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’.

Weeknote w/c 4 and 11 March: getting out to learn about colleagues’ work

A ‘fortnight note’ to get myself back in step. I’m loving seeing spring arrive, especially the brighter mornings which I find a big improvement after the winter gloom!

A day with the waste team

When I joined Hackney I promised myself that I’d take time to get some first hand experience of our users’ work and reduce my risk of ‘ivory tower syndrome’. I’d planned to do something similar at my previous job but didn’t manage to follow through on that, so I’m resolved to do better at Hackney.

I’ve had really valuable visits to colleagues in Housing and Children’s services, and this spring I’m learning more about the work the Council’s Public Realm teams do. Two Mondays ago I started that with a day visiting our waste teams at Millfields. This covered several teams including the commercial waste service (the Council sells waste collection services to businesses, competing with private sector providers), cleaning on the Council’s estates, dealing with pests, the kennels where stray dogs are looked after and learning from the team who manage the waste collection shifts and requests from the public.

I came back with a list of things to follow up on, some of them smaller issues that our support team have picked up and some of them ideas for opportunities that we can look at together to help the services and explore links with other services in the Council. I can highly recommend taking time to do this and I’m looking forward to taking time with the libraries and parks teams in the next few weeks to learn about their services too.

How to HackIT

Last month I mentioned the work we are doing to create ‘How to HackIT’ – as part of developing an effective but light touch approach to governance and standards across the team (https://bytherye.com/2019/02/18/weeknote-20190218/). On Thursday a group of us from across different HackIT teams got together to look at the approach we’ve proposed, carry out a mini-assessment of some of the guides we’ve produced so far so that we can make sure they’re useful and clear, and agreed some areas that we will prioritise for the next month or two. It was really useful to take this time to reflect and it was a lively and enjoyable session. Our notes from the session are here: https://docs.google.com/document/d/118xLCcfmBHrIc-kS3IptMa2MTs8ZDydM5j5vXpLs5bg/edit?usp=sharing.

Linked to this, I think the single best thing that’s happened over the last two weeks was a note from a colleague in another part of the Council sharing a version of the induction plan that they’ve developed based on the ‘How to HackIT’ guide we developed for welcoming new starters into our team. They wanted to share their version because ‘there may be elements you may want to use to develop the ICT one and more importantly to let you know that your ‘working in the open / sharing’ has prompted us to adapt the way we work!’. I’m thoroughly chuffed about that!!

Other highlights from the last fortnight were:

  • I took some time with Ollie, Sarah and Tom to look at our position statement to make sure that we are providing colleagues with clear information about our plans for moving away from eDocs. It’s complicated because eDocs is used in a number of different ways and the volume of historic data means that a simple ‘lift and shift’ isn’t likely to meet our users’ needs. We’re going to be updating comms to colleagues shortly which will hopefully help to provide clear guidance on what they should expect.
  • Every three months senior managers from across the Council’s services get together for our Senior Managers’ Network meeting. We had one of these the week before last and it was the best that I’ve been to. This sort of cross-organisation meeting can often feel like a corporate broadcast, but this was quite different and included updates from across the Council’s work. We learned about new approaches to safeguarding, strategic Planning policy, work to promote healthy living, the work that Scrutiny do and the supported internships which are helping young people with special educational needs into work. It was a brilliant reminder of the important work that local authorities do and a good opportunity to look for ways that services might link up. Cate and I also used this as an opportunity to ask colleagues to help design the staff engagement we’re planning to get feedback on our thinking for the future mobile telephony service we will provide. I was really chuffed with the quality of response we got and we’re now looking at how we use that to develop our approach to the engagement work.
  • Tapan gave me an interesting overview of the work that he and colleagues in the Data & Insight team are doing to explore ways to publish more open data, including using AWS Lambda to help deliver that. Our hypothesis is that by linking this with our smart search tool for FOIs we can make a meaningful reduction in the number of freedom of information requests that colleagues receive, helping to reduce the significant cost of FOIs to the Council.
  • I joined a visit to a primary school in Dalston where we saw some great work that they’re doing using technology to support teaching and learning.
  • On Friday last week the Mayor and I did a joint presentation to a ‘data and digital masterclass’ for Councillors run by the Local Government Association. This was attended by Councillors from a range of authorities, including unitary boroughs, county councils and district councils and I found it really interesting to hear their experiences of working with data and technology in their authorities and enjoyed sharing our experience at Hackney.
  • We’ve had a challenging week and a half following the go live of the new pan-London Libraries system which Hackney is part of. This has particularly affected the self-service systems for borrowing and returning books, causing some pain for residents and libraries staff, and I’m really grateful for the hard work that has gone into resolving this (there are a few things outstanding but things are much improved now and heading in the right direction). We’ll need to make sure that we work through the causes of these issues and identify lessons that we can learn for future upgrades. From an initial look these are likely to include issues covering the technical set up, testing process and the way that support for externally managed systems like this is organised.
  • In happier news, the work to migrate the Council’s payments system has gone well and this was successfully completed last week. A huge thank you to everyone who helped to make this happen and put in lots of work to make sure that it ran smoothly.

