HackIT: from Start-up to Scale-up

On Thursday we took an important next step in our journey as a team, starting a new iteration in the way we plan and deliver our work.

When I joined the Council in the middle of 2016 I was pleased to discover how much progress the ICT team had made in meeting the challenges that faced most business IT functions. Key systems had been brought up to date, steps were in place to provide much needed resilience, understanding of the value of data was well embedded and I was impressed by how few outages we experienced. There’s always more work to do, but coming in as the new person it was almost disconcerting to find that I had the time to think about where we should go next, rather than spend much of each day fighting fires.

After taking time to listen to our users and discuss ideas across the team, we set out a set of six organising principles (or ‘buckets’ as they’ve snappily become referred to) which helped us to explain how the work we were doing across the team contributed to the Council’s services and helped to deliver for Hackney’s residents and businesses.

How we defined our focus in 2016

These slides summarise the feedback that our users gave about their experience of our service and the focus that we set in response: 201610 Hackney IT | survey and service plan.

Looking back at those slides, I’m struck by how far we’ve progressed towards the goals that we set way back in 2016. This paragraph sums up the direction we wanted to take:

ICT is a frontline service: almost every service that Hackney provides to the borough’s residents and businesses depends on effective information and communication technology. It is essential that the Council’s ICT service works as a strategic business partner not simply a ‘supplier’. This will require us to listen hard to our partners in other services and also be confident in advising them on how we can help them to get the most benefit from what technology can offer.”

We’ve made great steps forward, building on the work that was done before. We’ve had a big increase in user satisfaction (from 28% in 2016 to 62% in our user survey last month), our investment in the systems our users rely on is increasing speed and reliability, we are able to use data in ever more valuable ways and we’re rapidly accelerating the delivery of new digital services. Not everything has worked out how we hoped, but the progress across the board makes me enormously proud to be part of the HackIT team. It’s the best job I’ve ever had.

Now as we approach the end of 2019 it’s important for us to take stock of our ways of working and make sure that we are adapting them to make the most of the opportunities ahead of us. The challenge was summed up really well by one of the expert digital agencies who are working with us to help us establish our ‘devops’ practices at the end of their discovery phase:

Hackney is an exciting place to be

It feels like a startup in lots of ways

You favour conversation over process

You are an agile workplace

But…

Your users have high expectations

People often struggle to know what’s expected

Lots of MVPs in progress

Lots of spinning plates..

“Because there aren’t many processes in place, trying to get anything done always feels like asking for a favour” 

We need to answer an important question: how will we move from ‘Start-up’ to ‘Scale-up’?

Helping us develop our response to this is a team sport. Cate has been leading her team to help us develop a clear portfolio of work (which we make sure we publish on the local government Pipeline collaboration platform), Henry is leading a refresh of our HackIT Manifesto (which sets out the way that we work together as a team), and Matthew has been working with the Digital & Data teams to try out new ways to focus our work and make sure we are doing the right things. And alongside that the whole HackIT team has been doing amazing work delivering a wide range of benefits for Hackney’s staff, residents and businesses (checking in on our weeknotes is a weekly highlight for me – I love catching up with the work that people are doing and seeing how our teams are working together to solve problems and deliver).

In 2016 we consciously went ‘process light’, favouring pace and innovation over structures. In 2019 it’s now time for us to refresh the way we work so that we do ‘just enough’ planning and introduce the right amount of structure to help us deliver an increasingly complex portfolio of work.

On Thursday we got together for our weekly strategy show & tell to share how this thinking has developed and talk about how we will work together as a team to develop these ideas into our next way of working.

Cate and Matthew introduce the new missions

The slides here tell the story of our journey since 2016, illustrate some of the highlights from our achievements over that time and set out the next steps we propose to take: From start-up to scale-up – show & tell (see, we’ve even progressed to widescreen slides now!)

