Let’s talk about tech – getting IT and digital out of the basement

It’s hard to think of an area of life where technology and data haven’t been part of huge changes over the last 10 – 30 years. Well rehearsed examples of that include travel, shopping and banking, where ease of access to doing transactions online is just part of a fundamental change to business models and user experience that is reshaping the way that economies and societies work. Seemingly indomitable companies have vanished and new upstarts have risen up to take their place.

I find it concerning that in many organisations (in both public and private sectors) it is still too common to find technology and data discussed as if they are separate to ‘real work’, with IT teams * hidden well away from their colleagues and seen as ‘back office’ functions. It’s vital that our profession makes a shift from out of date customer / supplier type relationships towards working in real partnership.

That’s what we are working to do in the HackIT team. Our goal is to work closely with our colleagues in other services as equal partners, working together to deliver better outcomes for our borough’s residents and businesses.

Our ‘HackIT manifesto’ (http://hackit.org.uk/how-we-work/how-to-hackit) was created by the team and sets out the ways that we are doing this, with eleven principles that underpin our ways of working. It’s now a couple of years since we created that and lots of great new people have joined our team, so now’s a good time for us to refresh it and make sure that it is still working as a useful guide for the way we work.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking through some of the ways that our interactions can impact on our relationships with our colleagues, and am keen to make sure that our updated ‘manifesto’ reflects some of that.

The language we use must make it clear that we are an integral part of achieving our organisation’s core mission

We need to be consistent in talking in a way that demonstrates that we have something valuable to contribute. Using terms like ‘the business’ or ‘customers’ when we’re referring to colleagues in other services is unhelpful, because it can suggest that we’re simply service providers who don’t have a role to play in helping to shape policies and decisions.

And we must guard against only focusing on our operational work and processes when we explain what we do, because these are simply means to an end not the end itself.

We also need to make sure that we explain concepts (whether that’s technical stuff or describing the way we deliver our work) in layperson’s terms so that colleagues can understand why these matter to their services and users. There’s a risk that people might assume that our work is ‘too techie’ for non-IT folk to understand and it’s up to us to show that isn’t the case.

We need to listen, learn and work together and share one another’s successes

Genuine transformation happens when we learn from our users to understand their needs, and when we combine other teams’ experience and knowledge with expertise in technology and data. No one individual will have the answer, but by working well together in effective multi-disciplinary teams we’re much more likely to be able to take big steps forward.

It’s also essential that the job titles on our name badges don’t distract us from the shared responsibility to deliver results. Whether it’s making a project happen, responding to an operational issue, managing our money and assets well or understanding what we need to do to protect the privacy and security of people’s data, if something is important it is all of our responsibility.

This is also true for the colleagues we are working with. Services don’t outsource their technology and transformation to us and we need to help them understand what we need from them to help deliver successful outcomes and we also need to support them in doing that. That includes taking the time to provide training and advice on roles like being a Product Owner as well as working with colleagues to help them fit in with the rhythm of delivery. But it also means having the confidence to highlight where engagement needs to improve so that we are genuinely delivering together, not just observing other people’s work.

And when we complete a piece of work it’s essential that we take the opportunity to reinforce the trust we want to build across teams by always being generous in the way that we celebrate the success. We mustn’t underestimate the impact of reminding people of the value their contribution as part of a team has made.

We need to be open to new possibilities

It is important that we respect the experience of the past but we also need to make sure that ‘we’ve always done it that way’ or ‘we tried X before and it didn’t work’ doesn’t become an excuse for failing to make the most of new opportunities. It’s surprising how often the impossible can become possible if we let it (especially if we can work together to think around the problems that might stand in the way), and letting ourselves consider flights of fancy from the opportunity presents itself can help make sure that we don’t unnecessarily self-limit ourselves.

But we also need to avoid tech fetishism

Cylindrical voice assistant A or B may well be very clever, but they aren’t silver bullets that will magically solve the challenges facing public services. Trying out new technologies and exploring how they might help our users is something that we should always make time for, but it’s equally important that ‘being innovative’ doesn’t become an end in itself. If we can’t explain why a new technology might be genuinely beneficial for users we probably shouldn’t be spending precious time playing with it. ‘Minimum Viable Product’ type approaches can be a really helpful way to test out new ideas while also minimising the risk of expensive mistakes.

