Weeknote w/c 10 June: a lorra LOTI

Well, that was a full on week! Lots of good stuff, but I definitely needed to remind myself to pause and breathe on a few occasions.

LOTI launches!

The biggest news this week was the launch of the London Office of Technology and Innovation (‘LOTI’), of which Hackney is a founding member. This is the result of a lot of work by colleagues at the Greater London Assembly and London Councils, supported by 15 boroughs who have committed their time and some funding to get LOTI off the ground.

On Monday evening, Cate and I went to the Bloomberg offices in the City along with our Mayor and Ian (the boss) for the official launch event. There was real energy in the room and it was good to see Hackney at the forefront of many of the initiatives that LOTI will be focusing on. I was sufficiently excited about all this to write up a short blog when I got home, with some thoughts about why I think LOTI could be a really important development for London: https://bytherye.com/2019/06/10/why-im-excited-about-the-launch-of-loti/.

Hackney Tech Week fringe

Last week was London Tech Week, and we held a series of events in Hackney to link in with that. The first was actually run by FutureGov, not the Council, and was held in Hackney Town Hall. This brought together over 200 thinkers and doers from a wide range of organisations to explore ways that we can reimagine local government for the 21st century. I enjoyed meeting lots of new people, as well as old friends in local government digital, and was also really impressed by the work that our digital design team did in their day long design sprint looking at ways that we can support community led action.

On Tuesday we hosted the launch of the very first LOTI project, where colleagues from across the LOTI boroughs came together to look at what we need to do to grow a pan-London digital apprenticeship programme, with a working target of 100 digital apprenticeships across the LOTI boroughs by September 2020. I was particularly impressed by the excellent presentation that Darrell, Erdem, Micah and Nana gave about their experience of starting apprenticeships with Hackney and also Mal’s talk sharing a manager’s perspective.

And on Thursday, Matthew and Cate hosted a breakfast event for SMEs who are interested in working with local government on digital innovation projects. Increasing the share of work that we commission through SMEs is another important part of the way we are working in HackIT and Matthew’s blog here shares some of the things that we learned from the conversation: https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/working-in-partnership-with-suppliers.

Other highlights from last week were:

  • Joining Ian for a meeting with Cabinet members to discuss the approach we’ve suggested for bringing them closer to the Council’s work to design digital services for our residents and businesses. We had a good discussion and hopefully we’ll have this up and running soon, linking together work across services and using that to help accelerate pace.
  • An excellent walk through the Spacebank prototype with Philippa and Richard. We talked through the things we’ve learned from the team’s user research and how that’s reflected in the prototype. The team held their service assessment on Friday and it’s reassuring to hear that went well, reflecting the team’s hard work to move this forward.
  • On Wednesday we had our quarterly DMT Away Day, where we discussed a range of strategic topics, including checking in on the actions from our finance review, engaging with services who are exploring ideas for new technologies and services, and the next steps in the work we’re doing to modernise Hackney’s workplace technology.
  • On Thursday morning, Henry and I joined the Mayor and other Cabinet members for our quarterly meeting to catch up on the work to improve digital connectivity in Hackney. We discussed the work that Henry and team have been doing to design the approach for engaging with residents to develop the thinking together with them and also the areas of social value that we will be looking to maximise through the work (eg improved connectivity for social housing, new business opportunities and support for digital skills).
  • And I also worked with Cate to move our finance work forward, with a strategy stand up to help the team understand more about how our finances are managed and a workshop with cost centre managers to dig into the way we manage recharges so that we can do these efficiently and effectively.

Something I’m learning

Unlike the previous week, where I felt that I’d managed to keep lots of time for focused work, last week was almost the exact opposite. As a result, I felt that I was falling short on a number of the areas of work that I wanted to move forward. There are inevitably trade offs like this, and I think it’s important to recognise that focusing on one of set of priorities will mean that other things will pause. But I think the things I prioritised were the right ones and I’ve kept a bit more clear time in my diary next week so that I can try to catch up.

Why I’m excited about the launch of #LOTI

Today has been a great day in local digital collaboration.

