w/c 10 December: first service assessment and Christmas approaches rapidly

Joining the My Rent Account Service Assessment

On Wednesday last week I took part in my first Service Assessment, where we got together as a team to look closely at the work to develop Hackney’s ‘My Rent Account’ service. This was one of a series of Assessments that our Delivery team have been running this month, which will be reviewed in January to look at how we can use these as part of our work to further improve our governance in HackIT.

My Rent Account is a further development that builds on the very successful ‘Check My Rent’ service that we launched last year, providing tenants with a digital service that makes it easy for them to check and pay their rent. The original service has been really well received by residents and we’ve seen great uptake, and we’re continuing to iterate it to respond to user needs and make it even more useful for our users.

One of the features that I particularly liked was including external expertise to make sure that we’re challenging our thinking and learning from work elsewhere. For this assessment Ian from the UK Land Registry came up to Hackney from the south west to help us look at the service and consider whether we had met the principles set out in the Local Government Digital Service Standard which we’ve committed to follow.

I was impressed by the thoroughness of the work. The Assessment itself had been well prepared for (including very delicious home baked cake!) and there were lots of highlights from the team’s work which showed how diligently they’ve worked to make sure that this service will meet users’ needs. These included:

  • Involvement of service leaders, including a senior member of the housing service as Product Owner – making sure that this is part of core business, not ‘just an IT project’.
  • Extensive user research to understand the needs of the people who will use the service, which included analysis of how people use the existing service, interviews with users and a visit to the GDS Empathy Lab to consider accessibility needs.
  • Our development team’s work on developing APIs to make it easier to deliver and iterate digital services is showing real impact. The project has been able to switch from point-to-point integrations to connecting via our Hackney API, which will help provide consistent data across services and simplify future iteration of the service.
  • Thought has been given to the way that users will authenticate to the service, making sure that this is as simple as possible so that users can succeed first time, unaided.
  • Small details which can have a big impact have also been picked up – for example, user research showed that users found the standard green we use for confirmation buttons confusing as it’s very similar to the Council’s branding, so they sometimes assumed it was brand dressing not something they need to click.
  • The assessment also highlighted a number of areas for follow up in other areas of work that we’re doing, which was really valuable.

Service assessments are definitely a good thing when there’s cake involved.

I found this a much more valuable exercise than a traditional project board meeting. Getting closer to the detail was extremely useful in terms of giving assurance about the quality of the work that the team have done (I thought it was particularly useful that we were asked to ‘use the thing’ as part of the assessment so we experienced the service first hand) and it was also useful to reflect on how findings from this project can be applied across other areas of our work.

We are publishing our Service Assessments in the open (http://hackit.org.uk/how-we-work/service-standard-assessments) and the My Rent Account assessment will be available to read soon.

Other topics I worked on last week included:

  • Meeting up with peers from another council to share the work we’re each doing on connectivity in our boroughs.
  • Taking some time with Cate to go through the thinking that we’re starting to develop for a potential shift to a ‘bring your own’ model for mobile telephony. We’re considering whether we can move away from the Council providing devices and connections corporately and instead pay an allowance which people can use towards their own contracts or to arrange their own separate phone for work. We think that this could help save money, significantly reduce admin, be better for users and could also help to reduce waste material as fewer users would choose to have separate devices.
  • Looking at a proposal to replace a legacy system – where we’ve agreed to pause the work briefly to make sure that we’ve properly considered user needs and future technology developments. I was concerned that time pressures might mean expedience took precedence, but we agreed that we’ll take the time to get it right and also noted that if we procure through G Cloud the cost and time of procurement will be significantly reduced.
  • Met up with colleagues from the Civil Contingencies team to look at work we’ve done together to help them use some of the tools from G Suite to prepare for the response to potential emergencies. It was really encouraging to see how readily they’ve grabbed this opportunity and are able to move their ideas forward without needing a large amount of IT help.
  • We also had the HackIT Christmas party! The elves had done sterling work organising it, which included a magnificent feast at lunchtime on Thursday where people from across the team showed off their culinary skills.

Something I’m learning

Following on from my last weeknote, I’ve jotted down some reflections on how I prefer to work here: https://bytherye.com/2018/12/11/personal-reflections-on-how-i-prefer-to-work/. This includes continuing to learn how to focus on the things I most need to get done and how to encourage teams to solve problems together.

So, that’ll be it for my weeknotes in 2018. Normal service will resume from c 7 January and I hope everyone reading this has a wonderful Christmas break and an excellent start to 2019!

Weeknote w/c 3 December: Pipeline hits a hundred (and then races beyond that)

Using Pipeline as a foundation for Local Digital collaboration

I was really chuffed to see Pipeline mark an important milestone this week – reaching 100 projects and collaboration opportunities on Wednesday and then leaping to over 130 by the end of the week!

I’ve been keen to see Pipeline succeed ever since it was first launched by the Local Gov Digital network in 2014. I think it could well be the single most important component for delivering on the commitments made in the Local Digital Declaration – driving digital collaboration across councils to genuinely transform local public services for our citizens. Connecting digital teams who are working on common challenges will help us harness our collective effort, skills and experience so that we can take significant steps forward with our digital services, as well as helping us all to share learning together. I’ve already spotted a few opportunities which look like they’d be useful ones to follow up from a Hackney perspective.

I’m very pleased that Hackney has been able to play a role in helping to evolve Pipeline. The projects posted so far cover 14 organisations, 4 of which have posted more than 10 projects. The potential for this is huge and I’m hoping that other councils across the country will be joining us in committing to publish their projects on Pipeline so that this can become an indispensable shared resource and hub for future collaborations.