We’re going to explore using an ‘OKR’ (objectives and key results) model to guide our work towards five missions:

Our HackIT missions

Supporting these missions, we will set clear objectives every 6-12 months, which our multi-disciplinary teams will then turn into specific key results for each quarter. The intention is to keep us clearly focused on the long term outcomes that we deliver for our users and to give teams sufficient flexibility to adapt to a rapidly changing technology and service environment. 

The missions, objectives and key results need to be tied into the priorities of the services we work with and mustn’t become an excuse to say no to emerging priorities or new opportunities. But by being clear about what our teams are focused on it will be easier for us to coordinate people’s time and to understand the implications if we need to switch priorities to respond to our users’ needs. The work we’ve done to test and iterate the approach gives us confidence that this won’t be overly time consuming and if we get the balance right the effort it takes will more than pay back in terms of delivery pace.

We’re holding firm to our principle of not having a digital strategy. ‘Digital’ is part of everything we do across the Council, and our success will be measured by the impact we have in the work we do together with colleagues and partners. I’m hopeful that the next steps that we’ve set out this week will help us progress even further and faster, helping to deliver excellent services for Hackney and make a lasting contribution.

Thinking and acting inclusively

One of our core values at Hackney is being inclusive. In a weeknote at the start of September I shared an outline of the work that we’ve been doing across the whole Council to talk with our teams and hear more about their experiences of working at Hackney and ideas for ways that we can make sure that we are living our values.

Along with other Directors across each of the Council’s services, I held a series of conversation groups over the last few weeks. Across the Council there’s a focus on improving our ethnic diversity in senior roles, so three of the groups were for BME members of our team. Within HackIT we’re also working to improve representation of women in technology, so I held two sessions specifically for women in our team. I also held a further session which was open for anyone in the team to take part so that everyone had an opportunity to feedback and contribute. As well as the group sessions I offered time for 1:1 or smaller group conversations as I’m mindful that not everyone is comfortable expressing their views in larger group settings.

We had wide ranging and really constructive discussions, including talking about ways that people can raise any concerns or ideas about inclusion, how it feels to be part of the team and ways that we can make sure that we are supporting people to progress their careers at Hackney and beyond.

The quick read version

The more detailed notes below summarise the key themes that came out from these conversations. These covered a range of topics and we identified some specific actions that I will take forward to respond to the things that people raised.

Some of the suggestions related to the interactions we have every day. There were some good examples of the positive difference that a smile and a friendly hello can make and also reminders of how important it is to make time for one another when we need a hand with something. We also talked about how managers and the people in their teams can work together to help with developing skills and planning for progression.

There were also ideas for changes that we can make to the way that we work in our team. These included some changes to our recruitment process and giving a bit more structure to our training and development offer so that all teams know what is available and can get the most from that. We also discussed the potential benefits that could be had from making more mentoring opportunities available.

This will link in with the wider work that’s taking place corporately, which includes inclusive leadership training for all managers and the work of the Inclusion Champions who are helping promote inclusivity across their services.

I’ve found this exercise very useful and the most important of my follow up actions will be to work with our Inclusion Champions to think about how we can keep this conversation going, so that we can make HackIT an even more inclusive place to work.

The fuller version

On a personal level, the sessions were very valuable, but also challenging (in a good way). It reminded me that there is always more that can be done to engage with colleagues and make sure that people’s voices are being heard. In the HackIT team we’re proud of our commitment to working in the open and being collaborative, but there were still lots of things which came up in the conversations which hadn’t been discussed with me previously and it was important for me to hear.

Many of the things we discussed were raised by several of the groups. I was pleased to hear positive feedback about some of the things we’ve done over the last few years, such as making our service’s leaders much more visible and accessible, sharing information openly across the team and working hard to encourage diversity through our recruitment. But there were also good suggestions for areas that we can focus on to make sure that we’re truly inclusive. Reflecting on these I’ve gathered them together in some themes:

The little things can make a big difference

It was great to hear from many of the people who took part in the discussion groups (including both long-standing colleagues and people who’ve joined more recently) saying that they enjoyed being part of the HackIT team and found our environment friendly and welcoming. But some of the feedback also highlighted how important it is for us to be consistent in this.