It began with our friends at FutureGov * holding the London event of their ‘Designing 21st-Century Government’ series of conferences / unconferences in Hackney Town Hall. (Check out the tweets from the event here to see what was covered: https://twitter.com/hashtag/DesignForGov?src=hash)

And it wrapped up with the launch of the London Office of Technology & Innovation (‘LOTI’), of which Hackney is a founding partner.

These were opportunities to meet up with colleagues who we work with closely and also new allies in the mission of delivering great local services which make the most of the potential offered by technology, data and service design.

LOTI’s launch feels especially momentous. There are many reasons why I’m pleased to see it launch today and why I am optimistic about what we can achieve together. The three most important are:

  • Lots of people have talked about collaborating on digital, but the reality is much more complicated. Shared services have their place, but too often they descend into highly complex governance and relationship challenges. And too often traditional peer groups can drift along without a clear purpose or meaningful outcomes. There is incredible talent across London’s councils, but we need to find more agile and nimble approaches that can help us innovate at scale while also reflecting the local nature of local government. The model that LOTI has taken, based on a ‘coalition of the willing and able’, feels like it has the potential to help us get the best from sharing while minimising the risk of becoming bogged down in complexity.
  • There are some things we can only do really well if we do them together. The rapid pace of technology change can make it hard to keep up. And testing out ideas without over-committing (with the risk of expensive mistakes) can be very difficult, even with the scale of a large London borough. LOTI provides the potential for us to pool our experiments based on agreeing common ways that we can learn together. This could help us dramatically accelerate pace and allow us to test out bolder ideas than we would if we are working alone.
  • Our areas of expertise vary widely, and together we can be more than the sum of our parts. In the conversations this evening I found myself hugely impressed by the expertise across the LOTI group of councils. While I’m really proud of the work we’re doing at Hackney, there’s only so much we can focus on at one time and I’m really keen for us to learn from the work that other colleagues are doing too. Obviously, there’s nothing that stops us sharing our work without LOTI being in place, but setting this up together creates a catalyst for collaboration that feels much more energetic than the previous groupings.

I thought that Eddie (LOTI’s incoming Director who starts in a few weeks’ time) summed it up really well:

During the discussions to set up LOTI there was a lot of debate about the return on investment that our councils will get from this joint investment. I think the potential is huge but it’s down to us to make the most of that. To mangle a phrase from John F Kennedy – ‘Ask not what LOTI can do for you, ask what you can do to make LOTI a success for London’. It really is too important an opportunity for us to miss…

Tomorrow, Hackney will host an event to kick off the first LOTI project off the blocks – a shared endeavour to scale digital apprenticeships across the core LOTI boroughs, with a working goal of 100 apprenticeships. This is a big step in laying the foundations for the digital skills that London will need in future, and I’m delighted that we are able to help get this under way.

* We’ve been working hard to open up our digital procurement to a wide range of SMEs over the last couple of years. If you’d like to supply digital expertise to Hackney then please make sure you’ve registered on the Digital Marketplace and check out the opportunities we post: https://www.digitalmarketplace.service.gov.uk/digital-outcomes-and-specialists/opportunities?q=Hackney. We’d love to hear how you can help us deliver great services for our borough’s residents and businesses.

Weeknote w/c 3 June: management team update, thinking about mobiles and more

This week I felt that I managed to spend more of my time than usual on the bigger picture things I want to focus on. Partly this was luck of the draw with a slightly less back-to-back diary, but I am continuing my efforts to try to remember to make sure that important stuff doesn’t get sidelined due to ‘urgent’ things. I’m wondering whether I should try having my own personal ‘waste snake’ to keep track of distractions… *

DMT conversation points

A few people have been asking for details on the discussions we have at our Divisional Management Team meetings. A while ago I tried out sharing a link to meeting notes, but I’m trying to spend more of the time I spend in meetings paying attention and participating, which is tricky to do if I’m also writing up notes that will be easy to read for people who weren’t in the meeting. I am keen to make sure that we work in the open though, so here’s a summary from this week’s meeting. I’d welcome feedback on whether it’s useful and suggestions for things I could add.