Senior Managers’ Network

I had been looking forward to Wednesday’s Senior Managers’ Network meeting and it didn’t disappoint. As well as interesting updates from a number of different areas of the Council’s work, the highlights for me were listening to updates from colleagues in other services talking about work that our teams have done together over recent months.

These included adults’ services who have been looking at initial contact with the Council for people with care needs. As well as learning more about this really important service, it was also great to see how the focus on user research and service design have helped to identify different ways that the Council might meet people’s needs and support people to live independently (improving their quality of life and also reducing pressure on more costly services). Hearing colleagues in other services explaining the benefits of using Agile and design led approaches to peers from across services is hugely encouraging.

We also heard from colleagues in children’s & families services who have been using the tools that we’ve made available through G Suite to rethink how some aspects of the intranet are used and make it really easy for their colleagues to find up to date guidance and policy information wherever they are working. I was particularly pleased that this had been self-started (without waiting for an ‘IT project’ to be ‘done to’ them) and that they have also made a point of working collaboratively with our teams and colleagues in Comms to make sure that we’re thinking it through together and identifying aspects where corporate standards might need to apply (eg where these are important so that users get a consistent experience and know where to find information).

Other topics I worked on last week included:

  • Discussing ways that we might make our guidance for information management ‘good enough’ (recognising that perfection probably isn’t a realistic goal) and continue to develop our advisory approach for colleagues across Hackney’s services.
  • Joining this year’s ‘Oslo Meets Hackney’ event with colleagues from other Hackney services and peers from the City of Oslo, where we looked at ways that we can learn from one another’s experience and build on Hackney’s long standing relationship with Oslo.
  • A quick-fire (and fun!) workshop run by Phillippa and Susan to look at our HackIT.org.uk website, reflecting on the user needs it’s intended to meet, identifying priorities for us to work on so that we meet those needs and agreeing the next steps for doing that.
  • A really useful walk through of our commissioning plan, which Steve led during Wednesday afternoon’s divisional management team meeting. This will help us to identify the priority contracts that we will need to look at over the next 18 months, giving us the time to think more strategically when we do that.
  • Agreeing the high level plans for our ‘web first’ network redesign. This included looking through the feedback that was given at the recent external challenge session that Kameel and Keith hosted, which brought out some useful things for us to consider so that we can make sure we’re getting the design and approach right.
  • Catching up with former colleagues from Lambeth Council, comparing notes on the way that we’re each approaching ICT and digital delivery.
  • And I continued my introduction meetings with people who’ve recently joined our team, with some great conversations with Morad, Mercy, Thea, Bruno, Thaddaeus, Andrew and Liam who’ve all joined our apprenticeship programme this autumn. It was really interesting to hear the wide range of different backgrounds they’ve had prior to joining Hackney which ranged from studying at college through to fine art.

Something I’m learning

I’ve been mulling over the ‘This is how I work…’ posts that I’ve seen a number of people posting recently. I’m not sure that the layout which people have used quite works for me but it has made me think. In a recent conversation someone mentioned that it was helpful to understand how colleagues prefer to consume information and get their work done, and I’m wondering whether it might be something that would be useful for us to do across the HackIT team to help us understand one another’s working preferences, especially as we are still a relatively new team in our current form. I’m going to have a crack at a blog post and see where that goes.

Weeknote w/c 26 November: positive indications that Agile is taking root

Embracing Agile

A couple of highlights of my week came from conversations that I had with directors responsible for other services at Hackney. These showed that the work we’re doing to introduce Agile delivery and user-centric, design led approaches is having a positive impact which is being reflected in colleagues’ expectations.

Hearing other directors articulating the benefits of APIs; thinking of digital services as ‘apps’ which work end-to-end, rather than just swapping one tired ‘integrated’ system for another; and moving away from traditional governance to more engaging models which empower teams to deliver was incredibly encouraging. In a few days we have a Senior Managers’ Network meeting which will include a number of briefings from service teams who will be showcasing innovative work they’re delivering (much of which includes the involvement of our team). I’m really looking forward to that!

(I also really enjoyed last Thursday’s HackIT strategy stand up, which was delivered by the people who took part in the Agile training course that Cate and Matthew ran over three half-days last week. It was another great example of how we are helping to shape the way that Hackney delivers change.)

Developing our strategic approach to technology

While we have made a deliberate decision not to have a ‘digital strategy’ we do need to make sure that we are being strategic in the way that we make our technology decisions.

On Friday we had our quarterly HackIT divisional management team away day. For this one we invited a number of other members of the team to join us and used most of the day to work through our approach to making technology decisions. We based this on Cate’s work to develop our governance framework, which is founded on principles of devolving decision making to the greatest extent possible and building a positive rhythm for our service management and delivery.

HackIT governance principles

Start with the press release – what is our governance framework called, who is it for and what will it help them do?

We worked through the end-to-end process of delivering a project, identifying how we currently make technology decisions and where this is already written down / codified and where that still needs to be done. We finished off by identifying a number of priority actions that we’ll be taking forward to develop this. We’re going to start with the hypothesis that the UK Government Technology Code of Practice will give us what we need as the basis for assessing our decisions and taking a consistent approach. We’ll test that together as a team and see whether we identify any areas where we think we need to add in additional guidance for HackIT teams to refer to.

