Be kind

Cycling home while avoiding the rain (just about) I was feeling rather annoyed that my route was slowed by a dog strolling in the cycle path alongside its owner (who was cycling, slowly, on the footpath bit) and determinedly meandering to block my path. I swore under my breath.

10 minutes later a driver decided that they needed to shout, beep and rant at me to get into the cycle lane. Apparently, the cycle lane being blocked by a van who’d parked there wasn’t a good enough reason for me to drift into the Big Road.

I guess I got my comeuppance, and it was a good reminder about the value of a bit of perspective. The dog cost me about 20 seconds and the driver wasn’t delayed at all (because we were both stationary behind another van!).

I’ve been reflecting a bit on proportionality of late.

There’s some seriously Big Stuff going on. I struggle to listen to news from Ukraine without shedding a tear. And casework I read is often a stark reminder of the genuine and huge challenges that many people in one of the world’s richest countries are facing every day.

But I worry that too often small things end up turned into the End Of Days, with collateral damage to relationships and trust that have far more significant consequences and impact. It feels that this is getting amplified hugely as we all try to make sense of how very different the world feels now compared to a few years ago. I’m wondering how we can remember that a little bit of realism, perspective and looking for common ground will usually make things better for everyone.

My autumnal resolution: be kind.

Weeknote w/c 28 September: finding autumnal purpose

My plan to pick some specific, doable tasks at the weekend to deal with my ‘six months of pandemic’ slump was nearly derailed by uncooperative radiator fittings. But I channeled some HackIT thinking and went for ‘minimum viable central heating’, swapping out valves I didn’t trust with ones I could, so we were able to turn the rest of the heating on again (even though the room in question remains unheated). The result was much rejoicing and it seems to have helped set the week up for a positive frame of mind.

Minimum viable central heating

What do I think has gone well?

In the middle of the week we had a meeting of the Council’s Senior Managers’ Network. This covered a wide range of topics, from an update from Dr Sandra Husbands, our Director of Public Health, on the public health position and COVID-19 through to some really good updates from heads of service about how they’re supporting wellbeing in their teams. I also had the opportunity to deliver an update on the work we’re doing to set up ‘COVID-secure’ working arrangements for our offices and send out kit to support colleagues who are having to work from home.

Our local contact tracing service has now been up and running for a couple of weeks, and it was brilliant to hear this feedback from one of the senior colleagues in Public Health: ‘After one week I think the call team deserve much credit to have halved the failure rate of NHS T&T in Hackney. It is a good position to build from and I am personally very grateful to them.’ This is another example of the brilliant work that our customer services teams are doing helping Hackney tackle COVID-19. 👏

I enjoyed catching up with Matthew and the team from Stance to go through the findings from their review of our telephony strategy. It was good to see the thinking that’s gone into this and hear their ideas about how we can take forward our strategy of loosely coupled modern technology services to (hopefully) save money and help us improve services for our residents.

The Revenues teams are continuing to work really hard to make sure that the Council has the vital funding it needs to deliver our services. At the Senior Managers’ Network event Ian (my guv’nor) gave an update on the overall financial position which showed how important this work is.

And I also did a bit better this week at getting out and about for a some exercise. I managed three early morning 5k runs (if I don’t run first thing I don’t run at all) and on Friday I jumped on my bike to catch up with Henry for an early coffee and walk round Clapham Common. The snooze button on my alarm is very tempting (and I frequently succumb), but I find that the day works out much better if I get some fresh air before the fusillade of video meetings begins. (This is still a relatively new thing – I’ve only been running for 4 years and cycling for 1 – and I’m still quite surprised to find myself doing exercise at all!)

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

I’ve not done the most important of the things that are on my ‘things where I’m holding other people up’ list. I’m annoyed about that but in reality only have myself to blame. Focus. Focus. Focus.

Henry, Philippa and I caught up with Roo from Digi2al to walk through the retro follow up for our major systems outage in August. We’re trying to make sure that this is an honest and reflective exercise, and I think the retro process is helping identify some really useful things we can focus on as we move forward. I’m very pleased with how everyone involved has engaged with this, and while I wish we hadn’t had the problems we experienced through the summer I think we’re going to end up better as a result. (The team working on this have also made some really good progress improving system performance this week, which is testament to their continued hard work.)

