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.

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.

Weeknote w/c 6 May: thinking about the future workforce and agreeing the first LOTI priorities

A shorter week thanks to the bank holiday, but I don’t think the resulting weeknote is any shorter!

Workforce development

I joined an interesting discussion about Hackney’s workforce development strategy at the start of the week. This builds on lots of work that’s already been taking place, including:

  • The Council’s award winning apprenticeship programme
  • Our new recruitment site (https://recruitment.hackney.gov.uk), which is designed to help promote the opportunities that Hackney offers and will also save money on ‘microsites’ for supporting recruitment campaigns
  • The simpler ‘check in’ process for performance management that was introduced last autumn
  • Work to provide a rich set of learning and development opportunities
  • And new ways of working together, including growing use of ‘show and tells’ and online communities to share our work with colleagues

The Council’s ambition is to be the best place to work in local government and we discussed ways that we can continue our journey to achieve this. Ideas that I thought were especially important included:

  • Sustained commitment to broadening diversity (especially at senior levels) both through our recruitment and also by supporting our people to progress so that we are continuing to build a diverse workforce for the future which reflects the borough we serve
  • Encouraging curiosity and exploration of ways that technology, data and new ways of delivering services can help us to deliver excellent services for our residents
  • Continually looking for ways that we can showcase and role model the innovative and sector leading work that is happening across the Council to help inspire further progress and promote Hackney as a place to do great work

LOTI (the London Office for Technology & Innovation)

On Wednesday morning I caught up with the other members of the core group of 15 councils who have committed to working together to launch LOTI. This followed the workshop a few weeks ago where we looked at the governance arrangements (https://bytherye.com/2019/04/08/weeknote-20190408/). For this session we focused on the initial set of priorities that we will work on together.

I liked that we took an action oriented approach, identifying some things that we can crack on with right away ahead of the new LOTI team starting in post in the summer. These initial pieces of work will help lay the foundations for follow on work and build momentum.

One of these initial priorities we agreed is working together to grow the number of digital apprenticeships across the boroughs, building on the 20 digital apprenticeships we have at Hackney and related work that the other LOTI councils have been doing. We believe that by sharing our experience and helping managers and apprentices to work together across our boroughs we can make a big impact on digital skills, create new work opportunities and help to build the diversity of our teams. Cate and I have agreed to lead on this and we’re hoping to bring a working group together within the next month or so to agree our objectives and get things moving.

Other highlights from last week were:

  • Cate and I spent some time with finance colleagues to plan for the review of our finances that we’ll be doing this week. This is important to make sure that our budgets are well managed and that we are prioritising the right areas of work to respond to future financial risks and opportunities.
  • We had a really good Delivery DMT. The approach we introduced in January (https://bytherye.com/2019/01/15/weeknote-20190115/) to help us focus on key cross-cutting priorities seems to be working well and is helping us to think in a joined up ‘one team’ way. We noted some positive progress on areas of work that we had identifed as needing focus and agreed that for this month we will focus on:
    • refreshing our ‘HackIT manifesto’, including offering new members of our team the opportunity to help shape our service’s culture
    • completing the finance review
    • shaping the ‘digital support services’ work
    • work to refresh our strategic approach to recruitment to help us continue to hire great people into our team
    • working with colleagues in other services to set up a new cross-cutting Member customer services board to help drive forward the transformation of resident facing services across the Council
  • I joined an interesting meeting with another supplier where we discussed our views on the direction technology should be taking. We heard again that the supplier wants to move faster towards web and mobile computing, which aligns with our direction, but that many of their clients are asking for a much more traditional approach. How might we encourage more local authorities to push the technology market towards a modern approach?
  • And on Friday I joined the other members of the Council’s ‘GOLD’ team for a second training day where we had a (surprisingly engaging) session on the legal requirements for emergency management and did some scenario based thinking to test out our skills.