Other things I got up to last week included:

  • Joining Henry for his presentation to Members, where he set out the thinking he’s been leading for our strategic approach to digital connectivity in Hackney. This went well and we’re hoping to get approval from Cabinet in mid-December.
  • Meeting some of the new people who joined Hackney this week, taking my turn to be the senior manager welcoming them to the Council as part of the corporate induction.
  • Attending a cross-local government cyber resilience strategy group and also the bi-monthly meeting for digital and technology leaders from across London’s councils.
  • Spending some time with some colleagues from children’s services looking at the presentation that they’re preparing for this week’s Senior Managers’ Network meeting to showcase how they’re using G Suite to make it easier for children’s services teams to access policy information and guidance wherever they are, from any device.
  • Meeting with Cate and colleagues in HR to get their feedback on the thinking we’re doing for our future approach to the way we provide mobile telephones at Hackney.
  • Working with Dawn and the Information Management team to test out the approach they’ve been developing to set up a consistent way for Exec Support teams to use Drive to support directors across the Council. (Principle 15 of the Local Government Digital Service Standard requires us to ‘Test the service from beginning to end with appropriate council member or senior manager responsible for it.’ https://localgov.digital/service-standard/point/test-with-senior-manager)

Something I’m learning

You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes well you might find

You get what you need

One of the discussions I was part of this week didn’t go quite the way I was hoping. But I think that the outcome might actually be better for that, so that’s OK.

Weeknote w/c 19 November: a visit from the Mayor

Hi all, I hope you’ve had a good weekend.

The Mayor of Hackney visits HackIT Towers

A highlight last week was the Mayor’s visit on Thursday morning to meet our team. I thought this was a good demonstration of the support and encouragement that he’s giving to our work and I enjoyed having the opportunity for people across the team to ask him questions directly.

I was struck by his description of our work as being about social change – not just a technical exercise. There is a growing understanding among politicians nationally (from all parties) of the important role that technology, data and service design have in shaping people’s lives across the communities we serve. I’m really pleased to be working for a borough that’s at the forefront of this.

How we work with our colleagues and moving on from ‘shadow IT’

I had two meetings last week which made me reflect on the concept of ‘shadow IT’ – where people outside of the corporate IT team become more deeply involved with the systems that they and their colleagues use.

Traditionally this would be a cause of great concern and the corporate IT team * would set out to hunt them down and shut down anything they’re doing beyond basic word processing and email. There are valid reasons for us to be concerned about ‘IT work’ happening out of sight of our corporate radar – with plenty of risks to security and good management of systems and information that mean we need to care about this. But I’m mindful that these people are often also the strongest advocates within an organisation of the potential for technology and data to help deliver services more effectively, and there’s lots that we can learn from their ideas and experience of the services they work in.

The conversations last week were really encouraging. One was with some colleagues who’ve leapt at the opportunity to use our new G Suite tools to make it much easier for colleagues in their service to access policy and guidance information that they need when they are on the move. They’ve also got some interesting ideas for ways to extend on this by taking advantage of other parts of the toolkit we’re providing. And the other conversation was with a colleague who is more sceptical about some of the changes we’re delivering. Taking the time to talk through his concerns in more detail and to discuss the longer term direction we’re working towards gave him a clearer sense of the context for the changes he’s worried about and also identified some ways that he can get early access to look at changes which are in the pipeline and see how these will work for his service.

* this is the case for corporate IT teams in most organisations, not just a Hackney thing

Other headlines from my week included:

  • My regular meeting with representatives from the Council’s Unions, where we discussed the findings from the ICT user survey and feedback they’ve had from their members.
  • The monthly Housing services steering group, which looked at how we’ll work together to develop the future plans and investment decisions for this important area of our work.
  • Meeting with the Member Reference Group to have an early conversation about the approach we’ll take for refreshing the IT kit they use (which is looking likely to be next year).
  • Reviewing our capital planning for next year’s budget setting.
  • Working with colleagues in HR to look at the work our team are doing to help update the reporting data they’re provided with and also discuss the next steps in developing our approach to recruiting into our team.
  • My quarterly progress update to Hackney Management Team – I’ll be writing up a separate blog about that shortly and will share the report as part of that.
  • Liz and I met with someone who’d got in touch to discuss ideas linked to Liz’s recent blog post about how we are developing the ethical approach that will underpin our data science work. This highlighted some useful thoughts that we can consider and also assured me that we’re in good shape in terms of the way that we’re thinking about this (making sure that we are considering what we should do, as well as what we could do).
  • And I also had an enjoyable welcome conversation with Micah, who’s recently joined the team as one of our new apprentices.

Something I’m learning

It’s easy to assume that by following the governance pathway in an organisation you can make sure that proposals you’re recommending have broad support and that you get the clear decision that you need to be able to crack on. But it’s important not to forget how important it is to make time to talk with people well ahead of a decision being needed so that you’ve been able to listen to concerns and ideas and reflect these in the proposals. There were two good examples last week which showed that doing this pays off, with decisions being made quickly and easily because people knew that they’d been part of the thinking process.

And there was another example recently where I hadn’t been aware of a piece of work that was happening elsewhere in the Council that I don’t entirely agree with, and I’m now trying to decide how grumpy I ought to be about that. (My feeling is that grumpiness won’t be helpful though, so I think I need to find a smarter approach!)

Weeknote w/c 12 November: taking time to listen

Hi all, I hope you’re having a good week.

Listening to our users

I spent some of my time last week preparing my quarterly update to Hackney Management Team (aka ‘The Board’). I find this a useful opportunity to take stock of what we’re delivering and to ask myself whether we’re focusing on the right things. I’ll publish that next week.

An important part of this quarter’s update was the outcomes from our recent ICT survey, where we asked our users for their feedback on how we’re doing. Cate and Joe’s analysis of this was really helpful and brought out some useful findings that we can reflect in the work we’re delivering. The level of response was great (we had 684 people respond to the survey, which was a significant increase from the 402 responses received in 2017 and close to the 706 who responded in 2016) and I’m very encouraged to see that satisfaction has continued to rise and that we are now scored positively across all but one of the questions we asked people to rate us on (the negative one relates to the very old PC and laptop hardware which we will soon be replacing, so that wasn’t a surprise).

