Making Freedom of Information requests better

The Freedom of Information Act was introduced in 2000 and places a duty on public bodies to publish information about their work and also gives citizens the right to request information about the work of public bodies. At Hackney Council we are committed to transparency and fulfilling our FOI responsibilities, but we also need to do this in the context of rapidly growing demand and ever tightening resources.

In recent years at Hackney we have seen an increase in the number of FOIs that we receive year on year, and in the 2018/19 financial year we expect to receive more than 2000 requests. In each of the past 3 years the Council has sustained a consistent number of responses to FOI requests within the statutory time limits and we have not been able to keep pace with the growing demand. As a result the overall % of responses that we send out on time has fallen.

This is in the context of substantial cuts to Council funding which have put pressure on all of the services that we provide to our residents. It’s important that we minimise the burden that responding to FOIs has on service teams so that they can protect the services that residents and businesses in our borough rely on.

Our work on FOIs includes simplifying the systems that we use to manage FOI responses so that our processes are as efficient as possible, and also improving performance data so that we can provide targeted support to services who need to respond to FOIs.

But the work that we think will be most important in making FOIs better is using open data and smarter technology for submission of requests which will help requesters find data that has already been published so that we receive fewer FOI requests.

We’ve already started with that and through a project last year we now have a new online service for FOI requests (https://www.hackney.gov.uk/foi-request). This was developed in partnership with mysociety and used extensive user research to make the process as simple as possible. One of the features that we introduced with this is a smart search tool which automatically looks at information that we have already published and makes suggestions for information that might meet the requesters’ needs. We believe that we have already avoided c 50 FOIs because of this and will be doing more analysis to assess the impact that this is having.

In line with our principles of working in the open and sharing, this is available as open source for other councils to use: https://github.com/mysociety/foi-for-councils

We’re now working to build on that and take it further.

Firstly, we are analysing the data we have on FOI requests to identify common themes. We’ll be using this to publish more information proactively as open data so that the smart search tool can help more people find the information they’re looking for without having to submit an FOI to get it.

Secondly, we are working with colleagues in Suffolk, Stevenage and Cornwall to look at the user journey for council staff who manage and respond to FOI requests and prototype digital tools and data standards which might better support them and allow them to handle requests from the public more efficiently. This joint project was successful in securing funding from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government’s Local Digital fund and you can read more about the project and keep up to date with our progress through the Pipeline digital collaboration platform: https://pipeline.localgov.digital/wiki/244/better-case-management-of-foi-and-sar-requests.

Building and scaling our data science skills

We’re really excited that next month, one of our Data & Insight Analysts, Anna Gibson, will be joining the next cohort on GDS’ Data Accelerator Programme. We’ve heard great things about the programme from previous participants – from Bharath’s blog and from Tom Foster at Warwickshire County Council who shared his experience which was a great help in reminding us to focus down our topic of interest for our application.

From early April, Anna will be spending one day a week at GDS’ offices in Whitechapel working with an experienced data scientist who will mentor her as she works on a project to provide a unified view of the property market in Hackney. The Council has many repositories of data about housing, and a further wealth of data about rented accommodation in the borough is available online. However, we don’t have access to a single, comprehensive view of private renting in the borough.

Anna’s work, both at GDS and back in Hackney day to day, will be focussed on working to create a profile of the rental market in the borough, combining some of our internal Council resources with external data sources – we want to try to use web scraping, image processing and text processing to try and learn more from private rental advertising sites (such as SpareRoom) and from Google Street View, for example.

As well as building Anna’s data science skills directly (and scaling this to the wider team as she shares this work with her Data Analytics team colleagues), we think this work will be a great resource to help us identify Council properties which are being illegally sub-let or to detect properties which should be subject to a House of Multiple Occupation licence and also help us better understand social inclusion in Hackney as we get a better view of transience of residents in certain areas.

The programme runs for 3 months until July 2019 and Anna will be sharing her experience for others to benefit from, as the work develops.

A vision for digital connectivity in Hackney

In our manifesto in May 2018 we set out a vision for the Council and the administration which committed us to:

Push the market to provide Hackney with fast, consistent internet connectivity, including using the borough’s assets to encourage suppliers to invest in improved connectivity across the borough including free Wi-Fi in Hackney’s town centres and public buildings.

