Understanding user need for technology in housing

We are working with our colleagues in housing and FutureGov to understand what our tenants and leaseholders need from the Council’s housing service, and look at how technology can support those needs.

The work has identified that too often many of our existing processes and systems are too complex for most residents. And because these have developed organically over time, it can often be hard for the service to be confident it has the information it needs to make the right decisions about how to handle problems and where to invest. That’s the starting point for a new piece of work to decide on what technology is needed – including whether the ‘one system’ approach is actually the right one, or whether we should move towards a more ‘loosely coupled’ approach.

One of the most powerful findings of our research has been that the services and processes which support our tenants and leaseholders share many of the same characteristics as the services and processes needed for many other transactional services that the Council provides for our citizens. Reporting a blocked drain isn’t so very different from reporting a broken streetlight – or at least, it shouldn’t be.

Happily, this work fits very neatly with three other workstreams in our programme to deliver digital change for everyone:

  1. our review of our CRM platform
  2. the need to renew our master data solution
  3. work to understand how we accelerate the delivery of services through Hackney’s One Account

This is a great opportunity for us to think much more broadly about the underlying technology we use, and how we can build on it to make sure that we support successful, cost-effective customer journeys based on a single view of our customers and assets (homes, buildings etc).

We are now assembling the team needed to make this happen. The team will comprise user research, service design and development skills, overseen by a Product Owner empowered to make decisions about the design of the service. We will reduce the risk of this complex project by working to Agile principles: breaking down the requirement into individual user stories, delivering them in fortnightly batches (or sprints) with the priority of testing working code directly with residents in weeks and using their feedback to drive our direction.

So, rather than just buying a new housing solution, we’re planning to look at how far we can go by using generic solutions which we can use as a platform to build the end-to-end digital services that our residents need. Throughout the project we’ll be working openly. Nothing we do is likely to be unique to Hackney. If other local authorities, housing associations, or innovative software companies have part of the solution already, or want to work with us to fill a gap in user needs, we’d love to look at the potential to work together and share our learning.

This project will be our next major step towards the ICT service that the Council wants, and our residents need. We’ll be consolidating the ideas we have already been working with: user-centred design, Agile, open source development and working to the local government digital service standard.

This isn’t ICT-led or technology-led change. We want it to be genuine service transformation facilitated by the vision of the senior leadership of the organisation. We’re fortunate to work in such circumstances, which makes it all the more important that we deliver the right solutions for our tenants and leaseholders.

Setting a team up to fail

No one likes to fail. Many do, but few set out to. Failure is particularly problematic in the public sector, because it can lead to fears that hardworking taxpayers’ money is being wasted.

Despite knowing all that, I set a small team up to fail this week. Their brief is to spend a month creating a prototype. The team will succeed if:

  1. The service is digital end to end and delivers a viable business process
  2. The service is so good that people prefer to use it
  3. The service supports our other projects, but is distinct from it
  4. The service, if developed further, would reduce dependence on our existing systems
  5. We learn more about what our customers need from a CRM and customer portal and the time it takes us to build a service

That’s a big ask from a small team, and with just a month to do it. That’s important. We can’t set up a whole service to fail – that would be irresponsible. But a small team working for just a month can learn, and then teach, much more than a larger team working for longer. And at lower cost and lower risk.

I told the team I expected them not to achieve all of those things. They asked if I was managing expectations. I wasn’t. In fact, it’s particularly important to me that they don’t get it all right first time. I want the team to be bold. They need to aim high and make mistakes. It’s only by learning what’s wrong, that they’ll find what’s right.

The team asked me what we’ll do with the prototype. I said we’d likely put it in the bin. Whilst my fee as a motivational speaker may have fallen significantly, it was another risk worth taking. The team has spent years working to produce ‘finished products’. We previously had a simple choice between meeting deadlines and suggesting it was good enough or missing them and waiting until the product was ‘done’. That is precisely the approach that we need to change if we are to be better able to meet the needs of our residents and the aspirations of our colleagues.

The team will be able to draw on the tactics manual that we’ve pulled together, based on the experiences of Government Digital Service, 18F and Google Ventures, amongst others. And it’s work will help us understand a user-centred, Agile methodology. So the act of doing the work will be successful, regardless of the product we create, and will teach us far more in the long run than training courses. In fact, we will win whatever the outcome.
So whilst I’ll be willing them on, mostly I’m crossing my fingers and giving them the space to try their best, be bold enough to get things wrong and brave enough to learn that, done right, an Agile approach can deliver enough failures to produce a more successful outcome.

Why we’re thinking about design principles

One of the most exciting things about joining the team in Hackney has been hearing colleagues express their interest and enthusiasm for working in new ways. We’ve got lots of ideas of what can change and how we can improve things. But as we embark on this journey, it’s important to understand why we’re doing things.

Russell Davies, the former strategy director of the Government Digital Service came to Hackney this week to talk to us about the GDS design principles. These emerged as the team started to develop its ways of working. He described them as a formulation of a culture and attitude that was already emerging, but also how they served as ‘super rules’ which weren’t “owned” by any particular department but which still required compliance (the service standard and control of the gov.uk domain were other key parts of the jigsaw).

Intriguingly, Russell also urged us to not necessarily adopt design principles, but to consider our manifesto, playbook, or new form of statement. He also regretted that they hadn’t iterated the principles after adoption.

We had a brief set of discussions at tables during the event. Whilst it would have been great to talk for longer, the time-limit perhaps created the sense that we were starting a conversation. As we are on multiple sites, we’re doing that virtually, in the first instance – for all I’d prefer to be able to visualise it in a common space, it does at least mean that you can follow our thinking.

The work will need to grow organically – but as Russell said, we also need to make sure the end product is high quality. ‘Use a designer and a copy editor’, he urged. Watch this space!

 

Becoming HackIT

I was super-excited when I arrived in Hackney. But I was also conscious that I knew relatively little about the ICT service. In the first few weeks I met lots of colleagues who were also excited to work in ICT for the council – but few people outside who knew much about what we were doing.

In my last job, in Buckinghamshire, I blogged about our work, and ran a weekly email newsletter to talk about what we did that week and what we would do the following week. But in a bigger service, and with high profile leaders like Rob Miller, I wanted to be part of a wider conversation. If we all talked about our work, we’d capture that excitement and potentially showcase the service better as a place to work.

If we called the blog ‘digital’, it may have seemed like it was just for some parts of the team. That would’ve been a mistake: the work of the infrastructure team, for example, is critical to changing our service – making it more flexible and responsive.

We canvassed ideas for a name from the team, and then put a shortlist to our Cabinet portfolio holder: Mayor Glanville. He chose HackIT – Digital change for everyone. It was great to choose a name that captured the mentality that we’re developing (Hacktivism as a force for good) but also made a clear commitment that this isn’t technological change for the sake of it, or the responsibility of a single team, but a collective effort to deliver change for everyone.

Here we are!