Focus is very important

I find this one of the hardest things to do, and it’s always a struggle to avoid flitting from one thing to the next without seeing through the task in hand. I’m finding it really encouraging to see how using Agile delivery approaches can help to sharpen our focus and accelerate our pace.

Working in the open (eg sharing weeknotes with the team *and* making the time to read them! **) also helps avoid wasted effort as it makes it easy to keep up with the progress and decisions other colleagues are making, with much less faff than traditional project boards etc. It’s essential that we remember that these can help across all areas of our work, not just ‘digital’ projects.

And finally, a bit of pragmatism can be helpful too

As Matthew noted in his post about holding a great show and tell (https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/holding-a-great-show-and-tell), there will be times where it makes sense to adapt our approach so that we are working in a way that makes sense for our users. So, whether that means changing the terminology we use, flexing our expectations of roles in a team so that colleagues are able to contribute effectively or looking for other ways that we can bring out the best from people and circumstances, it’s all good.

What really matters is that we are delivering for our users.

—–

* I think that the distinction of ‘IT’ and ‘digital’ is artificial – but that’s a different blog post! https://bytherye.com/2017/10/07/a-digital-detente/

** I’m pretty unsympathetic if anyone says that it’s hard to make time to skim the weeknotes from across our team – they’re an easier read than traditional highlight reports and take significantly less time than a project board.

The future is here (it just doesn’t last the whole day yet)

It’s almost four years since I blogged about my initial experience of using my first Apple Watch (https://bytherye.com/2015/05/10/apple-watch-a-few-thoughts-after-my-first-week/).

At the time I could see that it had lots of potential, but ‘unless you’re a bit of a geek I’d probably recommend waiting a bit before leaping in.

Roll forward to today and I’ve just experimented with leaving my phone and iPad at home and using the Watch (now a Series 4 with mobile data, coupled with Bluetooth headphones for listening to audio) as my only connected device for the whole day. I decided to do this because I was taking part in a run this evening and wanted to minimise what I carried with me, but it also seemed like a good opportunity to see how far things have come since 2015.

It went pretty well. But I have spent a day with major battery anxiety!

The good stuff was that I could do loads of stuff without needing my phone, including:

  • Making and receiving phone calls, text messages, other instant messages (including Hangouts and WhatsApp) and emails
  • Listening to podcasts and music
  • Paying for food and my train fare
  • Checking my diary and travel times
  • Tracking my running time and counting down the kilometres until the finish line

It wasn’t as easy to use for the written communication as my phone is (and I got a sore arm if I wrote for too long!), but for keeping in touch and short messages it worked really well. The scribble feature that lets you doodle what you want to write is a major improvement from the initial ways to compose messages.

And for some of the things I needed to do (eg paying, listening to stuff and tracking activity) I find the Watch vastly superior to the phone because I can now carry one less thing.

The newer Watches are also much, much faster than the original one. So my reservations about that are happily a thing of the past.

The big draw back was battery life. Normally I comfortably get a couple of days between charges, but I hadn’t properly accounted for how much more quickly it would drain if I was on 4G all day rather than tethered to my phone. I started with a full charge and was in the mid-80% range by the time I started my first meeting. And I found that I needed to do some quite aggressive power management to last the day (including switching off data when I didn’t need it, using theatre mode to stop the screen waking up when I lifted my wrist and turning it off altogether for a couple of hours when I had a laptop to hand). It kept going until seconds after I’d made my last tap out at the station this evening * and then gave up the ghost. A close run thing!