Something I’m learning

We had our quarterly Divisional Management Team away day last week and we began that with a session that Cate ran, inspired by a post shared by Emily Webber (https://emilywebber.co.uk/the-team-manual-a-exercise-to-help-build-empathy-in-teams/). The Delivery team have used this recently but we were a little nervous that it might not work so well with a smaller group. I thought it was great, and it worked very well as a catalyst to a very productive day.

The exercise is designed to build understanding and empathy in teams and I liked how it helped to bring out some of our key motivations and the aspects of work that we enjoy and / or find more difficult. I’ve put my notes below in case it’s of interest (let me know if you can’t read my writing!).

Three of the things that I found thought provoking from this personally were:

  • When I began my career I got a lot of fulfilment from personal successes (for example, achieving strong sales results at the shop I managed) but I realise that what matters most to me now is feeling that I’ve been able to help others succeed.
  • I know that one of my challenges is delegation and resisting my urge to micro-manage. I find this especially difficult when something significant has broken operationally, because I feel a strong sense of personal responsibility (even guilt) for that.
  • I’ve never been very good at knowing clearly what I want to do for my career in the longer term. I used to wonder whether that ought to worry me, but I’ve now decided it shouldn’t and as a result I can enjoy what I’m doing without fretting too much.

Weeknote w/c 25 February: talking with suppliers about better ways to sell

A slight improvement in the timeliness of my weeknotes, but not much!

Selling to councils – a Croydon Digital Service event

On Tuesday last week I went south to the borderlands of London and Surrey to take part in an event that our colleagues in the Croydon Digital Service had arranged for their local digital businesses, sharing advice on selling to local government. It was very well attended and it was fun to be part of a panel with a wealth of experience of selling and buying digital services in local government and sharing some of my thoughts on this. Dave Briggs has done a write up of the event on Croydon’s blog (https://croydon.digital/2019/03/01/helping-our-digital-business-community-sell-to-the-public-sector/) and I focused my part of the talks on:

Demonstrating agility as well as being Agile

Sometimes in our line of work carefully crafted plans have to be set aside so that we can respond to urgent priorities which take us by surprise. An example of that last week was the need to make a switch over for the Council’s payment system, which we knew was in the offing but hadn’t expected to be needed as quickly as has been the case. I’ve been really impressed by the way that everyone involved has responded to this. We’ll need to check in so that we’re clear about which other important work has been delayed as a result, but the focused, professional and swift response from across the team has been fantastic and it looks like we’ve got everything on track. Thank you to everyone who’s been part of getting this done.

Other highlights from my week were:

  • Chairing the meeting of the Council’s Apprenticeship Steering Group. Hackney is showing real leadership in promoting apprenticeships within the Council and more widely across the borough, and it was particularly good to hear about the successes that apprentices are having after they complete their apprenticeships.
  • Further conversations about developing ‘How to HackIT’ guides for our technical and coding standards. We’ve got a workshop next week to go through the approach and agree our next areas to focus on, so these were about making sure that we’re well prepared for that.
  • I was part of the initial test group for having the SIM in my iPad swapped out. The team have done great work preparing for this and it was a really easy experience, which gives me confidence that everything will run smoothly when other users come in to have their SIMs swapped over the coming weeks.
  • I was pleased to hear about the progress with our ‘Web first’ redesign of our network, which will provide our users with faster and more reliable access to our systems. I did think that Chidi was a little bold in laying down the gauntlet to Cate for a Post-it challenge though…!
  • I had a catch up with the Mayor to give him an overview of the work we’re involved in across the Council’s services. I ran through these slides which cover a range of headlines and delve into a bit more detail for some of the projects we’re working on: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/119oLTBsBQFl8NeJHVZbia2v8Ep6xq2SAvnyW5YpMDjY.
  • And I wrapped up my week with a detailed look through the guidance that our information management team have been developing for use of G Suite to organise and share information. ‘Test the service from beginning to end with appropriate council member or senior manager responsible for it.’ is an important principle in the Service Standard we are committed to following (https://localgov.digital/service-standard) and I found this a very helpful way to make sure I have a good understanding of the details.

