Signposting to chat and check-in (‘befriending’) weeknote: 04/05/20

30 second read

A two-week pilot in the Contact Centre that is testing if we can train customer service agents sufficiently in empathy techniques that they are able to (1) surface a resident’s need; and (2) signpost them to a voluntary or community organisation that can help them. 

3 minute read

There are many reasons why people seek the confidence of Hackney’s several thousand health, voluntary and community sector organisations (VCSOs). They need support and advice on health, immigration, employment, debt, housing, bereavement, loneliness, crime, language, children, disabilities, learning… anything and everything in life. Some tackle incredibly tough situations such as domestic violence or eviction, others the practical inconveniences of the day-to-day.

Some of these organisations are funded by the Council; others rely on donations, legacies or trust funds. Some have paid members of staff, still more are entirely run by volunteers. A few are part of a national or even global chain, a couple operate on a single housing estate. Many we work with already; others we’ve never heard of. In short, it’s a patchwork. 

Equally patchwork are people in need of help. Some are explicit about their needs and nigh on demand someone meets them! Others struggle alone because of pride or a quest for independence. We’ve probably all known a Doreen who buys tinned tuna from the corner shop three times a day. She doesn’t eat that much tinned tuna, it’s just it’s the only conversation she has all day. It takes courage to understand what you need, admit you need it and then go and get it. 

During periods of stress or change, it’s the security and familiarity of bedrock institutions such as the Council that people turn to. Hence why thousands of residents have contacted us for help. The big hitters of food and medicine are up and running and it’s time to look at other needs emerging from the ‘I Need Help’ programme. 

From the I Need Help data, a significant number of residents are after a chat about their particular situation, possibly accompanied by advice but not always. Research into helpline calls last week also showed that every person who called the helpline would like a chat and check-in, as well as whatever else they were calling about. This includes the 20% who had more complex issues; they too felt the need of a simple chat. 

The Council does not, cannot and should not provide all these services: our USP lies in knowing someone who does. We are in an almost unique position of being a trusted institution, in regular contact with residents and connected to VCSOs in the borough. We can leverage this by signposting residents to organisations that can help them.

We know from the Find Support Services map that many of the VCSOs in Hackney have switched their usual offer of drop-ins, group classes or home visits to a phone service offering chats or mentoring. We have more than 40 organisations under the ‘Chat and check-in’ category. Our role is to lead the people who need help to these organisations. 

We’re seeing how far we get with this via a two-week pilot. At its crux, is our belief that we can sufficiently train customer service agents in empathy techniques that they are able to surface a resident’s unspoken need. It’s about catching on that Doreen cannot possibly eat that much tuna, she’s just lonely. And we can signpost her to a service so she is less so. 

Professionals in public health, customer services, ICT and voluntary organisations have come together for this pilot that will run out of the Contact Centre helpline. We’re building on work in social prescribing and community navigation, Making Every Contact Count, 3 Conversations, contextual safeguarding, Finding Support Services and many more. 

We’ve devised a set of friendly questions that can be tagged onto a call to identify if a resident needs more support. As broad as ‘how are you finding lockdown?’ or ‘have you spoken to anyone today?’. It opens up a conversation. 

We have three agents trained up and, when an agent surfaces a need, they will signpost the resident to one of eight organisations on the Find Support Services map that we have confirmed can help. Some specialise in over ‘50s, others BAME, others carers – many will chat to anyone!

Agents will manually pass on the phone number and url of the organisations to the resident – we hope in the very near future to implement gov.notify so we can text them out. However, it is up to the resident to get in touch with the organisation because, as part of our strengths-based approach, they need to choose to make that call. Our aim is to empower them as much as possible to do so. 

If the conversation takes a more serious turn then agents will refer in the usual manner – following safeguarding processes – to the relevant service. If the need is complex, they will be referred to Shoreditch Trust, which has agreed to act as a single point of access to the Community Navigation Covid Network (a group of community navigation organisations) to ensure that the resident’s holistic needs are met. In these cases, ‘referral’ means the agent will email the organisation or service with the caller’s details and they are expected to ring them back. 

In brief: the agent will signpost the resident to make the call themselves; or refer the resident to another service that will proactively call them back. These aren’t mutually exclusive options. One resident could be both signposted and referred.

We’re asking agents to complete a Google form when they have signposted or referred someone so that we can track volume and follow up with the organisations afterwards. We’ll also be listening to a sample of the calls to ascertain if our empathy questions are working because much hinges on that. During the pilot, the three agents will also be able to give live suggestions or feedback on Slack, which we can act on immediately if appropriate.

Customer service agents are people-people and are naturally empathetic. This is about giving them the space to be so and not simply measuring performance by the number of calls they get through in a day. For this reason, the Contact Centre has suspended its usual performance metrics. We’d rather a conversation took a little longer and truly helped the resident. 

Next week, we hope to be able to share the results of the pilot and retrospective with you, and work out our next steps. 