We started by catching up with Dawn from finance to look at our revenue budget forecast. The budget monitor for May is currently being prepared, so we were looking at working figures not the final forecast. These were in line with the picture we established from our finance review work and we are going to have to make sure that we complete the follow up actions so that we monitor our budgets effectively and address the budget pressures we identified. What’s encouraging is that we are now working with clearer budget figures much earlier in the financial year than we were last year. (Cate and I will be talking through the finance review at this Thursday’s HackIT strategy stand up – make sure you come along to find out more about how we are managing our money)


We followed that by doing some more work on our investment budgets. I’m working with finance to update this as the current investment budget is made up of capital funding, but as we shift to using cloud services and helping to deliver service transformation, the way that we are spending the money means we need most of it to be revenue budgets. Finance have asked us for some more information about the work we propose to prioritise and the governance processes that these align with, so we went through this and updated the details they’ve asked for. The feedback I’ve had from finance colleagues sounds encouraging, so hopefully we’ll be able to wrap this up soon. Getting this right will be important for future years too so it’s one of my main priorities at the moment.


Finally, we caught up with Michael, who heads up our audit service. Henry’s the HackIT lead for all things audit and I was encouraged to see that we’ve made good progress with the audit plan and follow up actions. We also looked at the audit plan for this year and discussed ways that we can make sure that audit work is actively helping us drive improvements in our work, not just ticking a box.

Developing the thinking for our future approach for mobile telephony

Cate has been working on the recommendations for our future approach for mobile phones. We had really useful feedback to our recent survey and it’s helped us think through what we should recommend when we take this back to HMT (the board). Headlines from this are:

  • We will need to differentiate between services for whom mobile phones are a core work tool (which is mostly field based teams who use mobile phones to receive and update work) and other teams for whom mobile phones are a general productivity tool (ie where mobiles are used for email, calendar, messages etc).
  • In the former case we are likely to still provide corporate devices but in the latter case we want to recommend that we go ahead with paying an allowance instead. There’s a strong case for this because of the bureaucracy and effort involved with managing the issue, return and reassignment of devices and also the clear feedback from users that the traditional corporate device model doesn’t meet their needs.
  • We do, however, need to think about the amount of the allowance we offer. Because an allowance is taxable the amount we had suggested wasn’t seen as being enough to incentivise people to use their own phones. Cate and I are going to remodel the figures to see what might work.
  • To support this we will also need to pull together simple advice for users on how to keep work and personal personae separate on a single device. There are simple ways to do this but it’s clear that a lot of people aren’t currently aware of what’s available to help them do this.
  • And finally, we will need to improve the app for access to the corporate phone system. The current one isn’t good enough and I’ve been very disappointed with the beta for a new app that the provider has given us to test. But as this affects access from the current corporate devices too it needs to be a priority irrespective of any changes we make.

We will hopefully take our final recommendations to HMT before the summer break.

Other highlights from last week were:

  • A very encouraging meeting of the Housing steering group. We still have more work to do to embed a shared understanding of agile delivery (specifically what makes a ‘minimum viable product’ viable and the advantages of delivering in rapid iterations over a ‘big bang’ of a ‘finished’ product), but I was really pleased to hear colleagues in the housing service articulating the tangible benefits of the work we’ve been doing together. This included big reductions in faff for staff and strong evidence that the new digital products are helping to deliver service improvements for tenants and leaseholders.
  • I joined the HMT update on the development of the Council’s workforce strategy. Lots of the work we are doing in our team links in with this and it’s good to see that the thinking includes focus on digital skills and the wider markers of progress in the direction we want to take, not just a tick list of tasks. There are some amazing examples of innovative thinking being demonstrated by teams across the Council and showcasing these will be part of the way forward too.
  • Mid-week I joined colleagues from MHCLG, a number of councils and other sector bodies to reflect on progress with the Local Digital Declaration and share ideas for next steps. I’ve been very impressed by the quality of the outputs of the recent Local Digital Fund projects and think that some of those could deliver significant benefits across local government if they’re developed further.
  • Felix ran an excellent workshop looking at our ‘transition into service’ approach (we are looking at how we might move beyond our historic ‘ITIL’y approach and achieve a smoother flow and more engaged model for the support of new systems and Software as a Service packages after the initial project completes).
  • I took some time to plan out the work for the review of our salary supplements which is due next April. This is a really important part of making sure that we have a sustainable service for the long term and remain competitive. Over the coming months we will be doing benchmarking using a range of sources (including market surveys and comparators from other councils). It’s some way off but I’m pleased that we’re starting this now so we can do a thorough piece of work.
  • Colin updated me on the good progress that he’s made bringing the Macs that are used by some teams across the Council into a consistent management set up. This will improve the user experience and also save money from historic external support arrangements.
  • I met with some colleagues in Adults’ Social Care who are looking at how Assistive Technology might help support people in living with greater independence. I like the approach they’re taking, which is focused on smaller scale experiments to explore ideas rather than a big ‘technology X will solve all our problems’ approach. I also thought that this would be an area that would fit well with LOTI, ** so I sounded out colleagues in the core LOTI group. Their response was positive, so we’ve added this to the list of ideas that will be considered for prioritisation.