I’ve had some good conversations with Cate and Henry this week about the amount of work that the HackIT teams are supporting. The shift from initial COVID crisis to ‘oh my goodness, it’s going to carry on for at least six months and probably more’ has been a bit blurry, but it’s definitely shown the importance of technology and data across the Council’s services. We’re thinking about how we can balance this demand with the team’s capacity and the need to be sensible about how many things we can be working on at one time.

I’m really proud of the work that the team sending out kit for people working from home is doing. It’s a huge task. In the first weeks of lockdown the team issued over 1,000 devices (including a huge number of reconditioned laptops) to help colleagues deliver their services, and not long after that they helped deliver 1,500 laptops provided by the Department for Education for disadvantaged children in Hackney so they can access online learning. But it’s now been six months since lockdown started and unsurprisingly many people are finding it increasingly hard to work effectively with temporary equipment and smaller screens. The team has already delivered equipment to nearly 700 colleagues to help them work from home more easily for a longer period of time, and we’re now starting to deliver kit to all of the remaining services and are hoping to complete that within the next 6-8 weeks. It was really nice to get this message from a manager I’d been speaking with earlier in the week:

‘Just an update, some of my staff are getting their equipment delivered this week, after completing a google form I was sent by a member of IT staff, it will literally be life-changing (not to sound too over dramatic), so please let your devices team know that we are extremely grateful and we can’t thank them enough.’

Something I’m learning

I still have lots to learn about the new services I’m working with as part of the new Customer Services & ICT division. Early in the week I joined Jennifer and colleagues from housing needs, social care, housing and health for a multi-disciplinary team meeting looking at how we work together to support people with complex needs. I was really impressed by how close to the detail of individuals’ situations the people involved were, and it was really good to see smart professionals working together to use their different skills and responsibilities to improve things for people who have huge challenges in their lives.

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.

Weeknote w/c 22 June: Yes, a weeknote!

My first actual weeknote since early March! I was determined to post it before this week finished and have resisted the temptation to wait until tomorrow and add a second week in too (because that’s the start of the road back to month-or-more-notes…).

What do I think has gone well?

The work to plan for a phased reopening of the Council’s offices and to offer additional support for people working at home has continued to develop well. Last week we pulled together some important threads from this so that we could present them to the senior management team / Gold group this week and ask for their sign off. This includes:

  • Our risk assessment tool designed to help identify staff who are at greater risk from Covid-19 and support them and their managers in taking steps to reduce the risk
  • Reviewing the feedback from the people who’ve been testing the new office layout in the Town Hall so we can move ahead with plans to open the space for colleagues with greatest need
  • Confirming what kit we will provide to people who need things like chairs and screens for home based working

These will provide a clear direction for the work we’ll be doing in July and will allow us to update colleagues across the Council so that they know what to expect.

I’m pleased to see how well livestreams are now being used to share updates and make our leadership more visible. On Wednesday we had the first post-Covid Senior Managers’ Network, which brought together senior managers from across the Council to update on our response to Covid and reflect on what will be needed from us all as we move ahead with the second phase. As part of this David shared an overview of the work that the Revenues teams have been doing during the crisis, explaining how important the team’s work is to helping residents and businesses manage the financial impacts of Covid.

I was also impressed that over 900 people joined to watch the livestream from the Mayor and Chief Exec on Thursday (a record number). For me a highlight of that was the Mayor pointing out that all of the Council’s teams have played a ‘frontline’ role during the Covid response. I often worry that people create a false distinction between ‘frontline’ and ‘back office’ teams, with the implication that ‘back office’ roles are somehow less important. It was good to see the Mayor explaining how important the response of every team has been to our ability to protect and support our residents through this incredibly challenging time.

