2m9qtww [internal link].

Other highlights from my last few weeks were:

  • We took time to look at our approach to mobile data, including the advice we provide to people who need to tether laptops to use mobile data connections via tablets and smartphones. Linked to this we will be sending out a survey to all users next week to ask for feedback on our thinking re: moving to a ‘bring your own’ model for mobile phones later this year.
  • Cate D and I caught up with the preparations for refresh of Members’ IT equipment. This will help us make sure that all our Councillors continue to be able to do their work for our residents effectively.
  • We had our regular ICT Security Group meeting and I’m pleased to see the progress that’s being made — in particular our plans for developing proactive security threat assessment. This is a really important so that our residents can feel confident in trusting us with their data.
  • Colin has set me up with a test MacBook so that I can try out the work he’s been doing to standardise the way we manage and secure Macs across the teams who use those. It’s looking very positive and will help us to provide a consistent and reliable experience for these users.
  • I had some very useful check ins on the work that’s taking place to develop our ‘How to HackIT’ guides (following the workshop we held last month). We’re getting back together next week and are hoping to have a set of priority guides ready to publish very quickly after that.
  • I was really pleased that we went live with the new guidance for managing information in G Suite. It’s hard to answer all of the questions that our users want to ask in easily digestible guides, but I’ve been very impressed by the team’s focus on listening to users and their ongoing commitment to asking for feedback so that the guides can be improved further.
  • Liz and Daro demonstrated the excellent work to provide dashboards for HR information to colleagues including the Finance Directorate Management Team last week. This was very well received and showed how our work on data and analytics is helping to make information easier to access and support decision making across the Council.
  • Cate M and I took time to plan the work we’ll be doing for our finance review next month so that we use the time effectively and have clear goals for the work. This work is really important to make sure that our budgets are clearly set out and we manage our money well. Linked to this we have also been planning our capital investments for the year ahead. We agreed that it would be useful to give an overview on our finances at a divisional stand up towards the end of May so that everyone has the opportunity to get a good understanding of how our funding is being prioritised to maximise the impact we have for our residents.

Something I’m learning

Hackney is a really collaborative council, and I am continually impressed by how willing colleagues are to work together to think through ways that we can address challenges or maximise opportunities. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its challenges. The last couple of weeks have included time trying to think through ways that we can get the alignment right with one of the services we’re working with. Getting the right balance between standing up for points that are important while also being pragmatic where appropriate and emphasising the importance of genuine partnership is tricky. I’m hopeful that we will succeed in finding a ‘win win’ way of working, but I’m also conscious of the need for patience and good listening skills to help us do that.