Something I’m learning

I always enjoy finding out about colleagues’ interests outside of work, because I think it gives a more rounded picture of the people you work with and makes the workplace more interesting. This week I went to a colleague’s leaving do and discovered that they’re the lead singer in a band who perform Rage Against the Machine style songs. This caught me by surprise but made for a very entertaining evening as they performed a set of their own work and covers!

* Our dev team are trying this as a technique where they jot down a Post-It for everything which takes time away from their core priorities.

** The London Office of Technology & Innovation, which launches on Monday 10 June.

Weeknote w/c 27 May: sunshine, apprenticeships and a trip to De Beauvoir

A bank holiday and some summery weather have made for a good end to May.

Apprenticeships and LOTI

I spent some time with Cate discussing the preparations for the workshop that she’s leading next week, where we will be kicking off plans to scale up digital apprenticeships as part of the London Office of Technology and Innovation (which will officially launch next Monday). I’m incredibly proud of our digital apprenticeship programme here in Hackney and am really excited that we have the opportunity to work with colleagues in some of our partner boroughs to join up our focus on apprenticeships. Things we are hoping to achieve include:

  • A joint commitment to a significant digital apprenticeship programme as part of LOTI (the working ambition is to have at least 100 apprenticeships, including the 20 we have here in Hackney)
  • A strong network for apprentices and managers, helping with guidance, mutual support and developing new ideas for ways that we can make the apprenticeship experience as rewarding as possible
  • Using this larger scale to develop new opportunities to link in with other employers and training providers
  • And working together to open up the technology sector to a wider set of people, helping to improve diversity across our profession

On Wednesday, Cate and I met with Cllr Williams, Hackney’s Cabinet Member for Employment, Skills and Human Resources who will be opening our workshop, to brief her on the agenda. We’re all really looking forward to meeting up with our partner boroughs to move this forward.

A visit to De Beauvoir and Queensbridge

I had my latest ‘Let’s Network Hackney’ meeting on Wednesday morning and went to the Neighbourhood Housing Office in De Beauvoir and Queensbridge to meet up with a colleague in the team there. I really like the ‘Let’s Network Hackney’ scheme because it’s a great opportunity to meet with people who I wouldn’t normally get to spend time with and find out more about the work that teams across the Council are doing. If you haven’t already signed up then check it out here: http://intranet.hackney.gov.uk/lets-network [internal link].

This visit was especially rewarding because it showed lots of examples of where the work our teams are doing is helping colleagues in other services deliver great services for our residents. This included confirmation that the hard work that’s been put into making Universal Housing more reliable is delivering results, with fewer issues of the system crashing or grinding to a halt; good examples of where the new digital services that we’re developing along with housing are making it easier to find information and get updates to tasks; and some really good work where the team are using G Suite to help them access the information they need wherever they are. There were also lots of creative ideas for ways that the team would like to use tech and data with their work in the future and I left the office with a spring in my step!

Other highlights from last week were:

  • My regular catch up with the Mayor (in his role as our Cabinet portfolio lead), updating him on our service performance and the progress we’re making across the work we’re delivering
  • Meeting with Kim (Group Director, Neighbourhoods and Housing) to look at the work we’re doing to support her directorate and Tim (our Chief Exec) checking in on work across our team and the corporate Business Intelligence team to help senior managers have greater visibility of data across their services
  • A very productive conversation with Dawn, Marian, Ollie and Paul to look at ways we can help colleagues in other corporate services make it easier for people across the Council to work with corporate document templates
  • A great conversation that Cate and I had with Jane Fallon from the West Midlands Combined Authority where we compared our experiences of working together to encourage collaboration between councils – including the work in London to set up LOTI
  • And a session with NHS and social care colleagues looking at priority areas for focus in digital transformation across our regional health and care partnership