Even if we’re having a bad day or we’re juggling lots of things, it’s essential that we remember to take time to greet one another and respond positively to questions or suggestions. There’s never an excuse to behave rudely or be offhand with colleagues.

Making time to listen and explaining decisions

That doesn’t mean that we all have to be instantly available for one another, but it does mean that we need to explain if we don’t have time immediately and suggest another time that would work better. I posted some thoughts on how I approach that here: https://bytherye.com/2018/12/11/personal-reflections-on-how-i-prefer-to-work/ and I know that others have been trying out different techniques too.

It also doesn’t mean that we have to agree with every suggestion we’re given. But if we disagree it is important to explain why and, as Cate set out in her thoughts on governance last year, decisions need to be made collectively, not in isolation, and then shared so that it’s easy for other members of the team to know what to do (that’s one of the main reasons we’ve created our ‘How to HackIT’ guides).

Recruitment and committing to developing diversity at all levels

A major topic that we talked about was recruitment and opportunities for progression. This is an area that we’ve been giving a lot of thought to over the last couple of years. Actions we’ve taken include: designing our service’s structure to support clearer career paths; offering more fixed term opportunities and reducing our use of agency staff; simplifying the application process; sharing the work our team are doing and holding open events so that people thinking about applying for a role in HackIT can meet the team; and making sure that we aren’t using gender biased language when we advertise roles.

But there’s more that we need to do.

As one colleague said, ‘there’s a lot of snow at the top of the mountain’ – we have a good gender balance in senior roles but BME people are still underrepresented. We also need to make sure that we’re not complacent as our gender balance is not consistent across the team. It would be easy for us to say that we’re ahead of our industry norms in terms of diversity, but we need to be more ambitious than that – I see our role as being part of making a meaningful change across the industry as a whole.

A key element of going further will be our support for training and personal development (see below), but we also discussed some simple ways that we can change the way we recruit to help us improve.

One request raised in the discussion groups was to clarify our position on when we will advertise vacancies internally before we progress to external recruitment. In response to this I’ve updated our ‘How to HackIT’ recruitment guide to say that our default will be to advertise internally first (with a few exceptions that I’ve set out in the guide). This is intended to create opportunities for people in our team to progress and grow their experience so that they are well prepared for further progression onto more senior roles.

Another suggestion was that Hackney should introduce applicant blind recruitment across the Council to avoid the risk of unconscious bias when applications are shortlisted. I’m pleased to report that work is in progress to do this and last week I had a more detailed look at the plans. I think that it will be a very positive step forward when it’s introduced early in 2020 and I’ll make a further update to the ‘How to HackIT’ recruitment guide once the new recruitment process has been launched.

Training, development and mentoring

This was the other topic that we spent most of our time discussing. We’ve been giving this a lot of focus recently too, including: launching our sector leading apprenticeship programme (which we’re now expanding through our work as part of the London Office of Technology & Innovation); reviewing our budgets to increase the allocation for investment in training; (paid) acting up opportunities; taking advantage of the apprenticeship levy funding (we have 3 people who’ve starting degree courses this September as a result of accessing this funding, and a couple more in the pipeline); and thinking much more broadly about our approach to personal development so that we can offer a rich set of opportunities to learn new skills. We’ve also been encouraging people across our teams to develop their personal profiles through our HackIT blog and sharing their work at external events.

From the discussions we had, it looks like we’re not currently consistent enough in how we’re thinking about our training and development. Most of our teams are making this an important part of their work, but from the feedback there definitely seems to be variation in the extent to which different teams are taking up opportunities. A particular area that I think we need to focus on are teams whose work is more operational in nature, where the conversations highlighted that people often felt that it was hard to make time for personal development.