Finding Support Services weeknote 01/05/20

This week’s note is brought to you by team member Winston Mullings.


Here’s the Too Long; Didn’t Read version of the weeknote:

  • We have now got over 100 organisations listed on the map
  • Caught up with our neighbouring boroughs (Tower Hamlets and Haringey) on what they’re doing and keeping in touch as we share many similarities in our approaches
  • The GIS team has been key to the ongoing development of the map 
  • Our user research findings indicate that users understand the majority of the categories listed and have helped shaped future iterations
  • We learnt about the approach that Buckinghamshire County Council (in partnership with FutureGov) is taking on a similar product, which is useful insight as our product evolves.  

And the detailed version…

In addition to calling organisations to check they’re still delivering the services they say they are, we sent emails to remind them to keep their information up to date online. To ensure this product can be sustainable, it’s important to test whether a more light touch, digital communication approach can be as successful as individual (admin heavy) calls. 

Comparative analysis

We attended a virtual Show & Tell hosted by FutureGov. They’re working with Buckinghamshire County Council on a Family Information Service (FIS) that has many similarities with our project. 

The data they collect is more detailed than what we collect and display (eg their organisations have services, and a service can have more than one location). We think this will be much harder to keep up to date, but it is an interesting approach. We will continue to follow up with how they’re getting on as we’re always keen to get inspiration from other’s successes and uncover opportunities in our learnings!

Category finalisation

We carried out a card sort exercise last week to understand how people group categories into an overarching theme; this week we analysed the results. Participants were mostly in agreement with each other (e.g. 94% of participants placed the category ‘sexual health’ under the theme ‘stay safe and healthy’). However a few of the results were not as conclusive (e.g. 39% of participants placed ‘bereavement and grief’ under the theme ‘feeling anxious’ and 36% placed it under the theme ‘families’). 

After a team review of the insights found in the exercise, we decided in the next round of user research we would remove the category ‘older people’, add the category ‘faith groups’ and display ‘bereavement and grief’ under both ‘health’ and ‘families’.

Cross collaboration

Working collaboratively with the GIS and the front-end development teams has been essential for the continual improvement of the map. They are currently working on a list (rather than map) view of organisations as per user feedback. It is due to GIS’ hard work and efficiency that we are able to implement changes rapidly (over 10 iterations have happened so far). We wouldn’t be able to achieve so much, so quickly, without their continued support. 

We also completed a mini show & tell with our neighbouring boroughs (Tower Hamlets and Haringey) and will keep in touch with them as we share many similarities in our approaches.

Map statistics

Drumroll please…There are now over 100 organisations featured on the Find support services map; and we are averaging around 150 views a day during the week and have had nearly 7000 views since launch!

Finding support services near you: weeknote 23/04/20

This week’s note brought to you by team member Meg Dibb-Fuller.

As per your feedback, here’s the TL; DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read) version of the weeknote.

What’s new on the map?

  • Added one new category, ‘families’ – this lists all organisations that provide support for parents and carers, children and young people
  • Added a contact number to each listing for those that want to signpost someone to a service quickly rather than browse themselves. The data can also be downloaded (it changes daily, so download it often)
  • Made five changes to the look and feel of the map to make it more user friendly

Read the previous product updates here.

Extended read

  • Conducted two pieces of user research. One to understand how we can improve the functionality of the map now and the other to help us design the future webpage (post Covid)
  • 98 organisations are now listed on the map, all of which are providing an online or phone alternative to their usual services (and we’ve spoken to them all at least once this week)
  • Our (subtitled) video is now live on the Hackney Council YouTube channel for those that prefer learning in a more visual, interactive way
  • Presented the map at this week’s CCG’s Practitioner Forum (120 people rocked up) and we hope more GPs and practice staff start to use the map (and send some great feedback for us to action!)

How can you help?

  • Share the map with your team members, service users, friends and family, on social media!
  • If you or you know of an organisation that wants to create, expand or improve their online presence during this time, visit the Digital presence guide
  • If you know of an organisation that should be featured on the map but aren’t, please ask them to fill in this form
  • If you have suggestions on how the map can be improved, please email us

Until next week, keep healthy and safe.

M 🙂

Accelerating online user journeys: weeknotes 16/04/20

There are more than 900 pages on the Hackney website, covering probably thousands of user journeys, small and large. With the closure of Hackney Service Centre to visitors and more traffic shifting to the internet, we need to make sure key tasks and information are as easy to access online as possible. 

So what are those key user journeys? Step up to the plate, Google Analytics. We don’t just want to know which are the most visited pages as that may well be consistent before and after lockdown. We want to understand, particularly, which pages are experiencing more traffic than usual because of the knock-on effects of Coronavirus. 

We found that, compared to the same period the previous month, pages around benefit claims, discretionary payments and council tax discounts were well up in the stats. We already collect feedback on the website and this quantitative data was backed up by comments that pretty much boiled down to: “I have less income and need help.” 