Something I’m learning

Moving my blog back onto WordPress and bringing my weeknotes and longer form blog posts together in one place has inspired me to write a bit more than I have for a while (I’ve written as many blog posts in May as I did for all of last year). I’m remembering that I like putting thoughts down in writing and using that as a way to explore some of the ideas I’m thinking about. Sometimes, however, I make it harder by worrying about who’s going to read it and whether what I’m writing has any intrinsic value. A few of the things I’ve found useful to remember when the doubts set in are:

  • It’s ok to write for your own satisfaction – sometimes it’s just a good exercise to use this to test out your own thinking
  • It can be just as helpful to pose questions as to suggest answers
  • Having historic posts is a useful way to see how my thinking is developing over time
  • It’s very rewarding when peers elsewhere pick up a thought and it starts a conversation
  • And it’s also nice to hear when something I’ve written has encouraged someone to try out different approaches in their own context
  • I also find it useful to run a draft by someone I trust to see what they think if I’m not sure whether I should post it

Weeknote w/c 20 May: thinking about ‘Smart Cities’ and counting votes (but not at the same time!)

A nicely varied week which wrapped up with a bank holiday weekend!

Thinking about ‘Smart Cities’

There’s been a lot of hype about ‘Smart Cities’ for many years now. It’s obvious that developments in technology and data are already having a big impact on the places we live and how we interact with services and one another (for example, I now take it for granted that I can always have instant access to real time updates on train and bus arrivals when planning my journeys). I find it interesting to mull over whether the future is likely to be utopian or really will take us towards a Matrix / Minority Report type world and also how much influence we (civic society) can have on how things develop.

I read an interesting research paper looking at the Sidewalk Toronto initiative over the weekend and that prompted me to pop a few thoughts into a blog post here: https://bytherye.com/2019/05/28/the-smart-city-is-as-much-a-political-challenge-as-it-is-a-technology-challenge/.


Sunday was spent at the Britannia Leisure Centre in Shoreditch Park with lots of other colleagues, counting the votes from Thursday’s elections for the European Parliament. This was the third time that I’d donned my bright yellow count supervisor t-shirt and I was pleased that the table I was responsible for was among the first to complete our count. Having finished second from last when I did my first count in 2017, I’d like to think that this was great progress and inspiring leadership on my part rather than luck of the draw…!


Other highlights from last week were:

  • We had a productive session catching up on the various strands of work that will help us move away from eDOCS (which includes but isn’t limited to broadening our use of Google Drive). We agreed a focused set of specific actions which we will check in on in a couple of weeks’ time.
  • Henry, Ollie and I met with colleagues from the Hackney Learning Trust ICT team to catch up on their progress setting up a pilot of G Suite. I’m pleased with the progress we’ve made in collaborating together and we identified some things we can do to help them move this forward.
  • We had our quarterly Information Governance Group meeting on Wednesday. I was particularly pleased to see the progress that has been made improving the Council’s performance in responding to Freedom Of Information requests. Our team have worked incredibly hard to support colleagues across the Council’s services to get their responses sent out quickly and while we’re not quite there yet it was great to see very positive progress over the last quarter – well done Katharine, Adam, Noelle and O’Cynthia!
  • It was also brilliant to have started the week with news from Sarah and Katharine that Hackney’s work with mysociety to develop a new digital service for Freedom Of Information requests had been awarded Innovation of the Year at this year’s Information and Records Management Society awards. Well done team!
  • Philippa, Richard and I had a very useful conversation with colleagues in Housing Services looking at how we can work together as part of seeing how the Spacebank project might help with booking of space in Hackney’s Community Halls. We’ve agreed to use a Discovery phase to help us better understand the opportunities and challenges before we develop more detailed proposals for what we do next.
  • I had my regular catch up with representatives from the Council’s Unions. I always find this a valuable way to check in on feedback from staff across the Council and get their thoughts on the work we’re doing.
  • Lucy and I joined colleagues from Adults’ Services at the ‘IT Enabler Board’ at the Homerton hospital. This brings together people from across health and social care in the City and Hackney area, and the discussion included a really useful conversation about next steps with the work we’ve been doing to look at how we might improve access to information about health, care and wellbeing services across the area.
  • And I wrapped up my week with a catch up with Ajman, the Director of Housing. I make sure that I have regular catch ups with senior colleagues in other services so that I can check in on their priorities and make sure that we’re focusing on the right things. I was very encouraged to hear the importance he is giving to the digital work our teams are doing together to support the transformation of housing services and we’ve agreed that we will take some time together to get closer to the details of some aspects of that.