Overall, I think I’m happy to revise my original view and strongly recommend the Watch, even if you’re not as much of a gadget enthusiast as I am. ** But I don’t think it’s wise to give up the smartphone just yet, unless you’re fairly comfortable going off grid and / or are happy to carry a charger for top ups when needed. That’ll change though and I reckon that it seems increasingly likely that we’ll find ourselves using smartphones a bit less frequently and wearable computing more often in the years ahead. Food for thought…

* This is important because Transport for London don’t automatically match the card number used for Apple Pay on a phone or Watch with the number of the physical debit card that I had with me as a contingency (the card numbers are different even though they link to the same account). So if I had had to tap out with the debit card instead of the Watch I’d have been charged much more than the correct fare for my journey.

** And yes, there are other brands of wearable. I’ve not tried those but I spot more and more people sporting them so I’m confident that there’s something for most tastes now.

Personal reflections on how I prefer to work

I’ve seen a number of people posting ‘This is how I work…’ blog posts recently and in a recent conversation someone mentioned that it was helpful to understand how colleagues prefer to consume information and get their work done. That’s made me wonder whether it might be something that would be useful for us to do across the HackIT team to help us understand one another’s working preferences, especially as we are still a relatively new team in our current form.

This is my attempt at that, reflecting on the way I work and trying to see whether I can draw out some themes.

Where and when I do my work

One of the aspects of Hackney that I really appreciate is the Council’s progressive approach to work / life balance. We’re still expected to work hard and help the Council deliver its priorities for our residents, but it does mean that the organisation is supportive of people’s different needs and has policies that back that up.

In practice for me this means that I usually start early and leave at a reasonable time (usually c 5.30pm) which fits well with my family life. I can also organise the start and end of my day to do my share of school drops / pickups without feeling awkward about that. Having easy access to my work stuff from anywhere, any device, any time also really helps me as I can finish things off while I’m travelling, making it easier to switch off when I get home.

Early in my career I would often find that I ended up getting work done over the weekends and in the evening, but I’m much more careful about that now. Apart from emergencies / on call duty I try to make sure that I switch off when I get home and be part of normal family life. There are still times when I will pick something up at odd hours such as late in the evening or very early in the morning if that helps me get it off my list of things to do. It’s important, however, that I’m clear that me having sent an email late at night does not mean that I expect a reply until the normal working day. Convenience for me mustn’t become an obligation on others.

Being available, but also finding time for me

I think that an important part of my role is to make myself accessible to colleagues who want to check out some thinking with me or ask for a quick decision so that they can press on with their work. *

The downside of this is that it has the effect of making my normal daily routine very ‘bitty’ as I switch between meetings and conversations to check in with colleagues. I also find that I have to work quite hard to focus on doing just one thing, which can leave me feeling that I’ve made frustratingly little progress on the things I want to prioritise.

To help with this I work from home once a week, which gives me more time to try to focus on substantive things that I need to do. I’m quite protective of this and try to make sure that the ease of connecting over video meetings etc doesn’t mean that my working from home day ends up becoming just another day in the office.

* I much prefer it when these actually are quick check ins / decisions though. I need to get better at asking colleagues who want to talk through more complex things to find a time when we can discuss those properly. I’m learning that using Show & Tells and working in the open through regular weeknotes can help with this too.

How I like to get work done

I enjoy having to think through issues and find ways forward, and I’m happy getting into details of policy, data and technology as part of that. But I also always try to make sure that I’m keeping myself clear about the bigger picture context too. I’m learning to be quicker at spotting when a conversation is at risk of getting lost in the weeds of detail and bring things back on track.

It’s obviously important to make sure that there are clear objectives set out in advance for meetings so that time is used productively, and this is something that we’ve been working on getting better at as a team this year. But I also think it’s important to make sure that meetings are inclusive and to make space for people to express their views and to explore thoughts that might not have been obvious initially. This can be a bit of a balancing act and it’s something that I don’t always get right, but I don’t want to be too dogmatic about agendas at the expense of creativity and encouraging team participation.

To help keep things focused I like to have topics for discussion set out clearly (especially recommendations for decisions and financial data). I find it frustrating when issues are presented without being clearly thought through first or where recommendations aren’t clear. I firmly believe in the importance of everyone taking time to do this ahead of meetings so that we are using our time together well, not wasting it doing work that should be done in advance.