Something I’m learning

When you have a team as good as ours it’s sometimes easy to feel a little bit superfluous, with the best thing you can do being to make sure that you don’t get in people’s way! There were a couple of instances last week where I felt I was able to be helpful in navigating through some tricky dynamics which were looking like they might slow work down. Time will tell whether or not my suggestions actually were helpful, but it was a good reminder of what I enjoy about my job.

Weeknote w/c 18 February: learning from experts and promoting positive working styles

Half-term made for a change to my normal routine, and I was glad to have the flexibility to do some work from home and also a grandparent who could offer a couple of days of childcare. The working week was still very good though, with some pleasing progress.

Mayor’s digital advisory panel

On Thursday we had the second meeting of the Mayor’s digital advisory panel. Hackney is fortunate to count leading digital experts among our local residents and the businesses who are based in the borough, and this group gives us an opportunity to test out some of our thinking and explore new ideas. I find it really encouraging that the Mayor gives us time from his very busy diary to take part in these, which reflects his support and commitment for the work that we are doing to help Hackney realise its goals for the future.

At this meeting we focused on three topics, starting with a really useful discussion about data ethics. We are exploring ways that we can engage with our residents to demystify the ways that we use data now and in the future and to get their thoughts on the things we should do to make sure that as well as following the letter of the law we are also continuing to build trust. The panel made some really helpful suggestions which will help us reshape some of the ideas we were considering for this and also suggested some other steps that we could take.

Following that we then talked about ways that digital technology and approaches might help support the Council’s work with our communities and suggestions for ways that we can showcase Hackney as a leading tech borough in London Tech Week later this year. All in all a really thoughtful and valuable session and a great example of where working with local experts can help us with our work.

Positive working styles and mental health

I’ve had several conversations recently about how we can make sure that changes in technology and working styles are supporting positive mental health. Last week I caught up with a colleague in Public Health to discuss how we can contribute to the wellbeing strategy that the Council is developing. Many of the challenges aren’t new and I am a strong advocate for the benefits that more flexible and connected technology can provide and how these can be a positive contributor to a healthy work-life balance (I blogged some thoughts on how that works for me here: https://bytherye.com/2018/12/11/personal-reflections-on-how-i-prefer-to-work/).

But there’s also the risk that work might become a 24/7 thing with people finding it difficult to switch off if we’re not careful. We had a really good discussion about ways to guard against this, ranging from simple tips on how to disconnect from work apps during down time through to behaviours that we should be modelling to encourage positive working styles. I’m looking forward to being part of the conversation to develop this further and making sure that we are helping to promote wellbeing.

Other highlights from my week were:

  • A couple of great meetings as a management team, one to look through what the recent staff survey results tell us about how our service is developing and the second to catch up on the priorities we set last month and agree the areas we will focus on for the month ahead.
  • My regular catch up with the leads for the Council’s unions, where we talked about the changes we are helping services across the Council deliver and ideas Cate and I are developing for our future provision of mobile telephony.
  • A series of updates to the Housing steering group covering the digital services we are delivering.
  • Our regular security meeting, checking in on the work we are doing to keep our systems secure and develop a proactive approach to managing security risks.
  • Sharing the thinking that we did for our service structure with colleagues from another borough.
  • And a very useful discussion with our Comms team to look at how we can make sure that our work is plugged into the Council’s strategic communication planning.

Something I’m learning

At the end of the week I was trying to figure out why I hadn’t responded to a helpful set of suggestions that someone had shared with me in an email earlier in the week. I realised that it was because they’d included a link to an article that provided context for the ideas they’d shared and I’d allowed myself to think that I couldn’t respond until I’d read that through and taken time to think it all through – I’d basically turned an easy thing to do into a more complicated task, and then parked it and moved on. On reflection I could have made it easier for myself and been more responsive if I’d not done this. I’m going to ask myself whether I’m over-complicating my response to things and whether I can get things done more quickly if I keep them simpler. (Those who know me reasonably well will realise that this is not a trivial challenge!)