It’s also really positive to see how our services are adapting to the gradual easing of the lockdown restrictions. This isn’t just a simple case of starting services up again. There’s a lot of work needed to understand how Covid has changed our residents’ needs, to plan for phased recovery and manage any backlogs of work that have developed during lockdown, and to design different ways for people to access services (including social distancing measures). One example of this is the Registrars service, who are now pushing ahead with a well thought out plan to restart their services which were paused when lockdown started. The visible evidence of this is the regular stream of families with young babies visiting the HSC to register their birth (the law still requires that birth registrations are made in-person).

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

As we move beyond the initial emergency response to Covid-19, some of the changes we need to make to return to ‘normal’ are especially challenging. Two examples which are high on the agenda are making sure that we are maximising our income collection (which is a key source of the funding needed to deliver the Council’s services) while also being sensitive to financial hardship, and the ‘move on’ support for rough sleepers who have been provided with emergency accommodation. Both of these are complex and involve working with partners across the Council and beyond, and will also be heavily influenced by national policy decisions. We’re fortunate to have great leaders like David and Jennifer who can guide the Council’s response to these challenges.

As I’m spending more time with the Customer Services teams (which includes the Revenues and Benefits & Housing Needs services) I’m learning more about how their work intersects with other areas of policy and delivery across the Council, where decisions and actions made in one area can have more complex implications for other services. This has many similarities with the work that the ICT teams do supporting change and transformation, and I’m conscious of how important it is to understand how difficult choices are managed with so that teams are able to work well together and make good progress. One of the key things I have on my mind is understanding how these linkages are currently working and looking for ways that we can make sure there is a clear, shared direction and common purpose across services.

Digital inclusion is also continuing to be an area for focus (see last week’s note). The team working to deliver the DfE technology scheme for disadvantaged children have made great progress and the arrangements have been made for the devices to arrive this week and then be delivered out to schools within a matter of days – this is a really brilliant example of team work that will be hugely valuable for a large group of children in the borough. There’s more that we need to do if we are to meet all the need, but this is a positive next step. And alongside this, Henry’s work to develop our social value ‘ask’ from connectivity providers (which has included extensive engagement with colleagues and residents) is also looking really good. I’m hopeful that we will soon be able to complete that stage of the connectivity work and then see rapid progress towards expanded connectivity across the borough, including widening access to people in greatest need.

Something I’m learning

I’ve been banging on about the importance of taking a break from work for quite a while now. I think it’s really important and while I’m pleased to see that quite a few people are arranging to take some time off I’ll keep on pushing this point.

But I’m also realising the importance of finding time for a break in work too. What I mean by this is clearing time to step away from successive video meetings, calls and emails to focus on the things that I need to get done. I used to schedule one day a week working from home for this, but that’s not the same now that home is also the office and I’m finding that I’m ending too many days without having made any headway due to back to back meetings and without feeling that I’ve got a clear grip on what’s come in during the day.

I’m going to be more strict about keeping time clear for the things I need to try to prioritise, and am also going to try to be clearer about what I put on my priority list.

‘Month and a bit note’ w/c 4 May – w/c 15 June: how time flies

Well, this is getting silly – seven weeks since my last ‘weeknote’. The distractions of busyness have resulted in a growing mountain of stuff that I feel I should include. The perfect recipe for a mental block that stands in the way of writing anything down. And so another week passes…

Anyway, here goes. These are a few highlights from the last couple of months.

What do I think has gone well?

There’s so much I could write about, with teams across Customer Services & ICT (and the wider Council as a whole) continuing to do amazing work. The weekly updates from our Chief Exec summarising achievements across the Council are genuinely awe inspiring, and despite the disruption caused by Covid-19 and lockdown we’re continuing to see great results across everyone’s work. As a few examples:

  • Benefits and financial support payments are being processed at record levels, helping people whose incomes have been impacted by lockdown 
  • Our support for people needing housing advice or in temporary accommodation and the emergency accommodation arrangements we’ve made for rough sleepers are playing a vital role in keeping people safe at this incredibly challenging time (I was also really impressed by the Benefits & Housing Needs service plan presentation which I joined a few weeks back – it was great to see the team celebrating their impressive achievements and looking ahead ambitiously)
  • Registrars have continued to receive lots of heart warming feedback thanking them for the support they’ve provided to people who’ve experienced bereavement
  • Our Revenues teams have also continued to play a vital role in supporting the local economy, paying out over £58 million in support grants (that figure is a couple of weeks old, so it will undoubtedly be even larger now)
  • The Customer Services teams have continued to do amazing work supporting tenants, leaseholders and other residents – including being an essential part of our support for vulnerable people helping them to access food (we’ve now delivered over 15,000 parcels of food), medicine, care services and befriending support
  • And across ICT, corporate business support and facilities our teams are continuing their impressive work helping the Council’s services to run smoothly and adapt the way they work in response to the impacts of Covid-19

I’ve been working closely with the teams who are making preparations for our future workforce and workplace arrangements based on the Government’s guidance for ‘Covid secure’ workplaces and the advice from Public Health England. This is beginning to pick up a good head of steam and last week we tested our vulnerability assessment process and proposed arrangements for office space with users from a range of services. I’m sure that arrangements like one-way systems won’t be universally popular, but the feedback from the colleagues I spoke with when I popped by was very positive overall. We’ll be reviewing the testing feedback this week and using that to make sure that the arrangements we put in place will work well. 

A few weeks ago I joined Tim (the Chief) for Hackney’s first all hands livestream. We had 740 people connect into the session and talked through how the Council has responded to Covid-19 and answered some of the questions that came in. It was nice to get positive feedback from several people afterwards, but it was a slightly odd experience talking to a screen without being able to see the people who were watching. (And the less we say about my inability to mute notifications when taking part in a livestream the better….! 😳)

We are now gradually starting to restore some of the services that we had to pause when lockdown came in. This is a process that needs careful planning and many of the arrangements we’ve put in place are going to have to continue as they are for a good while yet. One area we’ve been focusing on is Registrars, where the law still requires much of the team’s work to be done in-person and we need to take steps to address a growing backlog where we have had to pause important work such as birth registrations, weddings, civil partnerships and citizenship ceremonies. Aleya and the teams in facilities and property have been doing really good work to design a safe way to do this, which will also provide a useful reference point for other services moving forward.

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

A key area I’ve been focusing on recently is helping our ‘Gold’ management team and Cabinet pull together our plans for the second phase of our response to Covid. This reflects a shift from the initial emergency response to longer term actions, and we’ve been trying to design it in a way that continues the really effective cross-Council working that we’ve seen in the first phase. The ways that teams have come together during the initial response and delivered work at pace has been remarkable. Given the scale of the challenges ahead for the Council and the borough it’s important that we maintain that. 

In my last note I mentioned that I’m making sure that I take some of my annual leave, not waiting until Covid is ‘done’ before I take a break. I’ve found this really valuable and I’m still very keen to make sure that other colleagues are doing this too. We’re nearly three months into the leave year and given how hard everyone has been working I think it’s really important that we all find time to take a pause and recharge.

Following the incredible work at the start of lockdown to provide emergency accommodation for rough sleepers, the focus is now on how we can help them move on successfully to longer term arrangements. This is a rare opportunity to make a real impact on rough sleeping and the lives of very vulnerable people but is also very challenging in terms of finding the right sort of accommodation and wrap around support. Jennifer and team are working extremely hard to push this work forward and I’m trying to help make sure that this remains high on the agenda for our ‘second phase’ response plans.   

Another area of work that is even more important because of Covid-19 is digital inclusion. With so much of life having moved almost entirely online during lockdown, access to the internet and confidence with using digital tools have become essential for a wide range of vital needs including education, health, employment, access to services and food, and reducing the risk of isolation. This is complex and our response involves a number of teams across a range of work. This includes improving connectivity in the borough, developing our support for digital skills, engaging with community sector partners to support their work tackling the ‘digital divide’, and helping to deliver the Department for Education’s technology support scheme for disadvantaged children. The DfE scheme has been particularly challenging over the last couple of weeks as we want to get the equipment to children as quickly as possible but have had to resolve a number of complications in the way that the scheme has been designed before we can place the orders. The team has done great work to move this forward, including working collaboratively with other London boroughs via our friends in the London Office for Technology & Innovation, and hopefully we’ll see devices reaching children very soon. 