I find that the most valuable part of these surveys is the detailed free text comments that we receive and I spent time reading through all of these. As ever, there are a wide range of different views, ranging from strong positives through to more negative opinions which it’s important we listen to (even if we don’t always agree with them!). The majority of comments reflected the hard work that everyone has been putting in and I felt that overall the balance was a fair assessment of where we are on our journey. Here are a few examples that stood out to me:

‘I joined the council three years ago in October. My first week I could barely get on a computer as the network was down and when I did I found edocs terrible to use. I sat there on my first day, having come from a private company, thinking what have i done? Things are so much better now. The systems and tech difficulties have greatly improved. G Suite makes my work much more efficient. Keep up the good work and keep on introducing modern working techniques!’

‘Nothing ever changes and it seems the only way you get good services is if you work in the main office. The smaller offices are normally forgotten about or left to the last minute.’

‘The ICT team is so much better than it was a couple of years ago. They are proactive and looking at new ways of doing things and are open to ideas from service areas across the Council (rather than pretty much refusing to engage with us in the past and being told what would work for us with no discussion about our actual service needs). The ICT team feels part of the Council now, rather than a completely different service hidden away in a secret building across the road!’

‘I do believe that transformation is now underway, a lot of changes for the better are underway, I do hope ICT realise they have a long way to go! and this survey is a great step towards it.’

I’ve pulled out a number of common themes which I think are the areas that we need to focus on and these will be in the report that I’ll share next week.

Keeping ourselves up to date (aka will there ever be ‘enough’ communication?)

I’ve been giving some thought to communication. In every organisation I’ve ever worked in I’ve heard complaints that communication isn’t good enough and this has been an important area of focus for me since I joined #HackIT in 2016. We use a range of techniques to communicate, including regular weeknotes from across the team; a cross-team Google+ community to share updates and a ‘HackIT Delivers’ community for project updates; weekly strategy stand ups; and also regular updates and show & tells from project teams.

I was interested to hear an observation last week asking whether there might now be too much communication, which made me reflect on how we consume information. Historically project teams produced regular highlight reports, each of which ran to several pages including lots of detail about the projects’ progress, risks and issues. We don’t do these anymore and I wondered whether people might find it helpful to think about communication as a set of user needs and then target how they use the information we’re making available to meet those needs.

So, for example, if one of the user needs is: ‘As a member of the HackIT team I need to keep up to date with projects we’re delivering so that I know what is going on, am able to answer questions that I get asked by users and can identify areas where I need to find out more’ it might be useful to bookmark the weeknotes stream on the HackIT Weeknotes (https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/projectweeknotes) and set aside a little time each Monday morning to read the notes that have been posted the previous Friday. These are much more readable than the former highlight report format (which our analytics showed were not well read) and provide a valuable overview of work from across our programme. I used these when I was making sure that I’d covered everything I needed in my HMT report and I found that I was able to get answers to almost all of my questions that way.

I had more focused time in my diary than usual last week, but still managed to cover a range of different topics including:

  • Keeping up to speed with the work to help teams adopt Drive and move their workflows over from the legacy eDocs system. The team are currently focusing on developing consistent approaches for executive support teams and service unit Team Drives so that we can set those up for colleagues quickly.
  • Looking at the work that’s taking place to develop our approach to reporting, in particular the reporting of key data for HR colleagues.
  • Sitting down with some of our Mac users (we have a number in use by design teams in Comms and Regeneration, as well as our digital teams) to talk through ways we can make sure the user experience is consistent and works well.
  • Chairing the inaugural meeting of the Council’s Apprenticeship Steering Group. It’s exciting to be involved with Hackney’s award winning apprenticeship scheme and the progress that’s made is really inspiring.
  • I was also able to take advantage of the new Hangouts Meet video meeting facilities for some of my meetings, which worked very well. This included one meeting with a supplier overseas which I joined from my iPhone.

Something I’m learning

I’ve mentioned before that one of the things I do outside of work is being a school governor. Last week we had our termly meeting of the governing board where we reviewed progress over the last school year and agreed our priorities for the year ahead. As well as this regular meeting I was also involved in a hearing to listen to a complaint from a family who were unhappy with a decision that the school had made.

I’m finding that being a governor is an incredibly valuable learning experience. It’s given me the opportunity to get much closer to an important area of public service delivery, which includes learning about education policy, approaches to teaching and learning and also how schools support families with all manner of complex life circumstances. And it’s also given me a glimpse into the sorts of things that our elected Members have to do in their roles. I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity.

Weeknote w/c 5 November: new thinking about governance and architecture, plus a backlog that’s…

Last week was brisk and it felt like Friday arrived rather quickly!

Governance and architecture

Early on in the week we grabbed a bit of time as a management team to check in on the work to develop our governance and architecture thinking. This is really important because we need to be able to give teams who are delivering new digital services clear guiderails that they can use so that they know that they’re making decisions that fit with the direction we want to take. We’re committed to reusing existing standards (such as the Technology Code of Practice) where possible, but we know that we also need to make sure that we’ve explained how the thinking comes together so that it’s clear for the people who need to refer to it.

We’ve decided that if we want to be user centric we need to start with user needs. So we’ve made a start at bringing those together in this doc: https://docs.google.com/document/d/15vOuxEWZv7YY-rRfu5u3dNKYhdQysVSijN3sH8UxnWs/edit?usp=sharing. The doc is shared for commenting, so any feedback or suggestions would be very much appreciated!

(Our architecture team also delivered a show and tell this week to share the thinking that’s going into moving us to a ‘web first’ network model: https://docs.google.com/presentation/d/1turLuoq9VfPqK5bRSxUqJ9rZZd5Q3J_bGDmBXrpLVgc/edit?usp=sharing. I was really pleased to see them extend the invitation to a range of colleagues and contacts from beyond Hackney – helping us to test out our thinking and direction.)