Something I’m learning

One of the follow ups from our recent finance review is working with colleagues in Finance to set up the investment plans for the year ahead. As we move towards greater use of cloud services and supporting change through making the most of the technologies we’re putting in place this doesn’t fit the historic capital funding model as easily as was the case in the past. The Finance teams are being supportive in helping to find answers to this but I’m having to make sure that I explain stuff that feels obvious to me in layperson’s terms so that we can figure out the best solution together.

The ‘Smart City’ is as much a political challenge as it is a technology challenge

I’ve read a few pieces covering the Sidewalk Toronto initiative, which raises interesting issues about the way that authorities should engage with and try to shape ‘Smart City’ developments. I saw a link to a draft research paper yesterday which looks at the relationship between Sidewalk Labs and the City of Toronto and I thought it was an interesting read which prompted a few thoughts that I’ve put together in this blog post (although I don’t claim to know enough about the Toronto project to make any specific comments on that). The original is here: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3390610 and this version has my scribbled notes on the sections that I thought were especially noteworthy: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1wIUZiErfj2OhfmyakuM-ZOVLqwTLzU8-/view.

I’ve found myself in some fairly depressing conversations about ‘Smart Cities’ over the years. Some of those have involved bold statements about the importance of becoming a Smart City but with scant detail about what that actually meant or why it would be a good thing. Others have been alarmist declarations of the end of days whenever a new form of technology is proposed. (For the avoidance of doubt, none of those have been with my current employer!)

And whenever there’s a new trend in town there are also a healthy number of sales people offering all manner of different flavours of snake oil. AI, robots and ‘smart’ this and that clutter up my mailbox on a daily basis and are one of the reasons I’m pretty selective about which conferences and events I make time to attend.

But underneath it all there is some important stuff that we need to get to grips with. As the technology becomes ever more sophisticated, we need to find ways to make sure that we communicate the issues in ways that help our colleagues and political leaders understand why these need their attention and the levers that they have at their disposal to influence how things evolve. There might actually be some parallels with the ways that technology has changed the nature of public discourse through social media, and this could help underline why it’s so important that we are actively thinking about how technology and powerful uses of data will impact on our civic spaces and society.

I feel some way from having a formed view on what the answers are, but here are a few of the things that I’m trying to think through as I work to make sense of the ‘Smart City’.

The way the ‘Smart City’ evolves will have a big impact on where power lies in society

In a civic realm where huge volumes of data are collected and used to direct services and people, whoever has control of the way that the data is used will have enormous influence over people’s lives. Combined with increasingly complex technology it will become dramatically harder for authorities to apply regulation to manage the effects of this.

This might be comparable to regulation of news coverage where historically rules could be applied to the media with some prospect of them being (at least partly) effective. The personalisation of news feeds and distribution through massively complex global social media networks has blown this apart and governments around the world are grappling with the difficulty of responding to that. In a ‘Smart City’ where decisions are being made in real time based on data gathered from large numbers of sensors, how will democratic decision making keep up?

There are big questions we need to be asking about the implications for ‘Smart City’ developments, including:

  • What impact will these have on accountability?
  • Who are the winners and losers likely to be?
  • Is that compatible with our values?
  • And what we should be doing to influence the outcomes for society as a whole?

We also need to understand the relative power of the platform vs the apps which grow on the platform and the implications for the wider economy and opportunities for growth

I first became aware of Facebook when family members were trying to encourage me to sign up to join them in playing Farmville (I resisted the temptation, although I did join Facebook later on but have pretty much given up on it now). A fairly innocuous game that had been built on top of Facebook’s platform became an important driver in the huge growth of Facebook membership, powering their development into the behemoth we see today. Farmville, however, is pretty much a distant memory for most.