Weeknote w/c 11 February: developing the way we work

‘How to HackIT’

At our strategy stand up a couple of weeks ago Matthew explained how we’ve been developing our model for supporting consistent ways of working across our team, while also retaining our lightweight governance approach in line with the principles that Cate set out previously (Matthew’s slides are here: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1jnF5Ey7qqBHAAlYA7j28-RvmwEOOWUPMXi2afpGbXsg and Cate’s blog post explaining our governance principles is here: https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/governance-so-good-people-prefer-to-use-it).

We’re calling this ‘How to HackIT’ and we’re envisaging this as a set of guides that will explain our approach across the work we do. This will never be a ‘finished product’ — the context we work in, the technologies we work with and the challenges we need to address will continue to change, so it’s important that this remains a living thing which is continually iterated so that it remains relevant.

We identified a set of user needs for ‘How to HackIT’ guides at our away day before Christmas. This week I took some time to look through these to rationalise them into what I’m hoping will be a clear first set that we can work through with colleagues from across the team and agree the priority user stories for us to work on first.

I’m also excited to hear that other people across the team have been working at producing ‘How to HackIT’ guides based on things that they’ve been working on. This is great because it’s important that this isn’t just a ‘top down’ thing, in line with our HackIT manifesto commitment to ‘trust the team’. To help with that we want to put in place a simple approach that anyone can use to share work in a consistent way so that it will benefit other colleagues, and we’ve defined that as one of our user stories.

We’ve had a first go at bringing this together and that’s now up as an Alpha which we can use to test out our thinking and get feedback: http://hackit.org.uk/how-we-work/how-to-hackit. As it’s an Alpha it’s still quite rough (some of the guides are more fully developed than others) but I’m very interested to hear your feedback and suggestions for how we can improve this.

The future for end-user kit

We’ve been looking at some of the ways that end-user computing is changing and thinking about ways we can adapt to that. Alongside pressing on with refresh of the Council’s PCs and laptops (which is much needed as many are over ten years old…) we are looking at how we can support a wider range of devices effectively. For example, we have a number of teams who use Macs for their work and lots of different types of personal computer that users use to connect to our systems when they’re working from home. As well as making sure that we’re using the right technology for management and security of kit and data, it’s also important that our support teams have the opportunity to gain the knowledge needed to help with queries — which is quite different from the traditional highly standardised model for business computing.

In addition to that we’re considering our options for how we provide mobile phones in future. The current ‘one size fits all’ approach is cumbersome to manage, expensive and a common cause of grumbles. It’s hard for the low cost phones that we currently provide to compete with the quality of devices that most people have for their personal use, and given the range of different flavours of Android that are available as well as users who prefer iPhones there aren’t many people for whom the corporate standard is a good fit for their needs and preferences. We’re exploring ways that we could do this quite differently and give people greater choice and flexibility while also making the service simpler to manage. We’ll be doing more work on this over the coming weeks and I’ll keep you posted with progress.

Other highlights from last week were:

  • Some useful conversations about how we manage our business applications and adapt so that we are able to support new digital services effectively
  • More work with colleagues in finance to make sure we’re managing our budgets well
  • A catch up with the Mayor to make sure that the preparations for the Digital Advisory Panel meeting we’re holding later this week are in hand
  • Progress updates for our work to support transformation in housing services (which includes Hackney being shortlisted for the ‘digital landlord of the year’ award at the UK Housing Awards — the only local authority shortlisted in the category)

Something I’m learning

I spent a little bit of time this weekend finding out more about how Amazon’s self-publishing platform works (helping someone else out, not because I’m planning to write a novel!). I was interested in the analogies between selling physical books and publishing a book for digital sales (Amazon describe their metadata concepts by comparison to bookshelves and the advice you get from booksellers). I also think it’s interesting to see how traditional publishing is being affected by it now being so easy for authors to publish their own work to a global audience, with services like Kindle Unlimited making it very low cost and low risk for readers to try out their books.

