Weeknote w/c 29 June – 21 September: a summer note

Well, the equinox has passed and the autumn is with us. Where actually did the summer go? Partly because I’ve been distracted by all of the things (to quote @Cate) and partly due to trying to be a little kind on myself with what I attempt to cram into the time available, I’ve let my weeknotes slip. I’m going to start the autumn with a new effort to keep up to date.

What do I think has gone well?

Teams across our services and the Council as a whole have continued to work incredibly hard throughout the summer. Overall it’s been pretty relentless, and the Council’s support for residents and businesses continues to be as important now as it has been throughout the pandemic – with new needs that we’ve had to respond to at the same time as we sustain and iterate some of the services that we put in place during the early stages and continue to deliver our usual services to the greatest extent possible.

I’ve been pleased to see that people have been taking some breaks over the summer, despite frustrating disruptions to many travel plans. And I hope that everyone is making sure that they use their annual leave as it’s clear that COVID-19 will be with us for some time yet.

There have been so many incredible achievements that this would end up as a history essay rather than a ‘weeknote’ if I tried to list them all. A few examples to highlight are:

  • The great progress that the Registrars team has made working through the backlog of work that built up during the lockdown period. As well as the positive feedback from the General Register Office who regulate the service, the emails I’ve seen from customers passing on their thanks to the team have shown how thoughtfully the team has been responding to the impact of COVID on registrations and ceremonies.
  • The hard work that our customer services teams have done reopening face-to-face services in the Hackney Service Centre with ‘COVID-secure’ arrangements. The teams are also handling increased levels of contact online and by phone, and I’ve found it inspiring to listen to some of their calls and hear how sensitively they are supporting residents in need of help.
  • The preparation for reopening customer services from the HSC is just one of the areas where the facilities team are being instrumental to helping the Council keep working in the age of COVID. The amount of detail needed to prepare ‘COVID-secure’ space is substantial, from perspex screens to new cleaning regimes and one-way systems. I really liked that with all of that to do the team also added a big ‘welcome back’ message to the signs that greeted staff from the teams who have been prioritised for use of the office space that’s been made ready so far.
  • As well as their very impressive work paying a huge number of COVID-19 financial support grants to businesses in the borough, the Revenues team has also been working to make sure we collect the funds that the Council needs to deliver the services our borough relies on, with an emphasis on helping residents and businesses in financial difficulty find the support they need.
  • Our ‘I need help’ service has seen some really impressive developments over the summer. Early on the team worked carefully to bring our direct food delivery service to a close and help people access appropriate alternative support to meet their needs. And since then the team has developed new tools to help people find support, building on the brilliant work that’s been done on our Find Support Services map, and introduced new services including wellbeing calls, local contact tracing (in support of NHS Test & Trace) and got ready to launch the service providing financial support for people on in-work benefits who need to self-isolate in less than a week from the Government announcing the new policy.
  • Given the financial hardship that many residents are experiencing as a result of COVID-19, the Benefits & Housing Needs team are playing a vital role supporting residents who need the Council’s help. On top of continuing to achieve a high standard of service performance despite the disruption of COVID, the team has been doing really impressive work to support rough sleepers who came in from the streets during lockdown. This is being done through close working together with colleagues in health, social care and the voluntary sector, and a good number of people have now moved on to what we hope will be more stable and secure arrangements thanks to the team’s work.
  • As the Council’s office based teams are now required to do most of their work from home, it’s been really encouraging to see the work that the Business Support and Print teams are doing to help develop their services so that colleagues have less need to access print and post in the office. This is a really good example of how ‘support services’ can play a vital role in helping colleagues across the Council with their work.
  • And the HackIT team has continued to help deliver a huge range of support, projects and new services to help the Council’s response to COVID. The team’s weeknotes give a flavour of the awesome work that the team is doing, including delivering the DfE laptops for disadvantaged children in record time, helping to tackle digital exclusion and support digital skills, supporting our home based workers (more on that below), and delivering a whole host of other vital pieces of work. It was good to be able to recognise the team’s contribution with the mission patch that Cate, Henry, Matthew and I sent out a few weeks ago.
HackIT COVID-19 mission patch

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

Despite the many incredible achievements, it’s not all been plain sailing. Nationally, we’re all coming to terms with the fact that there will be some hard yards yet before we can start to get back to a more normal way of life. And while we assumed that it would be a long haul when we were doing the planning for the next steps in the Council’s COVID response back in May, the message from the Prime Minister last Tuesday that new stricter controls are likely to last for six months was a pretty stark reminder and tough to hear.