Finally, I don’t like having to broker issues between people when they could easily (and more quickly) have figured it out together themselves. I’m always happy to make time to talk through issues and to help make choices when it’s not been possible to find a clear decision between different options. But my proviso for this is that people have to have at least tried to sort it together first. It’s amazing how often ‘tricky’ issues can be resolved without needing escalation if people put their minds to it. The guiding principle here is that in our team ‘we only win when we all win together’. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to like a decision, but it must be the one which best fits with Hackney’s values and priorities and the principles that we’ve agreed to work to in our team.

Thinking about how we communicate

I’m finding that the approach we agreed earlier this year for communication in our divisional management team is working well for me. That’s based on:

  • Instant messages (usually Hangouts) for things that are urgent or for quick check-ins / decisions.
  • Sharing less urgent stuff which might be of interest through an online space like a Google+ community or Slack where they can be read though at people’s convenience and follow up can take place as a threaded discussion, not messy ‘reply all’ emails.
  • Keeping email for things which require a less time critical response or where things are being more ‘officially’ handed over between people (don’t ask me to define that too tightly though!).
  • Working on shared documents, rather than passing suggestions and edits back and forth is also a huge win in terms of productivity and mental effort.

I prefer a face to face chat where there’s a more complicated matter to work through (ideally with a simple written summary setting out the discussion points shared in advance where possible). I much prefer a focused 30 minute conversation to a succession of emails.

The stuff I prefer to work with

I use a range of different tools to get my work done and after at least seven years of trying I’ve concluded that looking for the one device to rule them all is a fool’s errand. I also realise that the technology people prefer to use is often a very personal thing, so my list isn’t going to work for everyone.

We hot desk in our office and I find that works very well for me. I was originally allocated a dedicated office, but I actually prefer being closer to the team and think that setting the space up for workshops etc is a much better use of the room. So that’s what we’ve done.

  • I spend lots of my time in meetings and I find that an iPad is the ideal device for most of my work. I prefer the smaller size for its lightness and portability (I have tried the larger format iPad Pro but it was too big for me).
  • I really like using the Apple Pencil together with an app called Paper to sketch out my thoughts (the Pencil is so much better than the many styli I’ve tried previously). I find that people treat ideas that I set out in sketches as ‘thinking aloud’ which can help to facilitate better quality conversations. My observation is that if ideas are written up too neatly in a document or slides it can lead others to assume it’s a done deal, with the result that conversations end up being less creative.
  • When I’m working at a desk in the office I find that a Chromebox is perfect and I try to stick to web based applications wherever possible. The Chromeboxes work really well and are incredibly quick to start up and shut down, which means that even five or ten minute gaps between meetings can be used effectively.
  • At home I use my own MacBook, usually on a stand with a separate keyboard and mouse to try to help improve my posture when seated. I love working on my Mac, but again that’s a personal preference and I know that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
  • And I use my (personal) iPhone for lots of my work while I’m out and about. Now that we have easy access to documents etc using smartphone apps I can get a remarkable amount of my work done on the phone, which I find incredibly useful.

I feel quite militant about using modern software that lets me work together with colleagues on shared information, not flinging documents back and forth between one another. That can be a shared document, spreadsheet, Trello board, chat in Slack, a shared task list in Todoist (my favourite by far of the many task list apps I’ve tried) etc, but the important thing is that we work together on something that’s ‘ours’.

Delivering digital change for the long term with apprenticeships

We’ve been thinking hard about how we can best make sure that we have the skills that we need to help Hackney continue to improve the services we provide for our residents and businesses.

Having an in-house ICT and digital team means that we can be lower cost, more agile and service focused, and can avoid wasting time on contract change controls when we need to respond to the changing environment we work in. But to make this work well it’s critical that we invest in our people’s skills and learning, and that we plan for the longer term. We are also acutely aware of the importance of encouraging more diversity in the technology sector and see ourselves as having an important role to play in that.

Part of this is putting in place well thought out training opportunities for our teams, including having our people work alongside the expert agencies who are helping us deliver a wide range of exciting projects so that we can learn from them. Getting our training approach right is a priority for us and something we have committed to as part of the restructure that we completed recently.