Weeknote w/c 4 February: hats and making change human

A slightly briefer weeknote than normal because my week was partly spent with my school governor / trustee hat on. I find this very valuable experience as it gives me a different perspective on public service delivery and it’s rewarding to have the opportunity to play a part in helping to make sure that the schools our trust is responsible for are providing an inspiring education for the children in spite of the challenges presented by changes to the education system and funding.

Thinking about how we change the way we work

I had a useful discussion mid-week with our chief exec and some other senior colleagues, talking through some of the challenges and opportunities we need to consider as we look to embrace collaborative and flexible ways of working across the organisation, enabled by better technology. One of the points we discussed was the trade off between efficiency and consistency, and people being able to work in a way that suits their personal preferences. Personally, I prefer to be ‘lighter touch’ in the rules we apply and to let people adapt their working styles in ways that work best for them and their teams. But it made for an interesting discussion as the benefits of a more flexible approach tend to be harder to boil down into clear measures of success.

DMT – shifting our focus

We’re having some useful conversations about how we can make sure that we’re using our DMT meetings to best effect. Our operational meetings are intended to make sure that we’re keeping on top of the key areas of our performance across the service, but it feels like we need to do a bit more work on this. I think they key is for us to make sure that we have a shared picture of our performance, are making sure that we celebrate progress and success (which I find can get lost if we’re not careful) and are focusing together on the things we need to do as a team to help address underlying factors that might be making it difficult for our teams to make progress.

Other highlights from my last couple of weeks were:

  • Our quarterly information governance group meeting, which included positive progress and growing collaboration with services to embed good information management practices.
  • An update on the work our team are doing to update our asset management for IT equipment. With our imminent refresh of PCs and laptops it’s really important that we get this right and I was encouraged by the progress.
  • A couple of useful discussions looking at how we can support leaders across the Council in learning more about how digital approaches, technology and data can help them develop their service improvement and transformation strategies. I think it’s important that this doesn’t fall into the trap of looking like a fad that we’re trying to impose on our colleagues and we talked through ways that we can make the concepts relevant and useful.
  • I was pleased that a number of colleagues mentioned that they’re looking at writing up ‘How to HackIT’ guides that we can use to help develop our governance approach and working practices across the team. And this reminded me that I’m feeling guilty about being slow with my part of that… Something I need to fix this week.
  • And linking in with the discussion about helping colleagues use technology to modernise ways of working in their teams, I was pleased to wrap up the week with a very encouraging catch up with Tom and a colleague from a team in public realm and catching up with the work they’ve been doing together to use Drive to help make information accessible from any device, anywhere, any time.

Something I’m learning

Coming back to my school governor / trustee work, this presents an interesting challenge in terms of the different roles I have, as I am both a trustee of a small multi-academy trust and also chair of governors at an individual school within the trust. This means that I am learning to remember which hat I’m wearing, as in some of the work my responsibility is directly for one school whereas in other meetings I need to focus on the trust as a whole. The two aren’t fundamentally in conflict but there are some decisions where the right choice for the trust might not always be the most popular at the local level.

w/c 21 and 28 January: sniffles and a bit of culture

Two weeknotes in one. Partly because I took a day off to do Cultural Things and partly because I spent last week feeling sorry for myself while I battled with a cold. I’m pleased to report that copious doses of hot Ribena have had the desired effect and I’m feeling much better this week.

Feedback from Members

I had the opportunity to give updates on our team’s work to elected Members at the Council’s Scrutiny Panel and Audit Committee over the last fortnight. Both of these conversations were very encouraging and I was especially pleased to hear Members giving positive feedback about the work we’ve done together with our colleagues in fostering and housing. Our elected Members are an important link with our residents and it was positive to hear that they’re getting good feedback about the impact of the work we’re doing.

I was asked some good questions about how we are working to make sure that we are designing inclusive services and how we’re building partnerships with colleagues in other service areas to make sure that Hackney is being ambitious and looking to maximise the positive impact that digital service design, technology and data can have for our residents. It was good to have plenty of examples to refer to which illustrated how we’re meeting these challenges.

(For anyone who enjoys reading Council reports, the reports I took are here: http://mginternet.hackney.gov.uk/documents/s63672/20190121%20Scrutiny%20ICT%20and%20digital.pdf and here: http://mginternet.hackney.gov.uk/documents/s63751/20190128%20Audit%20Sub%20Committee%20report%20ICT%20update.pdf).