Something I’m learning

On Wednesday I learned that it’s possible to get a remarkable amount of stuff done using a watch as your only connected device (I chose to leave my phone at home because I was taking part in a run at the Olympic Park in the evening). Battery life was, however, a challenge… More on that here: https://bytherye.com/2019/05/08/the-future-is-here-it-just-doesnt-last-the-whole-day-yet/.

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.

Weeknote w/c 27 April: more focus on how we work, both now and in the future

This was a good week. We’ve made progress with some important pieces of work and my Weeknotes have successfully joined my (less frequently updated) blog in a shiny new home.

How to HackIT

On Wednesday a group of us got together for a follow up session on the ‘How to HackIT’ guides we’re developing. This worked very well and we broke out into pairs to peer review one another’s work and by the end of 90 minutes we had published five new guides online. You can find them here: http://hackit.org.uk/how-we-work/how-to-hackit.

This growing collection of guides is designed to provide a light touch set of protocols we can follow across our teams to help us with the consistency and rhythm of our work, in line with our governance principles. By making the guides open on the web we can also help other teams elsewhere (and get feedback which will help us improve), help new starters understand how we work before they join our team and also help suppliers who will be working with us make sure that they’re prepared.

We’ve agreed five more guides that we will prioritise and are going to try to have those ready to publish in two to three weeks’ time.


An important part of developing our service is looking at our system management practices to make sure that we are developing and supporting new digital services well. This is an important challenge and as well as introducing new ways of working it involves technologies which are relatively new to us and will also require new skills. It touches on all aspects of our work, from designing, developing and delivering change through to running and supporting our systems and services.

On Monday afternoon Peter and I visited the Ministry of Justice, where we met with Tom Read their Chief Digital Officer to see what we can learn from their experience of similar changes. I was reassured to find that they’re asking very similar questions to the ones we’re considering and we took away some useful ideas and lessons which will help us with the work here.

On Thursday the team from Digi2al, under the guidance of Felix who joined our delivery team this week, began their discovery work which will help shape the way we take this forward. It’s good to be starting this with a discovery, because  it’s a complex and important area and we need to make sure that we understand the different dimensions and how we will link in across different teams before we set out any detailed plans for the work.

As I said at Thursday lunchtime’s strategy stand up, I would strongly encourage everyone across the team to take time to keep in touch with this work through their Show & Tells, Weeknotes and joining the Slack channel that Felix has set up. This project will be very important in defining how we do large parts of our work in future and your involvement will help us make sure we do that well.

Other highlights from last week were:

  • On Monday I took part in a training day for the people who part of the Council’s ‘Gold’ rota (being on call as ‘Gold’ means you are the Council’s designated lead for any emergency planning responses over a week long shift every couple of months). It was a useful day and a good reminder of the responsibilities which come with this role.
  • On Wednesday I joined the show and tell delivered by the team who are working on delivering web based single sign on for our systems and services. This was a useful update and helped me understand the team’s progress and the trade offs that will need to be considered when their current assessment work completes.
  • The Spacebank team have been making good progress looking at how we might make it easier for residents and local groups to book rooms in the Council’s libraries (the area that they’re focusing on for this phase). On Thursday I joined them for an update with Cllr Kennedy and Cllr Selman, the Cabinet leads for this work, and it was great to see that the team’s progress was well received.
  • Next week we have a workshop to agree the priority protects for LOTI (the London Office of Technology and Innovation which will formally launch very soon). On Thursday I had a pre-meet phone call to talk through some of the questions we’ll be looking at and offer my thoughts on how we might make sure that LOTI gets off to a good start.

Something I’m learning

I decided that I wanted to bring my blog and Weeknotes together, and I also decided that it was a good time to look at other publishing platforms rather than Medium, as I’ve been getting annoyed with some of Medium’s ‘features’ and am wondering whether the direction they’re taking is a good thing for online publishing. I was pleased to find that it was fairly straightforward to move everything over to WordPress and was chuffed that I managed to fathom out the DNS changes needed so that it works using my own domain. This wasn’t massively complex once I’d worked it out but it was outside of my technical comfort zone so it felt rewarding to make it work!