Another key component of our workforce strategy is using apprenticeships to bring in our next generation of skilled people. We also think this will help us to keep our thinking fresh across the whole service by bringing in new ideas and understanding.

Hackney have had a long standing commitment to offering apprentice and trainee opportunities and we are building on this by taking advantage of the opportunity presented by the apprenticeship levy. We’ve now created 18 new ICT and digital apprenticeships (based on level 3 and level 4 accredited apprenticeship qualifications) across a range of roles covering:

  • Applications management
  • Data analysis
  • Development and integration
  • Digital service design
  • ICT infrastructure engineering
  • ICT support

This represents more than 10% of the posts in our team and we think that this will be a really big step forward for us. We start the recruitment to these roles on Monday 18 June and we expect to have our apprentices joining our team after the summer holidays.

Doing this in Hackney is particularly exciting. The borough’s schools have had an amazing transformation and now count among the best in the country. This gives us a great pool of local talent and skill to draw on and we hope that having the opportunity to contribute to improvements in their local borough will be something that makes our roles an attractive proposition for local young people.

Hackney also has a thriving tech sector with world leading business (large and small) based in the borough. On Monday 11 June we invited local employers to meet with us and discuss their ideas for ways that we can make our apprenticeships a success. Lots of really good suggestions were put forward, including:

  • Making sure that apprentices are given specific projects to deliver so that they can build their own personal portfolios of experience
  • Supporting our managers with the skills they will need to manage people who are at an early stage of their careers and have limited experience of the workplace
  • And also a willingness to work together in future to share ideas and look for further opportunities for us to work together

We’re really looking forward to getting our digital apprenticeship programme started and working to deliver great results for the apprentices and for Hackney as a whole.

Smart London Camp 2018

Yesterday I joined a large group of people whose idea of the best way to spend a beautiful sunny Saturday was to gather together in London’s City Hall and discuss ideas for ways that London can get the most out of the opportunities that ‘smart city’ developments offer.

I found it a really interesting and useful day, hats off to @LDN_CDO Theo Blackwell for gathering together a really impressive group of people and a huge thank you to everyone involved with organising the day (especially those who’d come in from places as far away as Devon to help make sure that the day ran smoothly). I really enjoyed catching up with colleagues and contacts I’d met through the Twitter-sphere but hadn’t met before in person, and I also got to meet lots of new people who have a shared passion for civic technology.

As with Local Gov Camp last autumn, I found myself struggling to decide which sessions I wanted to prioritise attending because there were too many interesting topics pitched by attendees… (the full session list is online here: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1nL9xrbkclyVlSyMRcRC4bUv0EQUcOEmVv0h3z4NO1x4).

In the end I picked sessions covering:

  • Data gathering from internet of things technologies in public spaces
  • Use of smart technology to improve our environment in London
  • Ways that we can understand the value of our data
  • Ideas for building data literacy and an informed data culture
  • How we might create a culture that celebrates failure as a necessary part of innovation

Here are a few notes of things that I thought were particularly interesting from the sessions. (With apologies to the pitchers / conveners of the sessions where I didn’t note down their names!)

Data gathering in public spaces

My first session was a discussion was pitched by @rossatkin and was an opportunity to reflect on the use of ‘smart’ infrastructure in public spaces and the risks of potentially alarming levels of surveillance without public awareness and control. Some of the people taking part in the conversation worked for companies (large and small) who are developing technologies in this field and that made for a healthy and interesting discussion.

My key takeaway from this was that we risk a pendulum effect, swinging from doe-eyed tech enthusiasm with no checks and balances, over to ‘ultra’ levels of anxiety about what might be possible, potentially inventing concerns that don’t actually exist. Recent news has highlighted a number of examples of where not understanding data gathering and sharing can result in concerning consequences, and I think it’s really important that we have a measured discussion about data ethics and the limits and controls placed on data gathering (which inevitably links to how we approach GDPR). I think that a key area is understanding the powers that local, regional and national government actually have to influence this and also people’s awareness of what they are trading in return for access to otherwise useful services. (Jaron Lanier’s book ‘Who Owns the Future’ is a good read if you’re interested in this: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/feb/27/who-owns-future-lanier-review).