Linking up with other services

Last Monday we had a joint management team session with colleagues in the Council’s Strategy, Policy & Economic Development division. This was a good opportunity to look at ways that we might work together to be ‘more than the sum of our parts’ and we used the 1–2–4-All approach to distill out a small set of ideas that we can explore further together over the next month. The ideas we agreed to focus on were:

How might we…?

  • Build on our work focussing on user needs to design equalities and sustainability into services
  • Grow a network of enthusiastic change practitioners
  • Help colleagues with insight into political leadership and the ‘golden thread’ between the work they are delivering and the corporate plan
  • Develop deliberative and accountable approaches for community engagement

We identified groups of 2 or 3 people who are going to explore each of these through quick, targeted actions and have agreed that we will get back together for a follow up session at the end of the month to reflect on what we’ve learned through that.

This discussion links with a report that I read a few years ago and thought was interesting, suggesting that support services should be seen as ‘force multipliers’ for ‘frontline’ services (https://drive.google.com/open?id=1_XZW4DHCz2IlfqFH8z2f6cnHVPik7-HH). It’s become fashionable to talk about ‘back office’ services as overheads that aren’t core to service delivery, but I think this misses the really important point that, done well, support services can liberate time and add focus to ‘frontline’ service delivery and if they’re not working well ‘back office’ services can have a significant negative impact on the ‘frontline’. I think it’s really important to define our success as being measured by the impact that we have together on delivering services to our residents, not simply carrying out our different professional disciplines.

Other highlights from my last couple of weeks were:

  • An interesting conversation about data and analytics with Liz and colleagues from Camden and Waltham Forest.
  • Good progress with colleagues in housing, agreeing how we will update our governance arrangements to help maintain the momentum that has been built for the work we’re doing together.
  • Joining the One Team Gov breakfast that Cate organised in our Town Hall, which included interesting conversations about public service reform and culture change.
  • The end of Discovery for our project to explore the Hackney Spacebank manifesto pledge. The team have done great work digging into the opportunities and challenges, and we’ve agreed to move forward into an alpha stage that will test out some prototypes for ways we might deliver on this.
  • Introducing Cllr Carole Williams (Hackney’s lead for employment and skills) to some of our new apprentices and a great conversation talking about the different things they had done before they joined Hackney and their thoughts on starting work with the Council.
  • A great catch up with the director for another service which included very positive feedback about the ways that our teams are working together to help shape and deliver transformed services for our residents.
  • Meeting some new colleagues from other services as part of the ‘Let’s Network Hackney’ introductions programme, which was also a good opportunity to show them how we can use video meetings to meet up even if we’re not in the same location (I was working from home shaking off my cold).
  • Some really inspiring progress updates from the work with colleagues in Temporary Accommodation which Matthew shared with me. This is a really important part of the Council’s work and I was incredibly impressed by the work that the teams have done together.
  • Intro meetings with Matthew and Bukky from our development team and Susan and John from our Print team, finding out about how their experiences of joining our team and what they were doing before they joined Hackney.

Something I’m learning

Like @Cate (https://weeknot.es/weeknotes-47-skills-talent-and-practise-3e8b33c37b66) I went to the Tate Modern to see the exhibition of Anni Albers’ work. As well as being impressed by the quality and detail of her work and finding the history of her life very interesting, there were also a few things I noticed that I found thought provoking.

The first was the observation that Anni made to her students about the importance of understanding how products will be manufactured in factories once the design part is done and thinking that through from the beginning of a piece of work. I liked the respect this showed for the whole process of making a thing, not just the ‘glamorous’ artistic bit. I also thought it was interesting to see the photos of textile factories from the 1950s and 60s, which I thought had interesting parallels with the discussions about robots taking over people’s work that you read in today’s media.

I also liked looking at the letters and correspondence that the Tate put on display as part of the exhibition. I thought it was interesting to see how brief some of them were — much more along the lines of what we’d put into a text message these days, whereas in my mind I’d expect an actual letter to be a much longer piece of prose.

w/c 14 January: getting partnerships right

The year is well underway and I’m now well into my annual ‘is it too far into January to still be wishing people happy new year?’ quandary. But 2019 has had plenty of variety so far, which is making for a good start to the year.