I want this to be much more than a ‘tech’ or ‘digital’ thing and I worry about focusing on or seeking out ‘smart city’ headlines without being clear about how this will make a positive difference for the people who live and work in Hackney. Done right I am confident that extending digital connectivity in the borough will be an important factor in growing employment opportunities, addressing social isolation and creating a more inclusive economy. Getting this right is not just important for our growing businesses or for attracting more investment, it is a social justice issue and critical to reducing the digital divide, part of our continuing journey to ensure Hackney remains a place for everyone.

I want to see a thriving and competitive market for digital connectivity in the borough that will meet residents’ and businesses’ needs now and in the future, recognising how important connectivity is to supporting business growth and the way that people live in the digital age. The Council has a significant role in this, working as a partner to providers and as an advocate for our residents.

I am delighted that Hackney’s Cabinet have approved the vision that we have set out for improving digital connectivity across Hackney. The vision builds upon our manifesto commitment and provides a starting point for the conversations we want to have with Hackney residents and businesses, partners in the public and voluntary sectors and with telecommunications operators so that we can work together to shape the way that we move this important agenda forward.

Areas that we have identified for focus are:

  • Looking at how we might use the Council’s assets (including our extensive private fibre cabling network) to improve connectivity in areas that are currently without fast internet access.
  • Reviewing our regulatory role to make sure that we are facilitating improvements in provision.
  • Improving access for social housing residents, so that everyone is able to benefit from access to digital services.
  • Exploring how the Council can support business growth across the borough by using our assets to encourage providers to improve connectivity for businesses.

You can read our vision document here: http://bit.ly/2SIpvKm.

The vision we have set out is just the start. We need to ensure that we work with Hackney’s residents and businesses to reflect their needs and our next step will be engaging with you to hear your thoughts and use these to shape the plans that we will then take forward. I’m looking forward to being part of this conversation and making sure that access to high quality and affordable digital services is at the heart of what we do over the next three years.

Philip Glanville, Mayor of Hackney

How we’re iterating towards our API competition

Today, we launched a competition for people to build services using our APIs. You can enter our API competition here. The competition is a chance for us to:

  1. Find out if our APIs are sufficiently well-engineered and clearly documented that third parties can access the API without needing help
  2. Identify new APIs that would help us develop our services further
  3. Generate new ideas for online services
  4. Identify new partners we can work with

But some of the details are still to be sorted out. Here’s why.

It seemed like a good idea to find out whether our APIs were so good that people could use them first time, unaided (as per the Service Standard). That meant working with people who haven’t been involved in their creation.

But we didn’t know:

  • Whether anyone would want to enter,
  • What prize / incentives we should offer
  • Whether people would want to develop a simple prototype or build a whole service
  • We wanted to protect the privacy of the data behind the APIs but ensure that it was a genuine test of the APIs that had been built

We began by posting the idea to Twitter in a Google Doc for people to share and discuss. The Twitter activity reached over 15,000 people, which was a good indication that there would be some interest in the competition. Lots of people that we don’t know talked about it – although we probably haven’t yet reached enough local people. People suggested a range of prizes, which meant that we didn’t have to dictate how developed the prototype needed to be.

Then on Friday, I spoke at a UK Authority roundtable following their report: ‘APIs for the Public Good’, sponsored by Cognizant. It was a great opportunity to talk about the competition and to get advice from the other panellists on its design.

Today we’ve launched the competition in two phases, beginning with a call for ideas. Depending on the entries, we’ll then explore the opportunities and timeframes. This may be dependent on our ability to ensure the APIs meet the needs of the best ideas, the way in which we’ll provide secure access to the APIs and the feasibility of the services. But we’ll determine these once we’ve seen the range of ideas.

It’s not a traditional way of running a competition. But by opening up our thinking, the idea is already getting better.

HackIT Apprenticeships – how’s it going as a line manager?

We’re five months into our first cohort of our digital apprenticeship programme – there are 21 in total, spread over (almost) every team. When we started to plan our apprenticeship programme we knew that getting the right line management support and focus in place would be crucial to its success – and we’ve put high expectations on our line managers to deliver this.

This week we got together as a group to reflect on how it’s going as a manager on the programme: what’s going well, what’s not going so well, what do we think we could do next to improve and iterate our approach?

It’s not often that this group of people gets together to share experiences and reflect as a group so we ran this in a retro format – sharing our thoughts on the wall, then grouping them into themes and encouraging open and honest discussion.

What’s going well?

