It feels like a lifetime ago that I was in Haringey’s civic offices being trained on the count process for what at that point were still the forthcoming elections for Mayor of London and the GLA. A couple of days later I caught up with Cate, Henry and Matthew for a DMT away day to look at our priorities for the months ahead. How time has flown.
A break from the norm
Within a few days I was self-isolating in our back bedroom, taking part in what was often 12 hours a day of video and phone calls, and working closely with the Mayor, Cabinet, Hackney’s senior leadership team and our Emergency Planning service helping to put in place the Council’s response to the rapidly changing Covid-19 emergency. It’s been the most intense working experience I’ve ever had, but I think also the most rewarding.
It happened that as well as having my role of corporate resilience lead for the Council, the announcement that the UK’s response to Covid-19 would move from ‘Contain’ to ‘Delay’ happened two hours after I began my shift as ‘on-call Gold’. As a result I stepped aside from all things ICT (being thankful that we have such a strong team that I could be 100% confident that things would be just fine) and focused entirely on working with colleagues as part of the wider corporate response.
The ‘new cough’ which I developed over the first weekend wasn’t particularly well timed *, but I found that I was more than busy enough not to notice that I was spending all day sat in the same room for a whole week!
* I ended up using a Google Form to keep a detailed record of every cough to help me decide whether it was ‘repetitive’ or ‘continuous’, and in the end I decided to err on the side of caution and follow the Public Health advice.
During this short period of time I’ve seen some of the very best of public service, and have witnessed local government throwing off it’s reputation for dusty Edwardian bureaucracy and responding with a pace and ambition that would do credit to an innovative start up.
Over the last three weeks we have:
- Reconfigured our decision making and governance arrangements, bringing senior officers and our elected administration together as an effective team that is able to respond to the enormity of the challenge.
- Switched the way we work, from organising based on service structures (aka ‘silos’) to focusing on the key outcomes that will be most important for our residents.
- Shown how we can be decisive and swift in our actions, putting in place the arrangements needed to sustain critical services in these most turbulent of times.
- Been respectful of one another’s expertise, making sure that a more directive style doesn’t mean we forget to listen and act thoughtfully.
- Come together with the unions who represent our staff groups to make sure that we are listening to their concerns, explaining our decisions and the things we are still thinking through, and working together well.
- Worked closely with our partners and built on the Council’s strong relationships with other public services, the voluntary sector, community groups and business to put a genuinely partnership response in place.
- Kept key services open, even when that was hard to do. I’m proud that Hackney’s parks remain open, with strong messages about social distancing – a vital lifeline for the thousands of people who don’t have outside space at home **. And many of our teams continue to come into work, despite deep personal anxiety, because residents depend on the work they do and their jobs can’t be done from home.
- Created entirely new services in a matter of days, working closely with our partners in the voluntary sector to set up arrangements to make sure that people who are unable to get food get essentials delivered.
- Embraced new technology so that we can continue to work effectively across the organisation despite most of our offices being closed. I will never forget how quickly we brought together the senior leadership team and our Borough Emergency Control Centre on video link from multiple locations to set our strategy in response to the ‘stay at home’ advice after the Prime Minister’s announcement two weeks ago.
** Although we really need everyone to observe social distancing guidelines so we can continue to keep the parks open.
I’d be dishonest if I didn’t acknowledge that there have been moments where I’ve felt frustrated or uncertain about how I should respond to an issue. And some things which felt obvious to me have ended up needing more time and discussion that I’d have liked. But across the board I think we can all hold our heads up high and be enormously proud of how effectively Hackney has risen to the challenge.
I’ve also found the support and sharing with peers over the last few weeks incredibly valuable. It’s been brilliant to see how people have come together across public services to work together on this shared challenge. The time we’ve all spent building these relationships is paying back many times over.
Looking forward we will hopefully be turning our minds to the recovery phase some time soon. But there are lots of aspects of how we are working now that I hope we don’t change. There’s a pace and focus that I think will continue to be enormously valuable, even when the current crisis is behind us. But for now we need to make sure we are taking care of one another, supporting our community, and recognising the personal tragedies that Covid-19 is bringing to so many.
Meanwhile, back in Customer Services and ICT
I can’t do a better summary of how awesome the HackIT team’s response has been than the one posted by the Mayor on our blog. It’s been so impressive seeing how the hard work that’s gone in over previous years has helped the team to respond and the feedback from our users has been brilliant, despite the inevitable disruption caused by shifting several thousand people to home based working within a matter of days.
While it wasn’t quite how I’d expected to do it, the last few weeks have also given me the opportunity to get a closer look at the work of the other teams we’re joining up with in a few weeks time. Some of the highlights for me have been:
- The work that our Benefits & Housing Needs service have done to find safe housing for rough sleepers and people in shelters, and also their work together with colleagues in Adults’ Social Care to set up the accommodation needed to support the accelerated discharge from hospital that will be a vital part of the NHS’s ability to respond to Covid-19.
- Corporate Business Support’s continued delivery of their services, including handling post from residents who need the Council’s support.
- The amazing efforts of the customer contact teams, who have maintained high quality service delivery despite the disruption caused by relocating to home based working in next to no time.
- Our facilities team’s sterling efforts to keep the Council’s offices clean, safe and secure.
- The Registrar’s team are supporting bereaved families with sensitivity, despite not being able to offer their normal service because of the need for social distancing.
- The speed with which the Revenues teams have moved to make sure that urgent payments and support are issued to businesses and people who are being affected by the economic impact of Covid-19.
Every one of these services is a frontline service. Even if their work is less immediately visible to the layperson.
Something I’m learning
Where to begin…? Over three very intense weeks I have learned huge amounts about our organisation, the ways that the Council can help our community, leadership, and what we are capable of together when we are presented with a challenge.
But the most important thing I’ve learned is to remember that I can only be effective if I remember to take time to breathe. There have been several moments when I realised that I would not be doing my job well if I didn’t take a pause to step back, and I took a half-day off on Thursday and have booked a few more days off over the next fortnight. The adrenaline rush of getting stuff done and feeling part of something important has been energising and rewarding. But we are going to have to maintain this for some while yet and it’s essential that we all pace ourselves.