Liberating our social care documents

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Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hackney had taken steps to move some of our corporate applications outside the firewall, though still requiring a council-managed device. With the urgent move of as many staff as possible to home working, many staff are using personal devices or council-owned Chromebooks which aren’t configured to access corporate apps even outside the firewall. Therefore, for these apps, staff use a virtual desktop service called MyOffice. But with so many people trying to use this service at the same time, it’s not always reliable and can be slow. 

Mosaic is one of our main caseworking applications, which we made available to staff over the internet to reduce pressure on MyOffice. However, it has two document management systems associated with it, Comino and eDocs. Both of these required users to log in using MyOffice; this meant the end-to-end user experience was poor and complex, and there was still an unnecessary load on MyOffice. Our aim was to enable staff access to their documents without having to use MyOffice. 

We put together a team made up of staff from Hackney and developers from MadeTech, who had been engaged to support our move off MyOffice. We identified three areas of work:

  1. Exposing eDocs documents via an API with Google authentication
  2. Adding support for Social Care Comino into the W2 Documents API (and potentially exposing an interface to query it)
  3. Redirecting the user from the URL stored in Mosaic to the correct URL for the document
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We established pretty quickly that Comino documents were not heavily used by staff in comparison to eDocs documents – they are mostly legacy documents. We decided that we could leave these documents being accessed via MyOffice; although not exactly an edge case, it was much lower priority than eDocs. 

There was an existing API for eDocs, so we built a simple tool that uses the existing document ID as the input to retrieve the document from the remote server to AWS, and displays the document in the browser. This part of the project was relatively quick and we thought we’d be done in days. 

The last step was to redirect the (internal) URL in Mosaic to the new URL at – and this is where we became unstuck. While we were able to translate the internal URL to the internet URL, we just couldn’t get the systems to connect. On investigation, we discovered that Mosaic codes the URL into the “Display document” button. Buried deep in the system we found a config file that we thought would control that… but no. We needed a Plan C.

We scoured the technical documentation and found the Frameworki API in which we could change the URL in a config file… and it worked! 

We used otherwise lost time to enhance the prototype service so that documents convert to PDF on download, and set up additional monitoring. Preventing automatic download of documents is important, given the potential nature of the content, but at least having the ability to view the document is a game-changer for our staff. 

We’re using the council’s existing Google Single Sign-On service to secure access, and we’ve set up a separate group to restrict access to the right people. If someone tries to open a document that isn’t web-native, they get a friendly error message telling them to use MyOffice for that document. 

Nothing in this system is new; indeed, MadeTech wisely built upon work they had done for the council’s Single View system used by Benefits & Housing Needs. And the work that we have done around authentication has been reused by the council’s I Need Help service. 

Pleasingly, we only found two bugs in testing, and one of them wasn’t really a bug as the system was working as designed. However, we found that if a user edited a document then uploaded it again, the user would be presented with the original document from cache. We had done this deliberately to speed up the process, but decided it would be better to serve up a fresh copy every time, even if it takes a little longer. 

Towards the end of the project we held a retrospective, which was positive. For a team which had never worked together, never mind together remotely, our teamwork and collaboration stood out. We thought that we were truly agile, using the daily stand-up as a daily planning session for that day’s priorities, and we pivoted quickly to find paths around blockers. 

In terms of future work, if we decide to develop this further, we’d probably look to fix the caching issue first so that the API looks to see if there’s a more recent version of a document each time it’s requested. There may also be opportunities to widen the range of documents that can be viewed in a browser. But we’ll be interested in colleagues’ feedback. 

Running a virtual kick-off workshop

In my career as a delivery manager I’ve run countless workshops – retrospectives, process, training, culture, you name it. Being in a room with the participants, a slide deck, a stack of Post-Its and a handful of Sharpies brings me energy and excitement. I mean, I’m fairly tired at the end of it sometimes, but I love the warm’n’fuzzy feels of a good workshop that people enjoyed. 

Last week I needed to run a kick-off workshop for the Platform API project. This would be the first time that the project team from Hackney would come together with the team from Made Tech. But right now we’re not in a normal situation. As many people as possible at Hackney Council are working from home – indeed, we’ve gone to great effort to ensure our colleagues don’t have to come into the office unless they absolutely need to.

So it’s not possible to run an in-person workshop. How best to run this entirely online?

Fortunately we have a lot of tools at our disposal. At Hackney we use G Suite, which includes Meet videoconferencing, and the Hack-IT delivery team has a few extra tools like Ideaflip and Trello. In the end, I decided to keep it simple and designed a shared slide deck in G Suite that people could fill in as we went along, like an exercise book, with everyone attending by video. 

I broke the workshop into three one-hour sessions. I’ve noticed over the last few weeks that spending lots of time on video conferences is really tiring for some reason, and so I didn’t want people to feel mentally worn out. Planning breaks is just good practice anyway, but this gave people plenty of time to stretch legs, get lunch, etc. 