Using smart technology to improve our environment

This session covered a wide range of topics including the cleanliness of public spaces, air quality and recycling. Some of the points we talked through are fairly widely covered already, but there were interesting points raised about how regulation can be used to encourage positive behaviours and outcomes, how smart use of data might encourage people to recycle more (eg gamification type approaches) and other cultural ‘nudges’.

My conclusion at the end was that there is quite a lot that we could learn from how retailers are exploring smart technology for marketing. And I think we should be thinking about how we can use existing global scale platforms to do this, not creating niche public sector versions of Facebook etc.

While there are obvious and important concerns about privacy and the appropriate use of data which will need to be taken into account, it strikes me that there could be important opportunities to encourage people and communities to live in more environmentally sustainable ways which I’m interested to explore further.

Understanding the value of data

I was intrigued by the pitch for this session, which was asking how we might put a value to the data that is held by the public sector. After an initial moment of alarm when producing equations was mentioned (it’s quite some time since I did my A level Maths…!), it developed into a very interesting discussion which made me think.

We talked through a number of different ways that we can assess the value of data, and also reflected on some of the ways that value might be maximised (or reduced). If you can read my scribbles my sketch below captures some of the points we talked through.

I was particularly impressed by the way that Transport for London look for wider societal value from their data with a real focus on making it open and accessible, resulting in a large number of independent apps that use TfL data in useful ways. It also occurred to me that we need to consider the constraints that we might inadvertently put on this value if the way we publish data is too restrictive. It’s a delicate balance of public value, respect for privacy and understanding how data is impacting on the wider technology and civic ecosystem.

Building data literacy and a data culture

This was a really interesting session run by @holly_armitage and @la_gaia, looking at a number of aspects of data literacy and culture. This was also the session that made us do most standing up and moving around, so my notes were much more limited than for other sessions!

I found it interesting to reflect on how we could consider different levels of data literacy, with a foundation level being to make sure that people know enough to prevent harm, and also the different but linked responsibilities across business, government and citizens themselves. I was also struck by the suggestion that there might be parallels with other social changes, such as car ownership, where individually rational behaviour (ie owning a family car) actually has profound societal effects when a large proportion of the population do the same thing.

Creating a culture that celebrates failure

@greenman pitched this session and introduced us to the 2-4-more approach for running a collaborative workshop (I might have got the name for that wrong!). I really liked this and will be stealing it for team events I’m running soon. It starts out with people working in pairs, then doubles that by joining pairs up and finally the group feedback together. I thought that this was a good way to explore ideas quickly and also gave people who don’t like speaking out to a large group more opportunity to share their thinking.

There were lots of useful ideas from this session and a general view that iterative, agile approaches reduce risk by making ‘failures’ smaller and more visible early on, making it relatively easy and low cost to make course corrections, whereas ‘waterfall’ approaches often result in the issues building up until there’s a much more traumatic event later on in the project. I shared how we have built some of these ideas into our #HackIT Manifesto (http://hackit.org.uk/how-we-work/hackit-manifesto), setting out ways of working that we are adopting across our team, and our use of week notes to work aloud – including the suggestion that Matthew Cain (our Head of Digital & Data) made recently that we include lessons we’re learning as part of that to encourage a culture where failure is OK and the key is to learn, adapt and improve.

The main question I’m now asking myself is whether we need to be doing more to share the lessons we’re learning with our senior colleagues. It struck me that there’s a risk that even if a team is working in an agile way, if senior managers don’t see how learning is being built into their work we might risk looking more polished than we actually are and miss an important part of changing the way that we make decisions at senior levels.