  • We’re really proud of what our apprentices are doing and learning – and of being a part of that
  • We’re all being asked a lot of questions – and that’s giving the rest of our teams a sense of pride in being able to teach someone what you know
  • There’s a real sense of giving someone an opportunity – our apprentices are all from Hackney or went to a Hackney school, and making a difference for local residents is a big part of our overall goal
  • We’ve noticed a developing sense of camaraderie between the apprentices – working together on projects, supporting each other
  • They’ve hit the ground running – and the speed of learning is impressive
  • It’s made us raise our game – when you have someone learning from you, you’re very aware of demonstrating great professional behaviours and knowledge as a role model
  • The learning goes both ways – we’re getting new ideas, different perspectives, and good questions that make us think

What’s not going so well?

  • Managing the relationship with the training / qualification providers is hard work – and is something we need to keep focussing on so that we’re making sure that our apprentices are getting the right training and support
  • Some of the content of the apprenticeship standard they’re studying doesn’t really fit with how we’re working at Hackney (for instance, there’s a lot of Prince2 content in the L4 Associate Project Manager qualification). Whilst we know that being able to recognise a Gantt chart in the wild is a useful skill, we don’t work that way. And for some there are aspects of their course that aren’t directly related to their role – so they’re having to work on modules that don’t feel very relevant to them. We need to make sure we’re supporting them with this as well
  • Finding time to spend on a one to one basis is a challenge – as is getting open and honest feedback on how it’s going
  • We put a buddying system in place for extra support but we’re not sure it’s really working that well – it’s something for us to look at and improve
  • We didn’t manage to get everyone set up on devices quickly enough – next time we need to plan this better
  • We’re not sure we always recruited the right numbers in the right teams at the right time – the whole programme was part of our overall restructure and for some teams adding apprentices came at the same time as forming a new team. There was honest feedback on how it’s been for teams managing this

So, what are our ideas for improvement?

We’re going to work on some new things:

  • How can we generate more opportunities for apprentices from different teams to work together?
  • Having opportunities for apprentices to work with colleagues in other services on short term assignments has worked very well – how might we create more of these?
  • How can we create space and encouragement for sharing work?
  • How could we redesign our buddying arrangements so that they better meet user needs?
  • How might we form a trailblazer group with other interested people to develop an agile delivery manager apprenticeship?
  • How can we develop our own mentoring skills?

And we will also be continuing to focus on building good relationships with all our providers, setting clear expectations of delivery from them.

Building a pipeline of talent – HackIT digital apprenticeship programme

Our 21 apprentices in our first cohort have been settling in since September – and are already having a really positive impact across our teams. We have apprentices across all our teams- from applications to data, delivery to digital service design, infrastructure, software development and support, on a variety of level 3 and 4 apprenticeships. They’re from a diverse range of backgrounds but they are all either Hackney residents or attended a Hackney school – part of the borough’s commitment to providing opportunities for our residents.

It’s a key part of our workforce strategy – we know that in a market where digital skills are at a premium we need to work hard to attract the right candidates, and that growing our own talent is vital. It’s also a great way of bringing new ideas and diverse experiences into our team.

The right learning in the right way

Since September we’ve been focussed on working with our three apprenticeship providers Ada, Arch and WKCIC to make sure we’re supporting the apprentices with the right learning in the right way. This hasn’t all been plain sailing – working with three separate providers means there  are different approaches to learning, and sometimes a complex set of relationships to navigate. Luckily we’re well supported by the Hackney Works apprenticeship team, and we’ve been able to iterate and improve how we’re doing things as we’ve learnt.

We’ve also been helping the apprentices to build their own professional networks. Amazon hosted a day of learning in December, running a series of skills workshops, idea generation sessions and an opportunity to learn how Amazon innovate. Feedback from the apprentices was hugely positive and enthusiastic – you can read more from Hidayat about the day and what it meant to him.

What’s next?

We’re continuing our work to develop a network of local employers who we can collaborate with to build a pipeline of digital talent in Hackney. As a result of a successful and creative joint workshop with Amazon in December, where we listened to views and generated ideas from learning providers and small businesses we have a host of ideas for how we can move this forwards – on this we’re thinking big, but acting small, and it’ll be exciting to see where that takes us.

Next up for the HackIT apprenticeship programme is strengthening those emerging professional networks. And we’re working with Google, Amazon and other employers to see what other learning opportunities we can create for the whole programme. We’ve got specific events planned for our female apprentices – recognising that women are in the minority in the tech industry and wanting to play our part in changing this. To do that we think we need to make sure we’re consciously supporting them and that that might need different approaches.