Weeknote w/c 8 April — w/c 22 April: Easter comes and goes

I hope that everyone’s had an opportunity to enjoy a bit of a springtime rest, even if just for the long bank holiday weekend. I’m enjoying spring arriving, although I’ve not been enjoying the seasonal hayfever quite so much…

Suppliers committing to a more open approach

Matthew and I met recently with some senior representatives from one of our suppliers to discuss our strategic direction and goals. Reflecting on this afterwards, there were a couple of aspects of the conversation which I thought were Weeknoteworthy.

My first observation was that software vendors can find it tricky to reconcile competing demands from councils in terms of the standards and approaches that they’re expected to adopt. One example of this was that while some councils (us included) are working to apply design standards based on the principles developed by GDS, others find these ‘too bland’ and expect systems with more dynamic visual content (including pictures and video) in their user interface design. There is plenty of evidence to show that paring back on visual clutter can make it easier for users to find what they need to do and complete tasks without needing help, but evidently there are still buyers who favour ‘pretty’ designs over functional design focused on user needs. While I do think software vendors have a responsibility to advocate for better technology and user experiences, the imperative to secure sales can work against that. In short — maybe as a sector we are getting the technology that we deserve…?

There were also indications of a positive shift in approach. Traditionally the established software suppliers into local government have adopted strategies based on steering councils towards an ‘all in one’ model, where the suppliers encourage us to buy a bundle of systems (often including software that they have acquired by buying up smaller companies) which they hope will extend the reach of their software across as many service areas as possible. Often this relies on a scary number of flakey Heath Robinson ‘integrations’ whirring away behind the scenes to provide a façade of connectedness, and typically the result is services that are only partially joined up and systems that are inflexible and unreliable.

I was encouraged to hear that in this case the supplier are actively looking to move towards a more open system model, where their software is conceived as part of an ecosystem where APIs allow data and processes to be joined up across different systems more easily. I’m going to keep a bit of healthy scepticism about this until we see the results, but I’m pleased to see the conversation shifting.

Although, as I’ve been banging on about this since at least 2014 I think we’re right not just to wait for enough suppliers to ‘get it’ and instead take positive steps ourselves to shift things forwards: https://bytherye.com/2014/04/06/an-applications-strategy-fit-for-digital/. This is why I think the work we’re doing on our APIs is so important (as Matthew outlined in this blogpost last year: https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/Developing-our-API-strategy).

Our office space

Since moving into the Hackney Service Centre just over a year ago, it’s been really pleasing to see how having better office space is helping us work together better as a team. I’m still thrilled by the buzz when I come into our office area and the reaction from both internal and external visitors is really rewarding (I’ve lost count of how many people have commented that it feels very different to a traditional local government IT environment — in a good way!).

It’s great to see people interacting across teams and sharing the work they’re doing. And I love how well the presentation space and stand up meeting desks are used. I’m convinced that collaborating in this way is much more effective than any process or governance protocol in making sure that we deliver great results.

We are still looking at ways that we can make sure that we all get the best use out of the space, in particular making sure that it’s easy for everyone to find space to work. Our recent check on desk use showed that while we normally have enough space places, we do still have a large number of desks that are ‘taken’ by coats and other personal stuff but aren’t actually being used by anyone. Please can everyone make sure that they’re following the simple steps that Henry set out following the review last autumn so that we are all able to use our space well: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1WOkJ8koizHOVO7W15peEsGEUvhQUqwHcBRJm-Erh0mA/edit#bookmark=id.nec6j2m9qtww [internal link].