We also talked about how mentoring and work shadowing can be a useful way to support personal development. The Council offers mentoring support, but I don’t think everyone is aware of this and we can also look at how we might use our links with the IT and digital teams at other councils and companies we work with to get advice and development support where that might be useful.

We discussed the balance that we need to strike between individuals’ own responsibility for their personal development and the role that managers have in helping their team members think through which opportunities will best help them develop the skills and experience they need to achieve their aspirations for future progression (including opportunities to take on more challenging work where this helps them to develop their experience). The ‘Check in’ process (which has replaced the traditional appraisals we used to do) is a useful tool to help with this, and we need to make sure that these are taking place regularly for everyone across our team.

A very useful suggestion was that we should write up a ‘How to HackIT’ guide outlining the types of training and development we can offer. This will help individuals and their managers to make sure that they are considering all the possible opportunities when they are planning personal development.

Celebrating our diversity

A great strength of the HackIT team is how diverse we are and several of the people who have joined our team more recently commented on how different this was from places they have worked before. One of the groups suggested that we should make sure that we are celebrating this, and while our Pride bunting already makes a great impact on the walls of our office there’s more space available and it was suggested that we could link in with Black History Month to make good use of that. I loved this idea and it’s great to see that the team are already getting moving with that as well as some other ideas for ways that we can celebrate Black History Month in HackIT!

Communication

The positive focus that we have on communication across our team was recognised, but we also discussed some of the challenges for effective communication. (My personal experience is that teams usually feel that there is either too little or too much communication, and sometimes I’ve heard both complaints at the same time!)

Some people raised that it can be difficult keeping in touch when you have flexible working arrangements such as part time working and working from home, which can mean that people feel ‘out of the loop’ because they’re not around when conversations are taking place. There is an extent to which this is inevitable, but we talked about ways that weeknotes and channels like Slack / Hangouts can help to make sure that people keep in touch with key conversations and decisions. I don’t think that there’s an easy fix for this, but it’s important that we all keep it in mind.

We also talked about the benefits of teams sharing the work they’re doing. The hard work and achievements of some teams can be less noticed and that can be a missed opportunity to make sure that people know that their efforts are valued. This is a shared responsibility for all of us to make sure that we are showing the contribution that all of our teams are making.

An interesting question that was asked was whether there is space for dissenting voices and if it’s OK to challenge received truths. An example of this would be our office environment, which is open, energetic and collaborative, but some people prefer quieter space for more focused work. I would want to encourage anyone in our team to feel confident in raising issues like this. In the scenario of the office we have been looking at ways that we can make adjustments like allocating separate space for quieter work and also being supportive of home working where that might be helpful. But it’s also important for us to make sure that when we’ve made decisions together we then commit to them. There are inevitably constraints that we need to work around and it’s important that we recognise that it won’t always be possible to arrive at conclusions that fit with everyone’s preferences – the key is the way in which we work together to reach those conclusions.

Inclusion is for all of us

A final thought from the discussion groups was how clearly the whole team’s commitment to being inclusive came through. It makes me proud to be part of the Hackney team and positive about the further improvements that we can make together.

But I’m also conscious that some of the points raised in the discussions are not just about what ‘management’ does. I’d like us all to reflect on these and think about what we can do in our day-to-day work that will help us make sure that everyone feels welcome, valued and encouraged.

So, what next?

After I’d finished the series of discussion groups I met up with our team’s Inclusion Champions to get some feedback from them. They reported that people had been pleased that the sessions had happened and that the Council is demonstrating how important inclusion is. But there were also some doubts about how much practical action will come out of these and they said that a few people had fed back that they didn’t feel confident raising their ideas in the group setting or with a senior manager.