We’re continuing to focus on the January priorities that we set at our management team meeting at the start of the month. For me that’s meant taking time with Henry and Ollie to look at the work to refresh our ageing PCs and laptops; with Matthew looking at ways we can make sure we’re helping colleagues get the most from the new productivity tools we’ve been deploying; and working on our thinking for moving forward with some of the work we outlined at our November away day.


A colleague asked for a chat about something that I’d included in my last weeknote and it turned out that I’d used some terminology in a way that had caused a bit of concern and confusion (I think I’d picked up the wrong term). I was really pleased about this. It’s always encouraging to know that someone’s reading my weeknotes and this felt like an example of them being effective. Through sharing work in the open we were able to spot a misunderstanding quickly, talk together to clarify what we were doing and make sure that we’re all pointing in the same direction.

Building confident relationships with our colleagues

Something that’s really important to me is that we (ICT) work in a partnership of equal status with our colleagues in other services. I don’t like terms like ‘the business’, as that’s often used in a way that suggests that ICT are not part of the business, and I am keen to avoid us getting into a customer / supplier relationship with our colleagues because that disempowers us and can limit our contribution to driving improvement (and we all share the same customer – our residents). But it’s also important that we are working as partners and are seen to be listening and responding to priorities, pressures and concerns in the services we’re working with.

This month there have been a couple of examples of where we’ve had to test this approach – making sure that we’re standing up for principles that are important to us but also staying in listening mode and making sure that we don’t get locked into squabbles with colleagues. One of these relates to lack of familiarity with delivering change using an Agile approach and the other a proposed software decision which feels a bit rushed.

I’ve been encouraged by the progress with these and it feels like we’ve taken some steps forward in developing mutual understanding. My hunch is that neither is going to result in the ideal outcome that we would like if it was just down to us, but where a compromise is needed I think we’ll have a better understanding of why that needs to be the case and will have also strengthened our working relationship with our peers.

Other highlights from my week were:

  • Starting the week at the GDS offices in Whitechapel looking at the leadership training that they’re developing to support the Local Digital Declaration and sharing thoughts and experience to help shape that.
  • A good discussion with colleagues from other councils and the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government agreeing how we will move forward with the next steps of development for the Pipeline collaboration platform.
  • Cate and I went to the management board to share our thinking on future models for mobile telephony provision. This was a productive discussion and we got a helpful steer which we’ll be using to develop a more detailed recommendation to take back in a few weeks time.
  • Planning a joint Divisional Management Team meeting with colleagues in another service – which we’re hoping to use as an opportunity to develop thinking for ways that central services can work together to help colleagues in other areas drive change and further improvement in their services.
  • Wrapping up the week with an excellent discussion with Catherine Howe and her team from Cancer Research, comparing notes and identifying areas that we might continue to learn from one another’s experiences and share thinking as we develop our work.

Something I’m learning

I instinctively avoid conflict where possible, which often makes me wonder whether I’m reaching reasonable compromises or whether I ought to push harder for things I think are important. The discussions I mentioned above have been a good opportunity to test how I’m getting on with learning to strike the right balance.

w/c 7 January: so, what do I actually do?

I skipped a week, so here’s my first weeknote of 2019. Happy new year!

What do I actually do?

I try to make sure that I meet with everyone who joins our team within the first month of them starting and during a recent one of these welcome meetings I was asked what I do in my role. I thought that was a really good question and I’ve found thinking about the answer a useful exercise.

The first response that sprang to mind was email and admin. I try to batch up the myriad approvals and requests to review documents that I receive and work through those first thing every morning. This helps me focus on the things I want to get done during the rest of the day, but I always find it a bit of a challenge to keep myself focused on things that are important and avoid getting distracted with catching up with day to day stuff.

Then I thought about a range of the more valuable things that I spend time on. These include reviewing budgets, plans and progress updates, making myself available to help people with problems they’re trying to think through * and looking at ideas that colleagues are developing to help me keep in touch with the work we’re doing and able to make sure that we’re heading in the right direction.

But having mulled it over during the Christmas break ** I’ve concluded that the most important thing I do is paying attention to the intersections between teams and their work. These are the spaces where work can become disproportionately complex and where tensions between teams can arise. I think that a key responsibility of management is to be mindful of this and make sure that as well as setting the direction for the service as a whole we’re also checking that we are creating the conditions for success and supporting our teams in their delivery by looking for ways that we can configure our work so that everyone is able to keep up the level of pace and quality of results that we’re aiming for.