Other highlights from my last few weeks were:

  • We took time to look at our approach to mobile data, including the advice we provide to people who need to tether laptops to use mobile data connections via tablets and smartphones. Linked to this we will be sending out a survey to all users next week to ask for feedback on our thinking re: moving to a ‘bring your own’ model for mobile phones later this year.
  • Cate D and I caught up with the preparations for refresh of Members’ IT equipment. This will help us make sure that all our Councillors continue to be able to do their work for our residents effectively.
  • We had our regular ICT Security Group meeting and I’m pleased to see the progress that’s being made — in particular our plans for developing proactive security threat assessment. This is a really important so that our residents can feel confident in trusting us with their data.
  • Colin has set me up with a test MacBook so that I can try out the work he’s been doing to standardise the way we manage and secure Macs across the teams who use those. It’s looking very positive and will help us to provide a consistent and reliable experience for these users.
  • I had some very useful check ins on the work that’s taking place to develop our ‘How to HackIT’ guides (following the workshop we held last month). We’re getting back together next week and are hoping to have a set of priority guides ready to publish very quickly after that.
  • I was really pleased that we went live with the new guidance for managing information in G Suite. It’s hard to answer all of the questions that our users want to ask in easily digestible guides, but I’ve been very impressed by the team’s focus on listening to users and their ongoing commitment to asking for feedback so that the guides can be improved further.
  • Liz and Daro demonstrated the excellent work to provide dashboards for HR information to colleagues including the Finance Directorate Management Team last week. This was very well received and showed how our work on data and analytics is helping to make information easier to access and support decision making across the Council.
  • Cate M and I took time to plan the work we’ll be doing for our finance review next month so that we use the time effectively and have clear goals for the work. This work is really important to make sure that our budgets are clearly set out and we manage our money well. Linked to this we have also been planning our capital investments for the year ahead. We agreed that it would be useful to give an overview on our finances at a divisional stand up towards the end of May so that everyone has the opportunity to get a good understanding of how our funding is being prioritised to maximise the impact we have for our residents.

Something I’m learning

Hackney is a really collaborative council, and I am continually impressed by how willing colleagues are to work together to think through ways that we can address challenges or maximise opportunities. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t without its challenges. The last couple of weeks have included time trying to think through ways that we can get the alignment right with one of the services we’re working with. Getting the right balance between standing up for points that are important while also being pragmatic where appropriate and emphasising the importance of genuine partnership is tricky. I’m hopeful that we will succeed in finding a ‘win win’ way of working, but I’m also conscious of the need for patience and good listening skills to help us do that.

Weeknote w/c 18 and 25 March *and* 1 April : a bit more time with our users

A new record – three weeknotes in one. Gulp. 😞

Learning about libraries and parks

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve been continuing my visits to learn more about Hackney’s Public Realm services and I’ve had the opportunity to spend some time with the libraries and parks teams.

On Friday 29 March I went to Stoke Newington library. Part of my day was spent with the Community Library Service, including a round of visits in their electric van visiting housebound residents who get a monthly delivery of books, audiobooks, CDs and DVDs brought to their home. It was clear how much those residents value the service and the team have a catalogue of examples showing how they’ve played a part in helping people to live independently. In the afternoon I spent some time in the main library, which was a good opportunity to check in on the progress that’s been made ironing out issues since the recent move to a new library system. We also discussed bigger picture topics such as the impact that easy access to digital media has had on borrowing trends and ways that our work in ICT might be helpful for the service’s future plans.

And last Friday I visited Haggerston Park to spend time with the team based there. This included the opportunity for me to get my step count up by helping to smarten up the borders in Broadway Market Green (I usually manage 10,000 – 12,000 steps a day, but on Friday I got this up to over 24,000!). I found it very interesting to talk with the team and find out more about how they plan and organise their work. It was also interesting to see the many different ways that the Council is working to make sure that Hackney is a great place to live – during my time out and about I saw people from a wide range of different services come by, including housing, waste, street cleaning, enforcement and the Council’s courier service.

I also got to leave a bit of a mark of my visit which will hopefully last for years to come, as we planted a new tree in Haggerston Park. This wasn’t a trivial task as the park is on the site of a former gas works which was destroyed during the war, so the ground has plenty of rubble to dig through. Fortunately I was with experts who had forged their own special poles specifically to break up the ground so it can be dug up for planting.