Backlog busting

Our Service Support team have been leading work to tackle the backlog that had built up in support and request management across our service. I mentioned in my note for w/c 24 September that this was being planned carefully to make sure that we didn’t just make the stats look good without also making sure that we had met our users’ needs (healthy looking graphs are of no value at all if they are just masking lots of frustrated users who’ve been told that we’ve closed their call without actually getting the thing they needed sorted).

We checked on progress at our management team meeting last week and I was really pleased to see that the backlog has been reduced by c 74% and is continuing to fall. And I was equally pleased to see that overall satisfaction with the quality of service has risen while the number of users escalating their issues hasn’t. The only negative progress was the satisfaction with the timeliness of our response – which isn’t a surprise as we’ve been working through things that have taken too long to resolve.

Overall this is a really positive piece of progress and it was great to hear how the team are continuing to work on this to make sure that the improvement is sustainable for the long term and we keep pushing ourselves to further improve the user experience we offer.

As ever, the week covered a healthy range of other topics too:

  • We began the week with the quarterly Information Governance Group meeting, where we checked in on our work to apply the principles set out in the General Data Protection Regulation to our work here in Hackney and noted the really positive progress with making sure that our systems and processes are helping us to keep secure.
  • Henry and I caught up with finance colleagues to look at ways that we can apply ‘digital’ thinking to the Council’s finance processes. This reminded me how glad I am to work somewhere like Hackney where the ambition to use technology, data and service design to make things work better for users is widely supported across the organisation.
  • The Council’s Brexit working group met to discuss the developments for the UK’s exit from the EU and the preparations that the Council needs to make.
  • I joined the regular bi-monthly meeting of the steering group for our local health and social care Sustainability and Transformation Partnership, catching up with progress to join up data and processes across a wide range of NHS and local authority partners so that we can help people live healthy lives across East London.
  • We continued our work to clarify our plans to support effective information sharing and management using the new productivity tools that we’ve been rolling out. I think we’ve managed to distill our policies for this down to three key questions which will work for most user needs, with more detailed discussion needed for colleagues whose needs are more complex. The next step is for the team to write this up and test it out with real users.
  • I had a really good workshop with colleagues from the Council’s Emergency Planning team, looking at the toolkit we’ve set up to help them manage major incidents. I enjoyed taking some time to do ‘real work’ and it was very rewarding to work with them to find simple and quick ways that their important work can be made easier to manage.
  • Our mid-year check in on our finances continued, with a focus on capital this week. I’m very grateful to Ramesh, who leaves Hackney this week, for the hard work that he’s put in with the budget managers across our team so that we have a clear position that will help us decide where we need to focus our efforts.
  • And this week’s welcome intros with new members of the team were with Darrell, Erdem and Nana, who’ve joined as infrastructure apprentices, Amy, who’s joined our information management team, and Philippa, who’s joined our Delivery team (and who appears to share my enthusiasm for better governance). I’m really pleased to see the energy and ideas that our new starters are bringing and the way that they’re already helping to shape our development as a team.

Something I’m learning

Something that I always find tricky is getting the right balance between being sufficiently engaged in the detail to have a good knowledge of the issues our team are working on while also staying true to our HackIT manifesto principle of ‘Trust the team’. There have been a few examples this week where I wished I’d got closer to the detail sooner, but these are minor compared with the many more examples that show how much people can achieve if they’re given the space to explore and innovate. This runs against my control freak instincts, but I’m going to keep reminding myself how important it is to make sure that I resist the urge to micro-manage.

Trust the Team, from the HackIT manifesto: http://hackit.org.uk/how-we-work/hackit-manifesto

Weeknotes w/c 29 October: a break from the boxes

After ten days out of the office that were spent fetching, carrying and emptying boxes while we moved home, this week was a welcome return to normality! (Overall, I’m pretty pleased with how the move has gone and consider the fact that so far I only appear to have misplaced two things to be something of a success.)

Moving forward with smarter working

We’re working hard to provide our users with modern and flexible productivity tools for their work. Over the summer we’ve upgraded the software that people use and over the coming months we’ll be replacing ageing laptops and desktop PCs with modern kit. These represent a big step forward, but we’ve been spending time this week looking into the human aspects that will be equally important in making sure that we get the fullest benefit from the tools we’re rolling out.

Our analysis of our recent user survey (more about that below) has highlighted some interesting trends that we think will help us better understand patterns of where people are adapting most quickly to the new tools and where they feel that they need more support. It was particularly interesting to see the strong correlations linked to people’s use of digital tools in their personal lives and people’s preferences for accessing training, support and guidance. I’ll share more on that when we’ve written up the findings.

We’ve also been looking at how we can make sure that we strike the right balance between policy controls and flexibility in the ways that people can use the tools we provide. As part of that we spent time this week ‘doing the hard work to make things simple’, distilling our policies and guidance into a simple set of questions that our users will be able to use to make sure that they’re doing the right thing.

Smart Cities

On Wednesday afternoon I joined a round table discussion to talk through the role of digital infrastructure in ‘placemaking’. I found this interesting because the other people in the conversation came from different professional backgrounds so it gave me the opportunity to hear other perspectives.

I’ll confess to being somewhat sceptical about ‘Smart City’ initiatives. It’s obvious that technology will play an increasingly significant role in society, but it seems to me that many of the eye catching schemes I read about might promise a lot more than they deliver. I enjoyed the discussion we had because as well as shiny technology possibilities we also took the time to think about the implications that these have on power dynamics and society, and the roles of government and business in guiding the way that these develop.