We started with a Futurespective. This is like a reverse retro, an opportunity for the team to define what good looks like, and to discuss hopes and fears. For “Defining Nirvana”, we broke into pairs and used a chat app to work on a sentence that defined what good would look like, then after a short period of time we all came back to the conference to share thoughts. I then noted commonalities to devise a shared sentence later.

Hopes and Fears was a little easier. I set up a series of blank slides for the team to type directly into, with “+1” put next to things you agreed with. This actually worked really well, it really was like using Post-Its and dot voting. We could have used Ideaflip for this and achieved a similar result, but using another tool introduces complexity – something I wanted to avoid in a virtual workshop. We talked through the Hopes and Fears like you would in a normal retrospective. 

In the second session we focused on our stakeholders and our principles. Now I hate stakeholder mapping; I find it a bit artificial and it’s easy to forget which quadrant you put someone into, especially when they act like they’re in a different quadrant and how dare they, they’re Keep Informed! 

However I love using Emily Webber’s Team Onion concept as it’s much easier to understand. In short, you define your stakeholders as Collaborators or Supporters, much in the same way as you might think of your family and friends – people that you’re closer to, or the extent to which people are involved in your life. It was noticeable how quickly we were able to list our stakeholders when we thought of them in this new way – and considered groups we might have forgotten about otherwise. 

The Principles section was aimed at getting a Team Charter of sorts. Like for Hopes and Fears, the team had a series of blank slides to type into with liberal use of +1.  Unlike the Hopes and Fears section, I highlighted five or six similar clusters for us to discuss – why was this important to us? What did it mean in practice? We also got some good process stuff out of this, things that reflect how we should work together rather than the culture of the team. 

We broke for a few hours at this point, to give people time for lunch and other work, before reconvening to plan our first sprint. This was pretty much the same as any other sprint planning I’ve been in, where the team discusses the goal and breaks that down while one person (me, in this case) writes it all up in Jira. 

You can read the output of the first two sessions in this consolidated deck. This is not significantly different to what I might expect from a session where we were all in the same room. 

What have I learned? Well it’s perfectly possible to run a kick-off session using online tools, and in fact we might have been a little quicker. With everyone being remote, it’s more difficult to go off-piste, or have side conversations, little anecdotes or general fun. At the same time, this is what can make a workshop fun and interesting, so it’s a hard balance. 

What might I do differently? Possibly change up the activities; definitely make more use of the highlighter tool in Google Slides! One mistake – if that’s the right word – was that I was working on a single-screen set-up. Because I needed to have the presentation open at all times, I couldn’t look at the video conference to gauge engagement. I was also conscious that I was talking a lot, and some of the team perhaps weren’t heard as much as they should have been. It’s a good learning point. 

That said, after the workshop I got some really good feedback on the session – so it is possible to get the same warm’n’fuzzy feeling even when it’s a virtual conference!

Helping our colleagues to get set up for working from home, fast

As you can imagine, the HackIT support team has experienced a significant surge in calls as the country gets used to living in lockdown. Supporting thousands of our colleagues to move to remote working was bound to raise some issues, even though we were already well prepared via our investment in cloud services such as G Suite.

We are continuing to ask for regular feedback from our users (we do a monthly short survey of people we’ve helped) and we’ve been very pleased to see great feedback scores coming back.

(1 = most satisfied, 7 = least satisfied).

The hard work and skill of everyone involved in supporting people across Hackney Council, who are all doing vital work in these very trying circumstances, has made an amazing difference to the Council’s service delivery.

We’ll leave you with a few quotes from our users.

“Support was extremely helpful and had the situation resolved swiftly, under such circumstances of high demand on the ICT department I was more than pleased with just how quickly they were able to help me in my request. Many thanks, I can continue to work from home now!”

“ICT has been extremely helpful today and on all other calls prior to today.”

“I received an excellent service and the person I spoke to was very helpful and polite”

“The ICT Officer was friendly, had good customer service and was helpful and sorted the problem for me.”

“Very happy with the service. Response and solution were dealt with promptly.”

“Very prompt response. The support staff were extremely helpful and efficient. I was grateful with the help she offered”

“Helpful and friendly. Waited on the phone for approx 15 mins but aside from that the service was very efficient.”

“Colleagues in ICT are always helpful when I have an ICT problem. I appreciate that there is an unprecedented level of home working at present but it was helpful to receive details of the fix that ICT are intending to roll out

A thank you to HackIT

Less than two weeks ago I was handing out a much deserved award to Andrew at Hackney Stars, a world away from the challenges we all now face due to Covid-19 / Coronavirus.

The nature of this crisis is for all of us meaning late nights (it’s almost 1am as I finalise this), early mornings and unusual working environments often with new teams, crazy deadlines and the unexpected only just around the corner. For us at the Council, while we are all doing our jobs no one can fail to be moved by the backdrop against which we are working. It can include colleagues, family friends and neighbours self isolating, often fearful about what might happen next and the challenge of adjusting to new demands, working from home and now the ubiquitous team catch up on ‘hangouts’ with the associated magnolia walls, random cats and now children in the background. The hints and tips shared by the HackIT team have been especially useful as I hosted meetings of 30 plus councillors late into the evening on meet.