The conversations identified a number of actions that we can take to help make HackIT an even more inclusive place to work and I hope will demonstrate the commitment to following through on the discussions. My personal priorities will be:

  • Publishing this blog post to share my reflections on the discussions and the follow up actions that I will take.
  • Updating our recruitment guide to provide a clear position on advertising roles internally before we go to external adverts (this is complete).
  • Working with HR colleagues to introduce applicant blind recruitment (due in early 2020).
  • Making sure that we produce a ‘How to HackIT’ guide for training and development.
  • Looking at the potential to do more in terms of mentoring and work shadowing opportunities, both internally and through our links with partners.
  • Working with managers across the service to make sure that we are all encouraging our people to plan their personal development and take up the opportunities available. As part of this I’ll also be checking in on how we are using Check Ins across our teams and making sure that managers are remembering to use opportunities to celebrate their team’s work (eg through blog posts, show & tells etc).
  • Making sure that as a service we are linking in effectively with the wider corporate work on inclusion, including the inclusive leadership training that all managers will be taking part in.
  • Looking at ways that I can make sure we are involving our Inclusion Champions more closely in our future work on developing our service.

I also intend to make sure that these discussion groups aren’t a one-off event and will be giving thought to ways that I can keep conversations like this going moving forward. I don’t think that inclusion is something that can ever be considered ‘done’ and I’ve found it incredibly useful to take this time with people from across the team. I will be continuing that.

Autumn 2019 HackIT update

I’m starting with a confession… It’s eleven months since I did my last ‘quarterly’ HackIT update. 🙁

But I’m committing to getting this back on track and my latest update on the work we’re delivering across our team is now available to read here: https://drive.google.com/open?id=1loBpAkSQ5B4K8zrY_MmSd6s4A5FGJ_bO350pfKh7D8s.

There’s lots going on and it’s always hard to include everything that different people across the team are working on. Some headlines from recent months include:

  • A small squad of HackIT digital ninjas have successfully delivered the Council’s new website, running on WordPress. This will provide simpler, more user friendly access, at dramatically reduced cost, with design that builds on the work of the Government Digital Service. The new website platform also makes it easy to connect the Council’s online content to mobile apps, Alexa skills, voice-activation technology, chatbots or any other digital product that our residents and businesses prefer to use in future.
  • Our work with colleagues in Housing Needs to respond to the Homelessness Reduction Act has opened up exciting opportunities to go even further in designing services that provide excellent support for vulnerable residents.
  • Work to refresh the Council’s computing equipment is close to completion, providing all of our users with faster, easier to use and more resilient devices. This has included the introduction of a new ‘Grab n Go’ service, making it easy for any officer to access a portable device when they need one. This new service has already been used by c 1,000 users on over 4,400 occasions, with 94% positive satisfaction.
  • Hackney won the Information & Records Management Society Innovation of the Year award for the Council’s work on a digital service for Freedom of Information requests and Subject Access Requests.
  • Our Data & Insight team have been doing great work which includes using data to help develop the Council’s poverty reduction strategy, support our property and asset management work, and provide easier to access insight for managers across the organisation.
  • Hackney’s ‘cloud first’ model for access and security has been highlighted as an example of good practice by the Government Digital Service PSN team: https://www.gov.uk/government/case-studies/hackney-councils-approach-to-moving-to-a-cloud-first-model-from-the-psn.
  • The HackIT digital apprenticeship programme has continued to develop well and further opportunities for apprenticeships (including part-time apprenticeships and work placements) are being explored.
  • And through our work as a founder member of the London Office of Technology & Innovation (LOTI) we are working with other innovative councils across London to dramatically extend digital apprenticeships, provide seamless wifi across our offices, explore the potential for assistive technologies to help people live independently – and much more!
The organising themes for our work in HackIT

As well as delivering new work, it’s also essential to make sure that we are supporting our users well so that they can focus on delivering services for our residents. I’m very pleased to see that our users are continuing to report high levels of satisfaction and this was my favourite piece of user feedback:

I have made several calls over the last few months and have found the entire team to embody the Hackney values and I don’t say that lightly. I wish other teams could respond with similar verve and the obvious directive to resolve even the simplest of issues without making the caller feel small.