It’s also still early days for me in learning about the work of the new services that we’ve joined together with ICT. It’s been really useful to have some time with Aleya, Bez, David, Jennifer and Matthew to get closer to the work that their teams do, but I’m still very conscious of being a newbie and am trying to focus on listening so that I can make sure I’m getting up to speed quickly.

Something I’m learning

The dreadful killing of George Floyd in the US has brought issues of racial justice into stark focus. This has shone a light onto the history of slavery and racism, and how this still impacts on society today. I’ve been trying to learn more about the history behind this and reflect on what I can do to play my part in making society better and more equal.

I’ve found it deeply unsettling to see how embedded slavery has been in British society, how the law was used to assert that slaves were the property of their ‘owners’, and how slaves were treated as mere cargo, even when this led to truly barbaric acts. I strongly recommend watching David Olusoga’s two part documentary on Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners.

I think that the one positive was that there were people with the moral courage to call out the barbarity of these practices and who were able to campaign successfully to abolish slavery. What is clear though is that the work of progress is not done and while we rightly celebrate the abolition we also need to all continue to do our bit to bring about a fair and just society.

‘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.

Weeknote w/c 9 March – w/c 30 March: crikey…

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.

Weeknote w/c 2 March: an exciting development

Bringing Customer Services and HackIT together

On Friday we announced that the HackIT division and the Customer Services division (which includes Benefits & Housing Needs, Customer & Corporate Services, Registrars, and Revenues) will be coming together at the end of April when the current Director of Customer Services, Kay Brown, retires. Kay will be a tough act to follow and under her leadership her services have played a really important part in Hackney’s impressive journey of improvement.

I’m incredibly excited about the potential this offers. At Thursday’s strategy show & tell Matthew talked through the awesome work that we’ve been doing with the Benefits & Housing Needs teams (along with our partners FutureGov and Made Tech) to redesign the way that the Council helps people who are at risk of homelessness. This is a great example of how by working closely together we can make a real difference for our residents.

Matthew will be taking interim responsibility for the Customer & Corporate Services teams along with the Digital & Data teams. The opportunity presented by bringing together the teams whose work is closest to our residents along with the skills that we’ve been growing for using technology, data and digital design skills to meet users’ needs is enormous. I think these changes offer a real opportunity for us to set new standards for local public services and I’m really looking forward to seeing what our teams can achieve together.

Matthew and I are planning to use our strategy show & tell on 2 April to give an update on the preparations we’re making to ensure an effective transition. I’ve also set aside some times for a coffee & chat with anyone who’d like to talk through any questions. Those are:

  • Tues 10 March, 11am – 12pm (4th floor stand up area)
  • Mon 16 March, 9am – 10am (4th floor stand up area)
  • Thurs 26 March, 9am – 10am (4th floor stand up area)
  • Mon 30 March, 1pm – 2pm (4th floor stand up area)

Please pop along with any questions that you’d like to talk through!

Catching up with LOTI’s progress

On Wednesday morning I headed over to London Bridge to be part of the LOTI Advisory Panel. This is the senior group responsible for making sure that LOTI is meeting the boroughs’ aspirations, and includes our Mayor in his role as Digital Champion for London Councils.

We had a very useful discussion. Eddie started by reflecting on the progress that’s been made so far and what LOTI expects to have achieved by the time it reaches its first anniversary in July. Lots of this is ‘behind the scenes’ work, reflecting the deliberate decision to focus on work that will help us to #fixthepumbing. I’m pleased at the head of steam that LOTI is beginning to develop. Progress made already includes:

  • A dramatic increase in the number of digital apprenticeships across the member councils, supported by the excellent ‘How to HackIT’ guide on developing a digital apprenticeship programme that Cate has led on creating
  • A shared approach for information governance and responsible data sharing, which we hope will help us crack one of the biggest challenges for designing services across organisational boundaries
  • Laying foundations that could help us reshape the market for the technology and data products we need, including the City Tools platform and work on collaborative approaches to supplier management
  • Shared data projects designed to help improve services that Londoners rely on

It’s going to be exciting to be part of bringing those to fruition over the next few months!