The latter remote or not so remote working for me, as I’m still hunkered down in the Town Hall, wouldn’t have been possible without Temple, Yulian and Ali helping set up my office so I had the latest hangouts meeting kit so that critical meetings can take place – all delivered to me when the Town Hall faced a fire alarm and I was on a conference call with the Secretary of State sat in the car park. Firmly the shape of things to come!

Meanwhile Cate, Colin, Anwar, Nigel, Indran, Manzeela, Yvonne and all the Service Support team and volunteers from across the HackIT team were getting people set up so that they could work from home, delivering over 400 laptops in next to no time for colleagues who said they didn’t have computers at home. Luckily anticipating the Prime Minister’s announcement that most of the country would now be working from home.

Both of these teams made us more resilient as an organisation, able to face the challenges of the past two weeks. That wasn’t always easy as the support team can attest, as they handled the hundreds of calls from colleagues who needed help to enable them to work from home.

In parallel, we had Liz and the Data & Insight team looking at a different type of resilience. Early on, several of us realised that the Council held a huge amount of often disparate information on our residents that could be useful if brought together. The mapping and thinking they have done, bringing together this data about the different types of vulnerability in Hackney is inspiring. That work is now proving invaluable as we develop our volunteer hubs, giving us crucial information ahead of the Government on who in Hackney is likely to need help and why, sometimes challenging common understandings of vulnerability.

This is sitting alongside and shaping the work led by Matthew and Samir on helping to scope out what ‘lockdown’, prolonged self isolation and isolation could mean for the borough, and what supporting those in Hackney facing this challenge is going to involve. Detailed thought on how we best reconfigure our services and structures to support them through this crisis. The work they, Rashmi, Selwyn and Emma (who worked over the weekend) to shape and create the volunteering hub will channel volunteering and mutual aid in Hackney and no doubt save lives in the weeks and months ahead.

This will also be much easier because of the work Meg, Susan, Emma, Lucy, Sandrine and the Spacebank team have put into the amazing (and much talked about) ‘Find Support Services Near You’ map (and let’s not forget the data behind it), which I have been regularly tweeting about and is now shared across the mutual aid groups in Hackney and beyond.

This is also changing how existing services are delivered with Zoe, Ian, Jasmeen (& others) supporting Matthew with the work to help our contact centres respond so amazingly well, and now staffed remotely.

So I hope you’ve seen that lots of our evolving work is being shared as best practice across the country, but that doesn’t mean we have turned our back on other ideas or what else is happening in London, with Joy, Richard and Winston, together with colleagues at Camden, helping to mobilise our residents’ efforts in support of the community response to Covid-19 – tapping into civic minded tech companies like Future Gov.

Bruno, Emma and Felix, who’ve paused their normal work to step in and help the Borough Emergency Control Centre team to response to an unprecedented crisis – are playing a crucial role in getting things in place so that the Council can respond effectively, creating a second Borough Emergency Control Centre and long term sustainability for the days, weeks and months ahead.

Finally, we’ve all been led, advised, challenged and yes, amused, by Rob as he influenced so much of what we have all delivered in the past two weeks. It’s all been marshalled from a room in south London to ever greater heights fuelled only by toast, Magnums and all manner of on screen snacks, now all too common to self isolation in this new world all of us are still adjusting to.

So from me thank you (sorry if I’ve overlooked or missed anyone). When this is all over not everyone will know the part you have played, but from the start I know you have been invaluable. So despite the hectic pace, let me remind you to rest, recuperate and think about your own energy and resilience as you help ensure all of us at the Council are equipped to face the challenges ahead.

How we responded to Covid-19 in 36 hours

We may all be starting to feel the impact of Coronovirus on our mental and physical wellbeing. So we’ve pulled together a map of local voluntary and support services that can help us keep body and soul together. Organisations may not be running their usual face-to-face activities but they are getting creative and trying to meet residents’ needs with innovative alternatives. 

A small team rallied together and has been able to turn this map around in 36 hours, because of three factors: 

  1. a decision in HackIT to turn the original summer map prototype into a template with reuse at its core
  2. the existing Finding Support Services Near You project (sponsored by the City and Hackney Integrated Care Partnership) and its contacts with the voluntary sector and local organisations
  3. Hackney Council’s genuine commitment to flexible working that enables us all to work productively from home

The map’s look and feel is based on the Leaflet js library and HackIT pattern library (evolving from the GDS designs), which is a continuing project between our in-house design and front-end development teams. The technology behind the map came out of a collaboration between our GIS and front-end development team. They worked together on a new template that means we can spin out maps rapidly without having to edit any of the code, reducing the need for developer time.

The map template is open source on GitHub for reuse. Sharing is caring, after all. Especially now.