There’s much more that we need to do, and the update includes details of some of the challenges that we need to address. I’ll try to make sure that I report back in a more timely fashion next quarter to share details of how we are progressing.

Rob Miller, Director ICT
@robmiller31

Want to find out more about the work we’re doing in HackIT and ways to get involved?

  • Details of the projects that we’re delivering are published on Pipeline
  • Opportunities to sell services to support our projects are published on the Digital Marketplace
  • Career opportunities in our team are published on HackIT.org.uk
  • And you can follow our project weeknotes on our blog and Twitter

Might Hackney be digital council of the year?

We’re incredibly pleased to have been nominated for digital council of the year in the Digital Leaders 100 and being shortlisted alongside other councils whose work we admire and who we have been fortunate to learn from.

Local government isn’t a zero sum game – our residents all benefit when we work together, even if they live in areas of the country with very different local needs. At Hackney we are committed to collaboration across local public services and we believe strongly that local government can be much more than the sum of its parts. We’re determined to make sure that we are playing our part in making that happen and that is why Hackney was a founder-signatory of the Local Digital Declaration.

We are working in the open and are playing an active role in partnerships between councils and other partners so that as many taxpayers as possible can benefit from our work. And this works both ways – we know that we’ve benefited from the work that other councils have shared with us and the insight we’ve gained from their feedback on our work.

Among the things that we are most proud of are our open User Research Library, which shares the insights we’re getting from our user research; the improvements to Pipeline that we’ve led, helping to catalyse collaboration across local government; our ambitious apprenticeship programme, with a cohort of 21 apprentices joining our team last autumn and growing network of local employers working together to build digital opportunities in the borough; and also sharing our code through GitHub and our API hub, so that other councils can reuse and contribute to the development.

Our team blog shares updates from the work we’re doing and our team’s progress. When I joined Hackney I was pleased to find that the Council had taken digital seriously for a long time, with investment in in-house skills, data and bringing core systems up to date. By sharing our work in the open we have been able to raise the profile of Hackney’s digital work, make new connections, broaden our supplier base, bring in innovative new thinking, and attract great people to join our team which is helping us to accelerate our progress.

We are also making some big strides towards addressing some of the key technology challenges that all too often hold back real transformation of local public services. Our work in Housing Services and Planning is helping us to move away from big monolithic systems provided by a single vendor, which is too often cited as a reason why councils have struggled to meet citizens’ rising expectations for services. Through use of the Government’s Digital Marketplace, open source software and open standards, based on modern cloud services we are demonstrating that local government can work with SMEs, tackle vendor lock-in and develop user-centric apps that can be continuously improved to better meet users’ needs.

The Mayor of Hackney’s Digital Advisory Panel, bringing in local digital experts to help us explore emerging issues and opportunities, and our determination not to have a standalone ‘digital strategy’ but instead to embed technology and data across the strategic plans for every Council service show Hackney’s deep commitment at a senior leadership level to using technology and data to deliver better services at lower cost.

Looking forward, we know that we have plenty of challenges that we will need to focus on. We need to continue to push ourselves to deliver excellent digital services for our residents through the work we have in progress. We are working hard to provide our users with workplace technology that will enable modern and collaborative working styles. And we need to make sure that we apply the principles of user centred service design to internal processes as well as to the services we provide to the public. Our residents’ expectations and the need to respond to the further budget challenges facing local councils will make the contribution that our works make ever more important.

Whether or not our work at Hackney makes us digital council of the year is for others to judge. But we are delighted with being nominated and shortlisted and we see this as an endorsement for the commitment and vision shown by everyone at Hackney (including our suppliers and partners from other organisations that we are working with) who is helping us to deliver digital change for our borough, not just the people with ICT on their badge. In my first year at Hackney, I emailed 76 colleagues across the Council at Christmas to thank them for going above and beyond to support our work. Last Christmas it was over 200 people and this year it will be even more.

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.