In a ‘Smart City’ context I think that the underlying platform of data sources and connections to that data is far and away the most important aspect from a societal perspective. It’s at this level that technical and political decisions will come together to determine what constraints of privacy will be acceptable, and the ability to turn data feeds off and on will also give huge influence over the sorts of economic growth that can happen through the development of ‘apps’ (software, businesses and communities) built on top of that.

How would we feel if a private provider can turn off access to other companies who are providing useful services that citizens have come to rely on? And what are the risks that data gathered through smart sensors will be used for new purposes which aren’t compatible with our original intentions? We need to be clear about who will control ‘Smart City’ platforms and how society can influence their development.

Our goal should be to find a way to balance democratic accountability with innovation and growth. But there are also real risks of excessive government control or monopoly privatisation that will be tricky to navigate, especially given the complexity of the technologies involved.

Trust and transparency will be fundamental

It can be tricky ‘working in the open’ when issues are contentious and spark strong views. And given the commercial opportunities from investing in ‘Smart City’ technology I don’t find it very surprising that the Sidewalk Toronto work hasn’t been entirely transparent. But it’s also evident that this has had an effect in terms of the trust (or lack of it) that people have in the project.

Given the issues that this sort of initiative raises, I think there’s a real need to design in transparency and make the space for engagement and debate. But that doesn’t mean that it will always be an easy discussion to have, especially given the big differences in position between technology evangelists and people who are nervous about excessive surveillance and control of civic space. So this is where we need to help political leaders get a strong handle on the issues involved so that they can work with the citizens they represent to develop a vision for the type of future place they want and consider how ‘Smart City’ developments can help contribute towards that.

This is a big change in the nature of digital leadership. From a focus on technology choices, efficiency, costs and channel shift, to a much more profound focus on how society works and who it works for.

Being ‘leading’ is not a thing if we don’t know where we’re going

Given the amount of hype surrounding ‘Smart City’ opportunities at the moment, it’s not surprising that there’s a desire to be seen to be at the leading edge and not be left behind. But sifting through the sales pitches and exciting proposals to find the ones that will matter most, and most importantly the ones which will be most valuable in learning about the right way forward, requires careful thought.

How do we avoid ‘analysis paralysis’, where caution about emerging technology becomes a barrier to any progress, while also making sure that we don’t create costly mistakes that we live to regret in future?

This is definitely the realm of the uncertain where Agile approaches can help us to explore new ideas in a controlled way so that we also mitigate risks.

Nothing in life is free and we need to understand the value of the cards we hold

The rapid development of technology makes it a high risk for public sector investment, especially in times of austerity. Big technology companies have deep pockets, deep expertise and are highly incentivised to invest in research and development for future products. But when that product is a city we need to be clear that their motives might not be totally altruistic…

We are not powerless in this. The foundation of the ‘Smart City’ will be access to gather and use lots and lots of data. As a society we can choose what we make possible, the constraints we put on how data is used and the degree to which we can influence future development. It’s vital that we (civic society) don’t give up control of the gathering and access to data without understanding the consequences. Even if there’s a shiny ‘free’ pilot project being offered to tempt us.

We also need to understand how to guard against a slippery slope. Providing the minimum access to data to accomplish a goal can reduce the risk of future developments going unchecked. You can see this in the scandals that have engulfed Facebook where legitimate developer access to gather data was exploited for purposes that were very different from what was originally intended.

Society might well depend on some friction in the process to guard against negative outcomes

A final thought from the paper was that a completely frictionless world might not actually be a good thing. A key feature of civic society is compromise and trade offs between individuals, and a seamlessly efficient city driven by data and consumer demand without any checks and balances could well result in unintended consequences that we would want to avoid.

Is it good for our city if the popularity of certain services made possible through ‘Smart’ developments means that other services that people still rely on become uneconomically viable?

This further underlines the importance of making sure that the way that ‘Smart City’ developments evolve isn’t simply a technocratic exercise in software, hardware and data.

Weeknote w/c 13 May: money, money, money

My main area of focus this week was the finance review that we’ve been planning. I was pleased that our preparation helped us use the time we’d set aside really productively.