August was an especially difficult month, following a significant systems outage which affected our internally hosted systems which has taken many weeks of work to get close to a full recovery. Thankfully our strategy of moving to cloud based services delivered on a ‘web first’ model meant that key systems like email, telephony, our website, intranet and other modern services were unaffected, but there were still many essential systems impacted and some which still remain unstable and are not yet performing as they should. It couldn’t have happened at a worse time, affecting colleagues who’ve worked so hard to keep their services running throughout the pandemic and requiring a huge effort from the ICT team who have been working equally hard. I’m grateful for the calm and understanding response we had from colleagues across the Council’s services and also for the massive commitment that the ICT team has shown in responding to the incident. The root cause was outside of our control, but we’ve been doing some healthy and constructive reflection on the incident and will be making sure that the things we’ve learned get picked up as part of our future work priorities.

Personally, I’m also conscious that in juggling lots of things there are some important areas where I am blocking other colleagues from getting stuff done. There’s nothing new in this, prioritisation and responding to things that crop up is always a challenge, but I’m going to have to get better at picking out the things that really matter and making sure that day-to-day issues don’t get in the way of the focus that’s needed to get them done.

Our future workplace

A key area of work that I’m focusing on at the moment is putting the support in place to make sure that the Council provides a ‘COVID-secure’ workplace for our staff.

With the number of different services that the Council delivers, the work to manage COVID risks is significant. Many of our teams delivering resident facing services have been working across the borough throughout the pandemic and the health & safety team has been working hard to help those services apply the Government’s guidance to their working arrangements. This needs to be supported by assessing individual risk factors too, as in some cases people will need to take on different duties to minimise the risk of COVID-19.

We also need to make arrangements to set up ‘COVID-secure’ office space and provide equipment to help staff who will be working from home for an extended period of time. Completely reinventing our office spaces and arranging to make potentially 2,000+ deliveries of chairs, screens and computers is a profoundly non-trivial exercise. And while the direction that the national controls seem to be taking is pretty much in line with the assumptions we made in May, the mixed messages reported in the media have been pretty unhelpful and made it very challenging to manage expectations and reassure colleagues that we’re taking the right steps to keep them safe and make sure they can deliver their services effectively.

Over the summer we have: launched a well thought out risk assessment tool to help identify where colleagues might be at higher risk from COVID-19; made our first 600 deliveries of equipment to home-based workers, with the aim to complete that within the next 6-8 weeks; and made good progress preparing ‘COVID-secure’ workspace for colleagues who need to do some or all of their work in the office. I’ve enjoyed working with a great group of colleagues on this work from a whole host of different teams, many of whom I haven’t worked closely with before. It’s been a real team effort and I’ve been impressed by the determination and good humour that everyone has brought to this.

We’re going to continue to be really busy over the next few months getting these practical arrangements in place. But it’s going to be equally important that we are focusing on wellbeing and the other support that managers and staff will need. Colleagues in Comms and Organisation Development have already been working on this, and this is going to be a key area for focus over the coming months.

Something I’m learning

I’ve been continuing to make time to learn more about race and privilege. I’m currently reading Black and British, a history of the experiences of African and Carribean people in Britain, and in mid-July I joined a Civil Service session which brought together people from lots of different Government departments to think about the actions we need to take to address racism and inequality. I thought it was a really well designed session and listening to people’s personal experiences of prejudice was especially powerful and gave lots of food for thought.