A few thoughts about buying and suppliers

I wasn’t able to get along to the session that was looking at improving the ways that the public sector buys technology, as it clashed with one of the other sessions I wanted to go to. But I’d definitely recommend that people check out the UK Government Digital Marketplace (https://www.digitalmarketplace.service.gov.uk). We’re using this extensively at Hackney and are finding both the G Cloud and Digital Outcomes & Specialists frameworks incredibly useful, helping us to buy better services, at lower cost, dramatically faster than has previously been the case with other approaches (OJEU etc). We’re still learning how to get the most from these and recently held a conversation with a group of the suppliers we’ve been working with to hear about their experience of selling to Hackney and reflect on ways that we can improve further (you can see what we learned from that on our blog here: https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/working-with-suppliers-to-develop-better-digital-services). If you’re a supplier interested in selling to the public sector I would strongly recommend looking into getting your services onto the Digital Marketplace.

I also thought it was worth noting the quality of the conversations that I had with people from the supplier community at the event. I’ve found that other conferences have often involved far too many ‘hard sell’ conversations, which actually results in me going out of my way to avoid having to speak with any suppliers. And experience of unsolicited marketing online and by email has had a similar effect, resulting in a recent collaborative effort to write up an ‘Unsolicited Marketing Service Standard’ spelling out the behaviours that we would like suppliers to follow: https://docs.google.com/document/d/14F2qqLUcOOo41VGA6bVKxjF-fxZicUv-GrGXefyXzUk. Yesterday was quite different. I met lots of people who work for companies (large, medium and small) that sell into the public sector and I didn’t have any of the dreaded ‘please get me out of here’ moments. It was really reassuring to find such a consistent focus on exploring interesting topics and looking for ways that we might make things better for citizens, and I learned a lot as a result.

Thanks again to @LDN_CDO and everyone behind the event for a really valuable day!

A Digital Detente

A fairly common theme in conversations I’ve had over the years has been the struggle between ICT and digital teams — where the IT team are perceived to be the ‘department of no’ and the digital team have acquired a reputation for being all about creating whizzy websites, but not caring much about the steady sustainability that’s needed for ‘proper enterprise systems’ and security.

I think it’s time we put this behind us.

It’s time for ICT to get with the programme

A fundamental purpose for the IT team should be to provide a platform that makes it possible to deliver digital services that are so good that people prefer to use them. Security can not be fit for purpose if it results in services which are so difficult to use that people don’t use them, or worse leads to workarounds that actually put sensitive information at greater risk. And all the architecture and robust systems management in the world will be useless if it isn’t able to move at the speed of business.

Obviously, this isn’t without its challenges. In a complex business environment (especially somewhere like local government with hundreds of different services which are usually reliant on legacy systems) the ‘move fast and break things’ mantra of digital native companies like Facebook isn’t a good fit (in fact, Facebook dropped that too as it had reached a scale where it needed a less cavalier approach). Many of our key systems have their origins in the e-government days of the early 2000s and whether or not these are fit for the internet age largely depends on suppliers over whom we often have frustratingly little influence.

We need to find ways to extract ourselves from these legacy platforms, leapfrog technology barriers and lay the foundations that will allow us to get off the treadmill of endless incremental updates to outdated technologies. Fortunately, there are lots of opportunities for us to make a start on this, using platforms that can be deployed in a fraction of the time that systems implementations used to take and by adopting modern open standards that will allow us to start taking greater control over our destiny. It’s not without complexity, but accepting that Yet Another Big System Procurement isn’t the answer is probably a good place for us to start.

(As an aside, @Matt’s podcast here is worth a listen for a more in depth look at reasons why corporate IT is often the way it is: https://wb40podcast.com/2017/06/19/wb40-podcast-episode-27-the-why-of-corporate-it)

And ‘digital’ will be a flash in the pan unless it can work in harmony with ICT

I think it’s equally important to make sure that ‘digital’ doesn’t become an ivory tower that exists in glorious isolation from the wider systems and information ecosystem that digital services need to be part of if they’re to be truly valuable and sustainable.

I’ve long been a fan of the GDS Design Principle of ‘Do the hard work to make it simple’ (https://www.gov.uk/design-principles#fourth). I think this applies as much to the systems and information context as it does to understanding user needs and service design. While ITIL-esque management practices can seem bureaucratic and frustratingly cautious, there are underlying principles at the heart of them which are important and shouldn’t just be dismissed.