Eddie (the Director of LOTI) also set the scene for LOTI’s focus as we look ahead to the second year. We talked through opportunities to build on the year one work and take on shared experiments for innovating in the way that services are delivered in a number of areas. There’ll be more work needed to firm up the plans, but it looks like it has the potential to be a great year! If you’re not already following the LOTI weeknotes I strongly recommend that you fix that without delay.

I also…

  • Had a really good catch up with Bertie (ICT manager for the Hackney Learning Trust) where we discussed ways that we could develop our thinking for supporting digital inclusion in Hackney, building on the existing services that we offer to schools in the borough. Bertie’s been talking with the Community Library Service (see weeknotes passim) and looking at ways we can work together to help housebound residents explore opportunities to get online.
  • Caught up with finance colleagues to scope the work we need to do to bring the budgets together as part of joining our team up with the Hackney Learning Trust ICT service.
  • Took part in the Hackney Management Team’s six-monthly GOLD group meeting, where we reflected on the Council’s response to major incidents over the last six months. There were lots of very positive examples of where Hackney’s long-standing commitment to effective emergency planning has helped our residents when incidents like fires and major floods have happened.  We also looked through the preparations for our response to the current COVID-19 concerns (which include very flexible facilities for business continuity as a result of the work we’ve done in the HackIT team to deliver workplace technology that can be accessed easily from any device, anywhere, any time).
  • Joined the very helpful walk through the financial year-end closedown arrangements that Jenny from finance tan, where she set out the key tasks that cost centre managers will need to carry out to make sure that our year-end accounts are accurate.
  • Met with Ian (my boss) and Stuart (from HR) to walk through the ways that the HR dashboards developed by our Data & Insight team can help senior managers make sure that they have a clear picture of people management across their services.
  • Was pleased to finish off Friday with a hint of spring emerging after what felt like a week of endless rain.

Something I’m learning

I’ve been giving a lot of thought to what I will need to learn and do differently as the changes I mentioned above come into place. I’m really excited about the opportunity to learn more about new areas of the Council’s work, and I’m thinking about the ways I will need to change how I work to make sure that I’m supporting the new wider service team effectively. I suspect that there will be lots to share in this section of my weeknote over the coming months.

Weeknote w/c 24 February: back from a break


The week before last was an opportunity to visit Berlin (catching up with friends who now live there). I was really impressed with the city. It has many complex histories, and as well as keeping a history geek like me well occupied I thought that the way much of that was marked was very impressive – neither sensationalist nor ducking the harder issues.

I’m definitely keen to visit again and have time to find out more. I’d thoroughly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t visited before.

Customer Services steering group

On Tuesday we met with Cabinet Members and senior managers from several services for our latest Customer Services steering group meeting. I’m pleased with how this is developing, with a clear focus on how we can design services to meet complex needs, not just delivering ‘channel shift’ (an area where Hackney has already made significant progress).

We’ve agreed to focus on a few specific challenges and Matthew and Zoe provided an update on the discovery work that’s happened so far. If you haven’t done so already, I strongly recommend reading the weeknotes from the Complex Customer Journeys work to find out more about the team’s progress:

I also…

  • Met up with colleagues from a council in Northern Ireland who visited HackIT Towers for a chat about the work we’re doing and to share experiences. It was great to hear that they’d found our blog useful reading and we had lots in common in terms of our aspirations for ways that technology and data can improve services for citizens.
  • Had a really good walk through the progress so far with OneCase (the new system for managing Complaints, Freedom of Information requests, Member Enquiries and Subject Access Requests which will be rolling out soon) which was delivered by Emma. While we’re having to work within the constraints of the ‘off the shelf’ system that we’ll be using, I was really encouraged to see how carefully the team is thinking about the user experience and also the collaborative work that’s taking place to make sure that the roll out goes well.
  • Spent some time with finance colleagues looking at how we can develop our approach for building the capacity we need to meet services’ demands while also making sure that we’re continuing to build a sustainable team (including not becoming too reliant on agency staffing) and managing financial risk. We’ll be following that up once Cate’s back to make sure we have a model in place that can be used consistently across our service.
  • Had a useful conversation with a colleague at another council to talk through the opportunity to help them with a peer review they’re planning. I think that this offers as much of an opportunity to learn from others as it is to share from our own experience in Hackney. 
  • Joined colleagues from Children’s & Families Services as part of the work they’re doing to develop their strategic focus for the year ahead.