* I talked about that in this recent post: https://bytherye.com/2018/12/11/personal-reflections-on-how-i-prefer-to-work/.

** Hackney has a brilliant set up for Christmas where the Council shuts down between Christmas and New Year. Critical services continue to operate and our team still run an on-call service (and I also had a couple of days on duty as the ‘gold’ officer responsible for the Council’s response to any major crises), but most of the day to day ‘business as usual’ takes a pause for a few days. This means that your email box isn’t filling up with a ready made backlog for the return to work and makes the Christmas period a real break – as a result I feel that I’ve started the new year properly refreshed.

Refining our management team approach

Having thought that through I’ve realised that we haven’t been spending enough of our management team time looking at those intersections. We’re not ignoring them, but having talked it through with Cate, Henry and Matthew we thought we could do more to make this core to our rhythm of work and take a more structured approach to intervening in areas most in need of support. With that in mind we’ve now agreed to rejig our management team cycle along the following lines:

  • Our first meeting of the month (we have two each month) will retain the usual more operational focus. We’ll use these to track our service performance and other key operational areas such as our budgets, audit follow up and risk management. Not the most exciting parts of our work, but important parts of knowing our business nonetheless.
  • The second of our monthly management team meetings will have a delivery focus, using a more open workshop approach to identify key cross-cutting areas for our attention and identifying ways to address these with a focus on actions we can take within a 30 day timeframe. The goal for this is not to create a parallel universe of projects outside of our main portfolio of work, but to make sure that we are helping to keep the delivery of key initiatives on track and working well.
  • Finally, we’ll design our quarterly strategy days to include a wider set of colleagues from across the team (as we did for the recent one at the end of November: https://bytherye.com/2018/12/01/weeknote-20181201/), using these to dig into bigger strategic topics and make sure that we’re continuing to grow the impact and contribution that our service is making across the Council, helping to deliver services so good people prefer to use them.

We got the ball rolling by taking a workshop focus for last week’s management meeting and deciding on the areas that we want to focus on for January. I’m pleased with the shape that’s taken and am hopeful that it will help us make 2019 even more successful than 2018.

Looking back at the week before Christmas and the ten days since New Year, my other highlights were:

  • A session with colleagues from other councils looking at our different strategic approaches for our business systems and how we harness these to deliver great services for users. We didn’t define a blueprint, but it was great to talk through our common challenges together and tease out some of our thinking.
  • My first attempt at Wardley mapping, working with a group of HackIT colleagues and people from the Government Digital Service and Crown Commercial Service to see how this technique can help us understand challenges we are working on.
  • A good show and tell presented by the team who are working on improving our asset management practices. It was encouraging to see that they have developed a clear picture of the data that matters and identified where our service processes need to be redesigned to maintain good data quality.
  • Looking at our telephony provision, including exploring ways that we might better meet our users’ needs for mobile telephony. Cate and I worked together on some further development of our thinking and we’re hoping to get feedback from the management board on this later in the week.
  • A pre-meet with the Chair of our Audit Committee talking through the key areas that I’ll cover when I present my update to the Committee later in the month. I continue to find it refreshing that this conversation is focused on the contribution that technology and data are making to improving services for our residents, not just a tick list of audit reports.
  • Jasmeen and I caught up with senior colleagues in housing to look over the progress that we’ve made in our work to support the modernisation of housing services. It was a good reminder that Agile and design led approaches are still some way off being the norm, so it’s important for us to take the time to help new colleagues who are unfamiliar with these get assurance in the approach we’re taking.
  • And I’ve also had welcome meetings with several of the new people who’ve joined our team, including Humairaa, Shakti and Liudvikas who are part of our new cohort of apprentices.

Something I’m learning

I’m still a novice at the Agile approaches that we’re taking across our portfolio of work. It’s exciting to see the impact that this is having in terms of the pace and quality of delivery, but I’m conscious that I need to make sure that I’m taking the opportunity to learn how best to contribute to projects that I’m most closely involved in. As part of that Matthew’s helping me reflect on the role of Product Owner and how I can carry out that role in the Space Bank project which we’ve started recently.

(As an aside, I’m finding the Hackney Agile Lifecycle tool a handy reference for that: https://lbhackney-it.github.io/HAL/)