I actually think that lots of the skills involved in digital ways of working can be enormously valuable for the management of ICT platforms too. So an effective and mutually respectful collaboration can have huge benefits in helping deliver better services for our users.

Time for a manifesto…

At Hackney we’re fortunate that the Council has organised the traditional IT responsibilities and digital roles together as part of a single integrated team. The Council is also clear that this combined function is not a ‘back office’ service, but actually needs to be at the heart of how we continue to deliver better services for the borough’s residents and businesses in spite of the severe cuts to our funding by central government.

Some years ago I mused about the need to replace IT strategies (and indeed ‘digital strategies’) with a manifesto that sets out what we’re for and how we’re going to work together: https://bytherye.com/2013/08/28/does-ict-need-a-manifesto/. We’ve now done this and have created our ‘HackIT manifesto’ which sets the principles that we will follow to make sure that all areas of our team are working together with a shared focus: https://bit.ly/HackITmanifesto. We’re applying this to all aspects of our work and it’s proving a very effective tool that we can use to make sure that we’re doing the right thing in the right way — with digital and ICT working together and learning from one another.

(If it’s of interest, the team blog about the work we’re up to together here: http://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/)

The Wile E Coyote moment

I was very taken with Benedict Evans’ description of the way that companies like Nokia and RIM (BlackBerry) responded to the advent of the iPhone in 2007:

You might call this the ‘Wille E Coyote effect’ – you’ve run off the cliff, but you’re not falling, and everything seems fine. But by the time you start falling, it’s too late.

(Full article here: http://ben-evans.com/benedictevans/2016/2/19/mobile-smartphones-and-hindsight)

Ten years later, the way that the smartphone has become such an intrinsic part of our everyday lives seems perfectly natural, but it’s fascinating to reflect on how much has changed in a such a relatively short period of time. * The first iPhone’s specs (http://m.gsmarena.com/apple_iphone-1827.php) were incredibly basic when compared with devices now. ** It didn’t have 3G, there was no video camera, it had a screen that was tiny and very low resolution by contemporary standards, and you couldn’t even copy and paste! I think it’s well worth taking a moment to consider what nascent and ‘not quite there yet’ technologies around today are going to have this sort of impact in the next decade…

And the implications of this aren’t limited to gadgets.

My first job after graduating was working for a specialist wine company at a time when their business was being challenged by the big supermarkets, who had realised there was good money to be made providing shoppers with the opportunity to pick up their regular tipple along with their groceries. Despite our best efforts we couldn’t stop the ground shifting beneath our feet and ultimately the company folded. Meanwhile one of our competitors seemed to be breaking all the rules (no town centre shops, case sales only etc) and yet they managed to turn in year on year profit and growth. ***

What I learned from that was that the answers to the challenges we face often aren’t just pushing harder to make our ‘proven strategies’ work.

This is a lesson which seems very relevant to the challenges of working in local government and technology today. The dramatic reductions in council funding (cut by something like 50% from 2010 levels) and the astonishing pace of change in technology mean that we need to challenge all our preconceptions and ask hard questions about what we do and how we do it.

But as well as being very challenging for us and our colleagues, I think this also presents a real opportunity for creativity. Exploring new techniques and technologies, combined with different ways of working and closer partnerships, can help us focus on the citizens we serve and gives us the opportunity to make a real difference. And that matters. A lot.

* I realise that this isn’t unique in the history of technology. For example Microsoft’s success in achieving the audacious (at the time) goal that Bill Gates articulated in 1980 of having ‘a computer on every desk, and in every home’ is equally impressive and transformational.

** I held off getting an iPhone or other smartphone for several years because I couldn’t find one I wanted that included an FM radio like my Nokia N96. Seems bizarre in retrospect!

*** The happy ending is that later on former colleagues managed to resurrect the company, and are now doing a great job of doing what we did best – selling great wine from amazing producers, but with fewer shops and less emphasis on big brands and big ‘discounts’.