I was struck by the pride in their work that everyone I met demonstrated. I saw a strong bond between the teams I was working with and the citizens who use their services, and it was great being shown trees that one member of the team had planted as saplings when he first joined the Council over thirty years ago which are now majestic trees bring life to the area. Both teams have published videos on YouTube sharing some of the work they do which are worth taking a few minutes to check out:

LOTI workshop

In previous notes I’ve mentioned the London Office of Technology and Innovation (otherwise known as ‘LOTI’ – https://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/who-we-are/london-office-technology-and-innovation-loti) which is being set up collaboratively by councils across London, led by Theo Blackwell, London’s Chief Digital Officer. This is now rapidly approaching the official launch and on Tuesday last week I joined peers from other councils for a workshop to check in on the preparations. We used the time to look at the governance arrangements and how we will work together to prioritise the work that LOTI will focus on, and we have follow up workshops in a few weeks’ time to agree those initial priorities.

It was a good session and the priorities for me are making sure that we keep the governance fairly light touch so that LOTI can make quick progress and demonstrate benefits from working together during its first 3 – 6 months. I think that this is important as that will set the tone for subsequent work and I’m conscious of the complexities that come with sharing between organisations (regardless of whether they’re in the public or private sectors) and the need for pace.

Other highlights from my last few weeks were:

  • Meeting up with other organisations who use Google’s cloud services. There were lots of helpful updates and it was useful to have the opportunity for us to compare experiences. A key challenge for us is making sure that we are actively thinking about how we can ensure that we remain flexible in the cloud platforms that we use so that we don’t find ourselves caught in a cloud version of the lock-ins that many businesses are now grappling with for their legacy technologies.
  • We’re nearly there with the updated guidance for managing information in G Suite and Amy and Tom have been making the final tweaks to finish this off (including finding some nice tweaks to the layout that I didn’t think were possible!). This is important because it will give us all a clear reference point for questions that our users are asking us and will make it much easier for our users to feel confident in sharing files with colleagues. The work to develop the guidance has involved extensive user research to make sure that it is easily understandable – a really good example of how understanding user needs can be applied to all areas of our work.
  • We’re now into the financial year-end close down, so lots of people across our team are busy making sure that we complete the work needed to finish the 2018/19 accounts and prepare for 2019/20. Some of this has been more complicated than it ought to be, so for next year we are going to need to make sure that we do some quick work to align our budgets properly and make sure that we’re using the monthly budget monitoring process effectively.
  • A couple of weeks ago colleagues from Devon County Council visited Hackney to share information about the way that they are using systems thinking to find answers to some of the tricky problems that the Council needs to tackle. I found it useful to consider how the approaches they’ve used can sit alongside the agile and design led approaches we are using to help services reimagine their work.
  • Matthew and I took some time to catch up on our digital architecture and the work we are doing to rationalise this. I found this very useful and will be interested to see how well the sketch we drew out stands up to scrutiny by more technically expert colleagues.
  • I also popped over to another London council to meet with one of my peers and their new Cabinet Member with responsibility for customer services and digital. We found a lot in common in our views on how technology and data can improve local public services and it was good to discuss ways that the work on LOTI might help support collaboration to accelerate progress and maximise the benefits from different councils’ work.

Something I’m learning

From time to time I’ve heard it suggested that we shouldn’t expect non-office based workers to be able to use digital tools (eg self-service access to internal support services etc). The time I’ve spent recently with colleagues in libraries and parks has reaffirmed me in my view that I disagree very strongly with that! What I think is at the root of this is that many (maybe most?) software packages that have been developed for business use could learn a lot from consumer technology. And all too often poorly thought through processes are then layered on top of poorly designed technology. The result can be unusable systems.

I once came across the view that a particularly dreadful software package was ‘intuitive once you’ve learned how to use it’, and I fear that this mindset can be all too common. I don’t think that there’s any excuse for the systems we use in our work to be any less easy to use than the software that we use in our personal lives. That’s partly about the software and partly about the processes that run on the software, and we need to challenge our suppliers and ourselves to set a high bar for usability so that ‘users can succeed first time, unaided’.