The week fitted in lots of other topics too:

  • The week began and ended with meetings to take stock of our finances, which is important now that we’re at the mid-year stage. We take a ‘one team’ approach to this, managing pressures and opportunities together across the service based on the principle that we will only win when we all succeed.
  • I’ve had a number of conversations with colleagues in other organisations encouraging them to commit to the Local Digital Declaration and London Office of Technology & Innovation initiative. Sharing and collaboration have long been cited as key imperatives for local government. Having led a shared service in a previous role I know first hand how much work has to go into making those succeed. Personally, I think that the Declaration and LOTI have the potential to be a real step change in smart collaboration and I’m really keen to help make sure that they’re successful.
  • I met with Hackney’s new Housing Transformation Manager, Jahedur, who’s getting up to speed with the programme of work. I’m really excited about the progress that’s being made in this area of our work (and very grateful to Jahedur’s predecessor Carol for her hard work bringing the programme together and keeping it on track) and we had a very positive conversation. Key areas that we focused on were the importance of making decisions together (not having a supplier / customer relationship between the ICT / digital teams and ‘the business’ *) and continuing the work to capture the return on investment for the work that we’re doing together.
  • Cate, Joe and I went through the analysis of our recent ICT survey. The headline stats are looking very positive, with further improvements in user satisfaction across all of the questions we asked. ** But it’s also really important to dig into the data and use it to help us understand where we need to focus to make sure that we’re continuing to improve and meet our users’ needs. Joe’s used some smart analysis techniques to bring out themes from the 684 responses we’ve received (a 70% increase in the level of response compared with the previous year’s survey) and we’ll be writing those up over the next couple of weeks and sharing them in the next HackIT quarterly update later this month.
  • Cate and I caught up with Warren and Emilia from the Digital Marketplace team in GDS to talk about the work that Cate’s leading to develop our governance arrangements (https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/governance-so-good-people-prefer-to-use-it). There’s a strong connection between this and the work that GDS are doing to develop standards for digital work across government and we discussed a number of ways that we can work together and share ideas and learning.
  • Friday afternoon gave me time for welcome meetings with Hidayat, Emma, Sam and Ali, four of our new apprentices. It was great to hear more about their backgrounds before joining Hackney, which range from studying classical civilisation, business, IT and working in the parking service, and finding out what they’ve been working on during their first few weeks in our team.

* I learned some time ago how important it is to avoid terms like ‘the business’ to describe our colleagues in other services. We are all ‘the business’ and our customers are our residents.

** I was particularly pleased to see the very positive reaction we received to the Data Awareness Training that we’re currently rolling out. You can read more about that and access the content via Sarah’s blog post here: https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/sharing-our-work-data-awareness-training-content.

Something I’m learning

One of the things I particularly like about working as part of the HackIT team is the opportunity it gives for continual learning from one another. I’ve been keen to learn about using Agile and design led approaches to deliver transformation for a long time, but I had very limited experience of doing that before I arrived at Hackney. This week included more examples of the value of these ways of working.

  • On Thursday Richard talked me through the user research brief he’s been preparing for a discovery that we’ve been asked to do. I was really impressed by the thought that’s gone into this and it included a number of very smart pieces of thinking that will help us better understand the problem we’re trying to solve before we start to develop potential solutions. I really like this as a way of making sure that we understand user needs and reducing the risk of heading off on the wrong course.
  • I’m also seeing the benefit of Show & Tells, which I’m finding much more valuable than the traditional highlight reports that PRINCE2 projects churn out. I’m finding that these give me a much clearer picture of the work that projects are doing, which in turn is helping grow the confidence to Trust the Team and know when it’s useful to ask for more details about the work that’s being delivered.

Weeknotes w/c 1 and 8 October 2018

Two weeknotes in one due to general busyness and a weekend of cub camp in the woods of deepest south London… We’re moving home next week, so I’ll be taking a pause after this one and normal service will resume at the start of November.


Last week started with something that I’m incredibly excited about – our launch of an updated version of the Pipeline tool that was first developed by the LocalGov Digital team four years ago (Nic’s blog here is a great summary of that: https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/pipeline).

Since it launched in 2014 I’ve always believed that Pipeline is a good idea. I think it’s essential that we have a shared space that councils can use to encourage and support collaboration, and I think this approach has the potential to have far greater impact across the sector as a whole than complex shared service arrangements (which are always tricky and often fail). I blogged some thoughts on ways that I think sharing could help improve digital services across local government a few years ago, and it’s really positive to have the opportunity to put some of that into action at Hackney: https://bytherye.com/2014/07/04/one-local-gov-digital-some-further-thoughts/.

The reaction to the launch of the updated Pipeline platform has been very positive and I’m hoping to see lots of other councils post their projects soon so that this becomes a catalyst for significant growth in cross-council collaboration – in line with the principles of the Local Digital Declaration.

Forms, forms, forms

We’ve been looking hard at our internal support processes, working closely with colleagues in other support services including finance and HR. The goal for this is to apply the same design led approach to the internal workings of the organisation as we are aiming to for our public facing services. We think that if we can do this well we will help colleagues get things done more quickly, letting them focus more of their time on delivering services, and also help to build the general understanding and consciousness of user centred design.

I’ve never managed to pin down the reason why, but there does appear to be a particular genius in most organisations for producing internal processes that are mind bogglingly hard to navigate. Particular issues that I’ve encountered include multiple approvals for the same thing, categorisation run amok, poorly designed self-service, use of professional jargon rather than easy to understand language, and security which means that things can only be done from an office desk. Usually these come together in all their glory as e-forms, often complemented by an array of downloadable documents and PDFs.