Finance review

I’ve mentioned in previous notes that we’d identified the need to do a deep dive into our finances. Changes in our team and the finance team have meant that there are a number of aspects of our budget management which aren’t as clear and well understood as they need to be. Getting this right will be critical to living within our means and getting best value from the money that we’re responsible for.

I think that the most important part of this was setting aside a decent amount of time for the work, clearing our diaries for two full days so that we could concentrate and minimise distractions. It was also really helpful to have Cate facilitating the work. I think our colleague from finance was a little surprised to find us unpicking budgets using Post-It notes, Sharpies and large sheets of brown paper, but it was a really useful way to bring out the key priorities that need to be worked on and helped us avoid getting lost in the rows and columns of spreadsheets.

The work helped us identify a number of things that we will do so that we can be confident in our financial position. These include:

  • A number of immediate actions such as tidying up cost codes and approver information, realigning some of our budgets so that money is in the correct place and making sure that we are clear about recharges to avoid faff at the end of the year.
  • Work to address key areas of financial pressure that we have identified, including the savings we are committed to delivering this year. This links to our investment planning and it’s important that we align those so that we know we’re investing in the right things.
  • Things we can do to make sure that our financial monitoring through the year is giving us an accurate picture of the forecast outturn at year end – in particular managing recharges effectively and tracking the delivery of the projects that will help us reduce cost pressures (eg our web platform changes which we expect to deliver savings).
  • There are also some areas where we will be doing more detailed follow up work to identify ways that we can make sure that our service is financially sustainable in the longer term. This includes planning for future skills needs and looking at how we can drive forward our end-user computing strategy to reduce the costs of expensive legacy technologies.

Cate and I will talk through this in more detail at the HackIT strategy stand up on Thurs 30 May.

Our challenge now will be to make sure that we don’t lose focus on the follow up actions that we identified. I’m confident that most of them can be completed quickly, and there are also a few which we’re planning to build into the agenda for our DMT away day on 12 June so that we get those done while it’s still early in the financial year.

Working in partnership

One of the most important aspects of our work is developing effective partnerships with colleagues in other services, working together to meet our users’ needs and expectations. You might have heard me saying that we shouldn’t use terms like ‘the business’ when we’re referring to colleagues in other services and I decided to dust down a half written draft blog post to explain in a bit more detail why I think that this and other aspects of how we interact with our colleagues are important. You can find that here: https://bytherye.com/2019/05/21/lets-talk-about-tech-getting-it-and-digital-out-of-the-basement/.

Other highlights from last week were:

  • A great conversation with another Director who really got the potential for the work we’re doing to refresh end-user devices as an opportunity to rethink the way that their teams work.
  • Working with Cate to look through the findings from the survey that we carried out recently to get people’s feedback about the ideas we’re developing for future provision of mobile phones. We got nearly 600 responses, which was great! The feedback has helped to clarify the things we’ll need to consider as part of a final recommendation to Hackney Management Team, and we’re hoping to firm that up over the next few weeks. (I also discovered that WhatsApp Business let’s users send and receive WhatsApp messages using a work number, even on their personal phones – very neat! https://www.whatsapp.com/business/)
  • We saw some great examples of the benefits of working in the open. Sharing in this way is hugely positive – partly because we can help the wider local government sector to deliver better services for citizens across the country by sharing our work, and also because the feedback we receive can help us improve services for Hackney’s residents. The examples this week included:
    • a brilliant response to Soraya’s blog post on using GOV.UK Notify (https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/gov-uk-notify-in-action), which got a lot of interest from colleagues at other councils
    • an interesting discussion with colleagues from the Scottish government’s cyber team, who visited us as a follow up to a presentation that Keith gave about our ‘web first’ approach to access and security
    • and a very positive set of responses to Amy and Tom’s sharing of the guidance that’s been developed to help users with using G Suite to collaborate internally and with external partners
  • I also had some very useful discussions with Matthew looking at how we might support the Member customer services board that is being set up, and with Lucy looking at the recommendations for moving forward with the Directory of Services work that we’ve been doing.

Something I’m learning

There are some times when I find myself in meetings because I feel that I ‘ought’ to be there but where the value of the time isn’t obvious to me. I need to think harder about how I make sure that I find the value where it’s there or prune my allocation of time to make sure that I’m getting the most out of each day.