The existence of ‘Benefits Specialists’ in the Contact Centre attests to the somewhat complex nature of the benefits system. Our user journey and content lead on this, Eleanor Snow, was able to utilise these agents’ expertise to help us understand the process, and also residents’ queries, more fully. We learnt that there are three main groups of users, with different reductions and schemes available to each:

  1. Those who are already claiming benefits of some sort
  2. Those who aren’t
  3. Those with no recourse to public funds (eg certain immigrants or asylum seekers)

The second cohort is expected to grow during coronavirus, and comprises residents possibly entirely unfamiliar with the benefits system. This underscores the necessity of making the content and user journeys as simple as possible, which we attempted to achieve by looking at:

  • how best to lead users through their individual user journeys 
  • how to reorganise the menu to signpost users to content
  • which pages need editing or removing
  • ensuring plain English as much as possible

We worked closely with the Benefits and Customer Services teams and the result was a new page entitled Coronavirus financial support. We included the word ‘Coronavirus’ as it will help the page gain greater traction in Google search results. The design of the page funnels users down either of the three user journeys and presents the options available to each. 

What we do not want to do, however, is repeat information available on central government websites, such as Therefore, we signpost users to those resources where appropriate and concentrate instead on highlighting the additional support that Hackney Council is able to offer. We may not always be able to “solve the whole problem”, as per the GDS service standard, but we can at least give a steer. 

‘Financial help’ also encroaches on departments beyond Benefits, notably Council Tax and Housing, and we liaised with key staff in those areas to provide a joined up approach. We regrouped existing pages in the benefits and council tax menu to reflect better the process and challenges that residents go through when making a claim. There is some crossover with benefits and council tax content and this collaborative approach ensures that relevant content is flagged at a relevant time, regardless of department.

Of course, we want to measure the success – or otherwise, we’re not infallible! – of our changes. We can already see that the new Coronavirus financial support page has the lowest bounce rate of pages with more than 20 page views. For those not familiar with Google Analytics parlance, this indicates that users are sticking around to read the content. We can confirm this by looking at a Hotjar heatmap, which shows how users are interacting with a page by tracking cursor clicks. 16% of clicks were on ‘I am not currently claiming any financial support to pay rent and council tax’ and 15% on ‘I am currently claiming financial support to pay rent and council tax’. 

The new page also has the lowest exit rate of pages with more than 20 page views (22% compared to the site average of 52%). Meaning that 78% of users are continuing with their website journey and not leaving the Hackney site. We cannot yet confirm where they are going – and we would hope it is to our signposted pages – but, once we set up Google Tag Manager, this will become clearer. 

We’ll continue to monitor progress but, for now, we say adieu to Benefits. And it’s back to analytics, call logs, site feedback and good old-fashioned anecdotal evidence to identify the next user journey ripe for optimisation.

Finding support services: retrospective 08/04/20

We made a bold switch from a traditional ‘directory of services’ with its labour-intensive, top-down model to a delegated approach where organisations are responsible for their own listings. We want to know if our Find Support Services model has got legs, and COVID-19 has provided an unexpected opportunity to validate the proposition.

Yesterday afternoon, we ran a ‘retro’ to explore the good, the bad and the ugly of our model. We used a collaborative tool called IdeaFlip to run the workshop, which meant we could all participate online – and move Postits around without them hurling themselves off the wall, for a change.


Here are the results!

Principle 1

We will signpost health professionals and residents to relevant organisations and the onus is on them to keep their digital channels up to date with details of the services that they provide.

Has this been proved a good principle?

Yes. They pretty much all have a website or Twitter and keep it up to date, especially the latter. 

Principle 2

It’s not the concept of a directory that’s outmoded it’s the fact they are not kept up to date that renders them redundant.

Has this been proved true?

Yes, we know from both residents and professionals that they are finding this information useful because it is up to date. And we don’t really need to remind organisations to keep it up to date, they do it anyway. 

Principle 3

Organisations will sign up of their own volition.

Has this been proved true?

Yes, if we build it, they will come. But we have also learnt that the verification process we co-designed with our key stakeholders (including health and care professionals) is robust.

What else have we learnt?

The same front-end can function for both residents and professionals, however, there is a difference in the language they use. We should definitely progress our synonyms piece whereby we cross-reference search terms against a thesaurus.

As we suspected, some users need a search facility; and others also want a list of results and not solely a map.

What do we need to explore further?

  • There is often a disconnect between the person who submits the listing and the person who updates the social media. Is this a problem?
  • We’d like to know if or how organisations have adapted to make sure their digital presence is particularly up to date during Covid. Is this a reactive response or would they be doing this anyway?
  • A character limit on the About Us profile and some explanatory text for organisations on categories wouldn’t go amiss. 

We’re feeding our findings back into each iteration of the map and our Agile backlog but, all in all, our model is proving well able to stand on its own feet.