There’s a shared mission as well – showing the value that apprenticeships can bring, and supporting our apprentices to feel confident to talk about that themselves.

Hackney Apprentices Meet Amazon

Think big

There are 14 Amazon principles for success, and Think big is one of them.

In December, I attended a digital skills workshop at Amazon Web Service HQ in Shoreditch. It was a great experience. The day consisted of a tour of the amazing 600,000-foot building full of equipment to encourage an agile work environment, from indoor tents to booth-like meeting spaces.

We had a great session with multiple individuals who represented AWS and other organisations: Julia, Scott, Josh, Kat and more. All talking about their unique and inspiring journeys of how they got to where they are now, as well as sharing valuable life lessons. Hearing journeys and setbacks from different perspectives showed me that nothing stops us from achieving apart from ourselves. Julia led her part of the session by speaking about how her journey started, what she studied and the personal setbacks she had. To hear how resilient Julia was through the tough times in her life really inspired me. You can see Julia’s achievements so far on LinkedIn.

Meeting user needs

Customer obsession is one of Amazon’s other principles and all us apprentices were set a group task: create an innovative service but start with the customers and work backward.

Amazon obviously wants its customers’ trust and to meet their needs. I saw a link between Amazon and the way we work at Hackney. We’re similar in the sense that all the work we do is for this borough, and our customers are the local residents. The products we create benefit the residents, and to do that well we need to meet their needs.

Be curious

It’s okay to be curious. To find or understand an answer, you should ask why and ask it multiple times. This was one of the most relatable points for me as I hesitate to ask ‘why’ in case it seems I lack knowledge. I questioned myself as to how I would gain knowledge if I didn’t ask? This really encouraged me and gave me the confidence to ask ‘why’ and be curious.

My main takeaway from the event was that you shouldn’t shy away from opportunities. Who knows where they’ll take us, and that’s the beauty of them. On the way, you’ll experience things you haven’t before, you’ll achieve new things and you’ll learn and gain knowledge.

An autumnal HackIT update

This is the second of our quarterly progress updates that we’re posting in the open (the first is here: https://blogs.hackney.gov.uk/hackit/committing-to-work-in-the-open). I find it extremely useful to take a moment to pause and reflect on the work that we’re delivering and supporting across our team. This highlights the breadth of work we’re covering, shows many very positive signs of progress and also identifies a number of areas where we need to give more focus.

We’re continuing our commitment to the Local Digital Declaration through publishing our roadmap on Pipeline and are now also sharing our user insights through the User Research Library which we have recently launched as part of the shared Local Gov Digital platform. Publishing our API standards and playbook are other important steps forward in delivering on this commitment. We are now working with a number of other councils in joint bids to the MHCLG Local Digital Fund for shared projects.

Within Hackney we are seeing exciting progress across a really varied range of projects. These include supporting the design and delivery of user centric services across the whole range of Council services, including adults social care, housing and public realm.

Underpinning the changes we’re delivering, we are continuing our focus on data – covering data quality; use of analytics to help us design and assess services; developing our ethics framework to make sure that we are always using data responsibly; modelling how we use data across our systems; and training all of our users in their data protection responsibilities.

Internally, we are making strong progress with the introduction of improved technology to help teams across the Council adopt mobile, flexible and collaborative working styles. And we are also continuing our work to update our overall architecture approach to adopt a modern, web-based model.

Our HackIT blog includes regular posts from our teams sharing updates on their work.

This quarter’s report includes analysis of our annual user survey. We’ve been pleased to see continued year-on-year improvement in user satisfaction, but equally important to us are the areas where our users have highlighted areas that we still need to improve. These range from the responsiveness and accessibility of our support services to greater focus on training and advice to help users get the most from the tools we provide. We are building these into our work and the survey results provide a useful yardstick that we can use to make sure that we are continuing to head in the right direction.

Finally, one of the most exciting developments this quarter has been our 21 Digital Apprentices starting their roles with our team. The apprentice posts cover all areas of our service across applications, data, delivery, digital service design, infrastructure, software development and support. I’m really pleased to see the programme launch and am looking forward to seeing what our apprentices achieve during their time with us.

You can read the full report here: http://bit.ly/2PZCYMG.

A Novel Approach to the Service Assessment, HackIT

We used different tools to track our path towards the digital service standard so that we could more widely share it.

In the spirit of transparency and openness, we approached our Service Assessment with the intention of sharing it widely with Hackney and beyond. To this end, we applied a different approach from the document-led method so far employed at HackIT for our Digitising Neighbourhood Contact Centre project.