We spent some time as a management team looking at our progress with this and the areas that we’re focusing on. One of these is the process for hiring new people and their experience when they join the Council. Research work with managers and staff over recent months has helped us to get a much better understanding of user needs and the pain points that people experience at the moment. We’re now looking at how we can design much simpler processes, cut out unnecessary approvals and make sure that users can find out what they need to do really easily. We’re also looking at the best way to make this accessible to users, looking at the technology we currently use and reflecting on whether this will give us the flexibility we need to design really user-friendly services, or whether we need to make some changes too.

A quick fire list of other highlights from the last couple of weeks includes:

  • We’ve been looking at the data we’re getting from the new audit tool that we’ve set up to help us understand how people are using information in G Suite (we’re using GAT: https://generalaudittool.com/) and how we can use this insight to support services in using their information well.
  • A brilliant talk by Hackney resident and co-founder of GDS, Mike Bracken, who shared his experiences from GDS and set out some bold challenges for raising the standard of digital services in local government. Cate’s pic here shows the great turn out we had for that: https://twitter.com/madebycatem/status/1046761327702749184.
  • A series of events organised by Richard, our Lead User Researcher, to accompany National Customer Services Week and help us learn how user research is at the heart of delivering excellent services.
  • Some encouraging conversations about ways that we can make our work on information security even more proactive, learning from the approaches that major web companies take to actively seek out potential vulnerabilities. It’s really important that security isn’t just an annual ‘event’ when we renew our PSN certificate.
  • A number of positive conversations with other organisations, including colleagues at the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government, sharing thoughts and experience of introducing modern working technology and approaches in our organisations and ways that we might maximise the benefits of this.
  • Checking in on the new ‘Check Ins’ approach which we are using to replace traditional appraisals at Hackney. The beta for this has gone really well and has brought out feedback that is being used to refine and improve the approach. The next step with this will be the Big Launch at next week’s Chief Exec’s Roadshows (I’m really excited about how this might help us make ‘performance management’ a more valuable experience for managers and staff across the Council).
  • Some interesting meetings with suppliers and potential suppliers, ranging from a small start-up looking to get into the local government market to an event with G Suite Product Managers where we learned more about their future plans and had the opportunity to discuss our thoughts on those.
  • A further update on the development of the high level design thinking for our new ‘web first’ network model. I was particularly impressed by the way that Kameel, one of our Technical Architects, had gone out of his way to learn about Wardley maps, look at how he could apply that to the work and also share that learning with other colleagues across the team.
  • A useful session looking at the alignment of our work with NHS partners for integrating health and social care. This is highly complex because of the number of organisations involved, but it was great to see social care colleagues setting out a clear and well thought out set of areas that they want to focus on and to explore how these link in with the developing digital roadmap for our NHS region.
  • I joined Hackney Management Team for a discussion looking at the Council’s preparations for Brexit. There are lots of potential implications for us at a local level and while the exact arrangements after the end of March 2019 are uncertain, there are sensible things we can be doing now to help make sure we are well prepared.
  • Henry and I met with the Mayor and Cllr Nicholson to share the draft vision that Henry has been bringing together with colleagues across the Council, setting out proposed priorities for enhancing connectivity across the borough and using this to support the Council’s goals for economic growth and social inclusion. A really powerful part of this was the use of mapping to show how existing provision aligns with areas of need / opportunity and identify areas that we can focus on (eg looking at ways that the Council’s private fibre ducting might present an opportunity or us to influence the market).
  • And to finish off this week I caught up with some colleagues in the GLA and other councils to check in on the work to secure commitment to the first stage of the London Office of Technology and Innovation that Theo Blackwell, Chief Digital Officer for London, has been championing. (You can read more about that here: https://medium.com/@SmartLondon/developing-a-london-office-for-technology-innovation-progress-report-2c712415d249)


Something I’m learning

We’ve been talking about meetings.

Moans about ‘too many meetings’ are a common grumble in all organisations, but I actually think they’re really important when used well. In recent months we’ve got pretty good at planning our strategic meetings (with much clearer definitions of purpose for each agenda item to help us prepare and stay focused), and also reducing meetings by giving teams clearer autonomy and working in the open (Cate’s post on developing our governance is key to that: https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/governance-so-good-people-prefer-to-use-it).

There’s still more to do and one of those areas is making sure that ad hoc meetings to dig into specific issues are effective. I think it’s important to use an open approach to bring out thoughts, concerns and ideas for ways forward and make sure that this owned by the team as a whole. But this can sometimes mean that it isn’t really clear whether or not the meeting has achieved its goals. One way to address that might be to start such meetings with a clearly set out proposition that can then be tested by the team and iterated on. But I’m slightly concerned that might bring the risk of closing down thinking prematurely and also giving the impression that a direction has been set when it’s actually still open for discussion. We’ll be working on this and trying out some ideas to see what we can learn.

Weeknotes w/c 24 September 2018

There was lots of variety this week, something I always enjoy.

Throughout the week our Platform team have been mounting a concerted effort to crack down on the backlog of incidents and requests in our service queues. We’ve been working hard to make it easier for our users to get our help and to provide them with a more personal service. It’s also essential that our users can feel confident that we will respond to them quickly and meet their needs without undue delay.

I was really pleased to see the thought that had gone into preparing for the week. It wasn’t simply an ‘all hands on deck’ effort and careful analysis of data meant that teams were working in a targeted way to maximise the impact of the week. I was also really pleased to see how well everyone pulled together and the focus that was given to making sure that we actually resolved people’s requests, not simply closing calls to make the stats look better. When I checked in on progress at the end of the week the team had managed to close a significant chunk of the backlog and also had some useful learning points that we can use to further improve our service.

The ‘backlog snake’ was also a cheery addition to the office – a great way to track progress!