Something I’m learning

I *must* remember to book a clear day after I return from leave to give myself time to get back up to speed with things. I failed to do that this time and I’m wishing I had… 😣

Weeknote w/c 10 February: sharing our digital thinking with councillors and (separately!) discovering that there is a way to get a free lunch

A short note written during a pause from packing bags ahead of a few days away.

Sharing our digital thinking with councillors

On Friday the Mayor and I co-delivered a talk and Q&A about Hackney’s digital journey at a ‘digital masterclass’ event for councillors from across the country, organised by the Local Government Association. It was the second time we’ve done this and I found it interesting to talk about digital from the perspective of both an elected Mayor and a Council officer.

Some of the key things we talked about included:

  • ‘Digital’ is an important lever of change, not just e-forms. We shared how projects like Spacebank and our work on connectivity are using public assets to help our communities. And we also talked about how technology and data are helping support people at risk of homelessness.
  • Growing digital skills is about changing the market, not just competing. The councillors at the event were really interested in our digital apprenticeship programme and we encouraged them to be bold in their approach to this (and also shared Cate’s excellent ‘How to HackIT’ guide).
  • Why not having a separate ‘digital strategy’ is important, so that technology and data are recognised as being core components of service strategies, not sidelined as a ‘techie’ thing.
  • The importance of focusing on end-to-end services, making sure that our measures, policies and processes don’t create unhelpful barriers, friction and unintended problems for our users.
  • How designing governance to enable delivery at pace means that we need to challenge many of our existing habits. As part of this I noted how much more useful I find project weeknotes and show & tells than traditional highlight reports and project boards.
  • And we also reflected on how important it is to take a long-term view, recognising that the work we’re doing now is only made possible by the hard work that was put in over previous years to get the basics of our service model and infrastructure right.

I also…

  • Joined the NHS London digital transformation portfolio board for the first time. There were quite a few faces I recognised on the group and I continue to be impressed at the hard work that’s taking place across our region to join up health and care data. I suggested that we might want to consider whether we’re making sufficient space in the agenda for looking at ways we might understand end-users’ needs and explore new ideas (I think there is lots of opportunity to build on the work that’s already taking place to #fixtheplumbing and am keen to see how the approaches we’re taking in HackIT might help with this).
  • Had a couple of useful DMT sessions looking at some of the OKRs we’re focusing on, including getting an update from Henry on the engagement that he’s leading with the finance systems and HLT ICT teams as part of the work we’re doing to integrate our teams.
  • Had a quick catch up with Jenny from Finance to check in on our budget forecast for the year. This is much improved from ten months ago and reflects the hard work that’s taken place across our team to make sure that we’re managing our money well.
  • Had my regular 221 meeting with the Mayor and Ian (my boss). I talked through the work we’re doing to design MOKRs to organise our work, gave some updates on the progress across the work we’re delivering and also a summary of on our service performance and user satisfaction feedback. It was also good to have Susan join us as part of some shadowing we’ve arranged.
  • Had my last swimming lesson. I’ve found this really useful and might do a further series later in the year. I’m also wondering whether I can be inspired by Cate’s example and do some early morning swims at London Fields Lido…

Something I’m learning

This weekend I was amused by this small example of data security that hasn’t been thought through very well. This large retailer appears to code the price of their ‘sold by weight’ food into the barcode for each pack, in plain text. I didn’t take advantage of it, but simply choosing the ‘key in code’ option at the self-service tills and then changing characters 9 to 12 in the barcode lets you name your own price!

I thought it was a useful reminder of how an approach that might initially appear to be an easy way to get something done can leave a business exposed to risk.

Name your price!

(I’m taking a break this week, so my next weeknote will arrive in w/c 2 March)