Instead, we created a website that describes fully our service and process; and an associated Trello board that maps each of the 15 standards to the relevant evidence on the website. Our assessors could prepare for the Big Day in advance by referencing both of these tools. And, during the event, notes and recommendations could be added to each standard on the Trello board directly and contemporaneously.

We also wanted our assessors to have a view of the entire service and not just their specific area of expertise. So we ran the event in-the-round and all the assessors could then learn about all the standards rather than dispersing in clusters to discuss their area of expertise with one member of the team.

We’re aiming to have five service assessments completed by December at HackIT and will be holding a retro to see what works and doesn’t from the different methods we’ve applied so far. One size does not fit all and, even if it does, it’s sometimes good to mix it up a little.

Embedding an ethical approach to underpin our data science projects

We’re lucky in Hackney – in 2018, our Data & Insight function has grown in both number and scope, and we’re one of only a few local authorities to employ a permanent data science resource. Our data scientist works closely with the rest of the team, whose overall focus is on joining and analysing the huge range of data we hold, to help services better meet the needs of our residents. The talent and skills of the team, combined with the vision of our ICT leadership, which challenges us to look at the same problems in radically different ways, offers no small opportunity.

The private sector has led the way in practically employing data science techniques, harnessing vast swathes of information on customers and their spending habits to maximise revenues. For example, we’ve seen companies like Amazon use machine learning to persuade shoppers to part with extra cash at the online checkout by showcasing related products. The public sector has lagged behind, in part because of a lack of investment in the necessary skills but also due to the longstanding central government focus on data being used primarily for retrospective reporting. This has limited our ability to use our knowledge  – about our residents and how they interact with services – more creatively. Shifting the focus to predictive analysis could help us change the way we support people in future, to help us deliver better services at lower cost.

We want to replicate the success of the private sector in leveraging the vast volumes of data we hold as an asset to improve our service provision. These include the opportunity to prevent homelessness; better targeting of resources to assess social care cases that require most urgent attention; improved customer service by channeling users to other services they may interested in as they transact with us; or tackling fraud, to name a few.

While opportunity abounds, we face a unique challenge in meeting the expectations of our residents who hold us to a much higher standard than private companies, when it comes to handling their data. Many local government data teams are starting to work on predictive models but we know system bias is a concern to the public. How can we trust the results of predictive algorithms that have been built on data which may be limited, or only reflect how a long established service has traditionally engaged with specific sections of our community?

If we are to successfully implement forward-looking predictive analytics models, we have to build trust with our citizens: to ensure that they understand our motivations, and can transparently assess how we work with data.

The approach we’re taking:

From the outset, we’ve been alert to the need to test and build an ethical approach to our data science work, which is still in its infancy.

Building on examples we’ve seen elsewhere, we’ve developed a Data Ethics Framework which nestles alongside our Privacy Impact Assessment (PIA) process in Hackney, to make sure that for every project we undertake, we’re able to clearly articulate that we’re using a proportionate amount of data to enable us to draw robust conclusions.

At each stage of our 5 step project cycle, we stop to consider:

– Is our data usage proportionate and sufficient to meet user need?

– Are we using data legally, securely and anonymously?

– Are we using data in a robust, transparent and accountable way?

– Are we embedding and communicating responsible data usage?

One of the most important checks and balances on our work will come from an increasing focus on how we embed responsible use of our findings. Applying data science methods to our large volumes of data offers huge opportunities to provide a positive impact for residents, but we know there are risks if outputs are misinterpreted. We’re trying to mitigate against this by developing our team’s skills to communicate our findings in the simplest way possible so that local government officers don’t need to become expert data analysts to responsibly make use of this work. Democratising access to data and providing everyone with the skills or tools they need to make sense of information has to be the right approach.

We’re taking small steps every day to improve our skills and maximise the benefit of the opportunity we have in Hackney. We’re learning from others – notably the gov.uk Data Ethics Workbook which inspired our approach and trying to embed in a simple and proportionate way. The key for us is balance; we’ve tried to streamline this into a simple process with sufficient rigour to build confidence in the ethics of our work without unnecessarily slowing down our ability to experiment. We’re keen to open out the conversation and hear from other public sector organisations who are beginning to unpick this sticky issue.

We also recognise that to truly build trust with our citizens on how and when we use their data, we need to openly engage with people. We’re thinking about how best to start a conversation with residents so we can hear their concerns, discuss the risks and opportunities and agree a way forward, together.