Monday afternoon included a very useful discussion with Tim (our Chief Exec) and some other colleagues talking through the challenges and opportunities ahead. I’ll confess to being a teeny bit evangelical, but I’m clear that Hackney is the best place that I’ve worked for the opportunity to deliver transformational change. As a large unitary council it has scale and there’s a natural predisposition across the organisation towards collaboration, which means that many constraints I’ve found elsewhere are much less prevalent here. We’re fortunate to have good working spaces, progressive HR policies and we are making rapid progress in equipping our users with modern technology tools. The area I think we most need to focus on now is making sure that we are supporting colleagues in developing the skills, confidence and ambition to make the most of these and reimagine how the Council can work. There are many great examples already across different service areas and we discussed ways that we can highlight these and use that to help shift expectations.

Other highlights from my week included:

  • Meeting up with Rory from Made Tech (who are helping us with our work on APIs) and Mark, Josie and Paul from Methods (who are leading proponents for ‘LEGO government’ – the idea of using reusable and interoperable technology to improve public services and reduce cost) to share ideas and hear about their work.
  • Some positive steps forward with our work to help services maximise the benefits of Drive for managing their documents and records.
  • Two good discussions at Hackney Management Team when Liz presented an update on our work on data and analytics, and Sarah updated them on the work she’s leading to improve Freedom Of Information request performance.
  • The excellent presentation that Lucy organised, where Ross gave us an overview of the Council’s children’s services from the perspective of the Journey of a Child.
  • A useful meeting with colleagues from adults’ services and local NHS partners looking at how we can share information to improve the care that people receive.
  • Cate’s excellent stand up presentation on the work she’s been doing to review our governance arrangements, which sparked off some really good discussions.
  • A catch up with Ajman, our director of housing, checking in on the progress our teams are making and talking through areas where we need to focus to make sure that we maintain the pace of delivery.
  • And I also had welcome conversations with O’Cynthia and John. I enjoyed sharing reflections from experience of working at other councils and how Hackney compares. John had also been at Hackney some years ago and it was interesting to hear a bit more of the history of the Council.

The low point of the week was hearing the sad news that Vicky, Hackney’s Head of Customer and Corporate Services, had passed away after a short illness. Vicky had been at Hackney for many years and I know she’ll be much missed by all of her many friends and colleagues.

Something I’m hoping to learn

On Thursday afternoon I popped over to the new GDS offices in Whitechapel to meet up with Neil Williams, who is moving on after seven years of working on GOV.UK to become the new Chief Digital Officer for Croydon Council. It’s great to see people of Neil’s calibre and experience joining local government and I’m really interested to see what I can learn from his experience of the move. I’m conscious that it’s quite a while since I started working for local authorities and I’m keen to see if there are areas where I should challenge my preconceptions and look for ways that we might approach challenges and opportunities differently.

(You can listen to Neil discussing his time at GDS on this podcast: https://gds.blog.gov.uk/2018/09/28/podcast-head-of-gov-uk-neil-williams-looks-back-on-his-time-at-gds/)

Weeknotes w/c 17 September 2018

This was a good week, with several opportunities to take a broader look at our direction and the steps we’re taking to develop our team and deliver the goals we’ve set.

On Monday we brought our HackIT leadership team together for a workshop to look at how we will embed the training and development strategy that we agreed through our recent restructure consultation. Our objective with this is to look beyond the standard clutch of courses and certificates that are typically the focus for training plans and think about the wider set of things we can do to help our people develop their skills and careers. Cate led this and we had a really great session which brought out a range of tangible micro-actions we agreed to commit to and some very positive suggestions for ways that the team can work together to move this part of our strategy forward. At one point I had to remind myself that half of the people in the room have only joined us in recent months – it was amazing how much it already felt like a well established team.

On Wednesday, Cate, Henry, Matthew and I visited Stoke Newington Town Hall for our latest quarterly away day. We use these days to look at our progress and spend time the areas of service development that we’ve been working on and I find it really helpful to have the opportunity step away from the other things that usually occupy our attention. Highlights for me were the work that Cate shared from her review of our governance approach – where we’re trying to make sure that we are getting the right balance so that we’re managing our service well and enabling agile delivery at pace; Cate and Matthew’s work looking at how we measure our service performance and the benefits of the work we’re delivering; and Matthew’s outline for ways we can work with other services to help them develop their transformation plans.

To wrap up the week, several of us joined LocalGovCamp in Birmingham where we got together with people from across local government to share ideas and experience. I was really pleased that this year we had the opportunity to share some of the work we’ve been doing at Hackney, with Emma presenting on our Planning applications work, Nic talking about our work to develop on the Pipeline platform which helps councils collaborate on projects together, and Rich showing the work we’ve been doing to develop a user research library that we hope will be useful for others as well as for our own work in Hackney.

This was my second LocalGovCamp, and I’m continuing to feel very happy with my decision to ditch most of the other conferences and events that I get invited to and use the time to learn together with peers, rather than listen to sales pitches.

This week’s intro meeting was an opportunity to chat with Riccardo our new Lead Front End Developer. Riccardo will be helping us to develop a consistent and user focused User Experience across our digital services and you can see his ace talk on the 5 Ws of Atomic Design here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7b1W47Fbng – I’d never have known that this was his first shot at public speaking! I also had fun taking new starters who were joining Hackney on a short tour of our main office campus at the start of the week, when it was my turn to be the senior manager welcome inductees to the Council.

Something I learned

We had a really good example yesterday showing how quickly we can get stuff done now that we have smarter tools for our work. Matthew started on a proposal while we were on the train up to Birmingham and we’d finished the process of Cate, Henry and me reviewing it and then getting feedback and the OK from my boss and the Mayor by 5pm. Local government often gets a reputation for slow and complex decision making. A shared doc and some speedy messaging demonstrated that that doesn’t have to be the case.