‘Weeknote’ w/c 6 April – w/c 27 April: settling in for the long haul

I’m experimenting with a tweak to my weeknote format. And this time I’m wrapping four weeks up into one note, despite actually starting to write this one three weeks ago! #musttryharder

April has ended up being almost entirely dominated by work on the Council’s response to Covid-19. The pace has changed quite a bit though, and it now feels like we’re focusing on a longer term planning horizon (weeks and months, not hours and days) and the rhythm of work is a bit less frenetic. That doesn’t mean it feels less intense or challenging, but it does mean that I’ve felt like there’s been a little more space to think and work across teams to find answers to challenges.

New responsibilities

At the beginning of March I wrote about the exciting news that we are bringing the HackIT and Customer Services divisions together. Time has definitely flown since then, and last week we said (an online) farewell to Kay Brown as she began her retirement. It was lovely to see how Kay’s teams didn’t let lockdown stand in the way of making sure that she knows how much she’ll be missed. I loved seeing the videos and online messages for Kay that Carol and Tania brought together from across the teams.

I told Kay how impressed I’ve been by the way the services she’s led have responded to the disruption caused by Covid-19. As I mentioned in my last weeknote, their achievements are making a real difference for Hackney’s residents and businesses.

Our joint division is now responsible for:

  • Benefits & housing needs
  • Corporate Business Support
  • Council Tax & Business Rates
  • Customer contact and service centres
  • Facilities
  • Registrars
  • Technology and data (including ICT support for schools)

This covers some really important areas of the Council’s work, and I’m excited about what we will be able to do together.

I’m disappointed that I’ve not made anything like as much time as I had hoped to work with Bez, David, Jennifer and Matthew and start to learn more about their services. But I will be making sure that I use May to get back onto that. My immediate priorities are to set up the arrangements for our new joint management team and learn more about the plans and priorities that each of the services is working to deliver. Inevitably this will include considering how Covid-19 has impacted on those plans and thinking about things we will need to do differently as a result.

What do I think went well this month?

So much. Too much to include in one note.

Here are just a few examples of the many things that have impressed me from across our teams’ work.

Despite the enormous challenge of creating a new service from scratch, handling a complex and rapidly changing set of data, and the difficulty of securing sufficient food, the team who are coordinating the Council’s support for vulnerable people (working closely with a group of colleagues from across the Council) has made sure that everyone who’s told us they are at risk and unable to leave their home is receiving food and the other support they need. The team is still working hard to scale up and make sure that the service is sustainable for the longer term, so the job can’t be considered done. But the collaborative effort and commitment continues to be amazing.

Our teams are playing a vital role in many other ways too. Customers who have been affected by the impact of the Coronavirus emergency rely on our teams when they need help and advice, to book an urgent repair, or need help with financial support (we’ve paid out millions of £s in emergency relief already). The way that we are continuing to do this to a very high standard despite the huge changes in the way we all work is incredibly impressive. I’m enjoying seeing the updates across teams sharing their news and keeping in touch with one another.

The work to support people at risk of homelessness is more important now than ever, and as well as arranging emergency accommodation our teams have been working with colleagues to make sure that other needs such as food, health care and support are in hand.

And I was struck by the kind words that our Registrars team have received thanking them for the sensitive support they’ve given to bereaved families – despite not being able to sit with them face to face.

‘Behind the scenes’ our teams are playing a critical part in making sure that the Council keeps working well. I took time to read through the comments that were given in response to the recent ‘Pulse’ survey and these highlighted colleagues’ appreciation for the work that teams in Business Support, ICT and Facilities are doing and the way that they have responded to the demands of the current disruption. One example of this is the rapid introduction of virtual committee meetings so that the important work of democratic accountability can continue in spite of lockdown.

It’s impossible to cover everything here, but I’d like to say a huge thank you to everyone for their hard work and commitment to Hackney.

What am I worried about, and what am I going to do about it?

One of the things at the top of my mind at the moment is sustainability. It’s increasingly clear that the impact of Covid-19 will not just be a matter of a few weeks, with things settling back to ‘normal’ shortly afterwards. The impacts on society, public services, the world’s economy, and people’s physical and mental health are going to be far reaching, and I’m not at all envious of the people who will be responsible for deciding when and how we should step down from the current ‘lock down’ restrictions. We are all going to have to make sure that we don’t wear ourselves out, take care to maintain our own personal resilience, and look after each others’ wellbeing.

Taking a break is an incredibly important part of this, especially now so many of us are working from home and not physically leaving work behind at the end of the day. I have taken a few days of annual leave over the last month and spent those playing Lego with my children, pottering around the house, and taking a few nice walks and cycle rides through some of our local open spaces (keeping a safe distance away from others while we did that). I have found this really restorative and made a conscious decision not to feel bad about the email that was accumulating while I’m offline. Taking a pause has really helped me to feel calm and more able to focus when I get back to work the following day.

Over the coming weeks I would strongly encourage everyone in our teams to make sure that they make time for a break and take the opportunity to recharge their batteries. Undoubtedly there will be urgent work that it is hard to step away from. But doing that in a managed way will be far better than finding that it all falls over as a result of exhaustion.

Something I’m learning

Some years ago a colleague pointed out to me that one of the joys of working in public service is that we aren’t in competition with one another. This means that we have a natural incentive to collaborate and learn from one another’s work, because we all serve residents who have very similar needs. For a long time I’ve thought that the greatest benefits are to be found in collaboration across councils, not large shared services.

But even if we’re not in competition with one another financially, there can still sometimes be a competition for the kudos of being seen to be ‘best’. I think that this can be an unhelpful distraction and that is why I’ve always wanted to make sure that as well as the HackIT team working in the open and celebrating our successes, we are also open about the challenges we are trying to solve and looking for opportunities where we can learn from our peers.

During the Covid-19 response I’ve been really pleased to see some great examples of how that mindset is helping us deliver at pace. This has included:

I think that these are great examples of how the ‘Open Up’ principle in our ‘HackIT manifesto’ can deliver benefits for Hackney’s residents and businesses.