Last Wednesday, my chum Nick Hill and I ran a rather silly virtual event – the ‘digital dream yurt’. It’s an informal get together where people involve in digital and change in public service can get together on a Zoom call and share ideas and experiences around a particular topic with the inside of a yurt as their virtual background.
It’s a mixture of silliness as well as useful content, and the irreverence adds something I think that is often missing from more – dare I say it? – professionally run webinars. In a way, it harks back to the early days of govcamps and unconferences – random people getting together to find common ground, and to provide fresh perspectives, and to disappear down the occasional rabbit hole.
On this one, we focused on managing the often large portfolios of work that digital teams have on their plates. Richard Clarke, from my team in Croydon, was on the call and produced this amazing sketch of the discussions.
Of course, everyone knows that in the real world, options are limited by time, money and statutory responsibilities. Less obviously, the solutions we choose to implement may be constrained by our perception of what level of change is, in principle, possible.
As a product community we share many of the same stakeholders and user groups, at both a national and local level. This means that teams often fall under multiple governance mechanisms, presenting new risks; the inefficiencies linked to double or triple reporting, and the risk that different boards disagree on each other’s decisions.
It’s the role of our delivery leads to help the team find the right working pattern for the project. To balance the need for flexibility against the need for consistency, we’ve crafted a handful of guides to use for the various meetings (or ‘ceremonies’) and updates that we use on a project.
…over the years our industry has got much, much better at delivering digital services. I’ve been privileged to work with high-performing teams that have both the trust and the tooling to do their best work…Sadly the good practice isn’t evenly distributed, and I sometimes find myself feeling the same frustration rising as it did that day almost 20 years ago…In this post, I’m trying to draw together the threads of good practice as I see them.
You can find everything I have ever bookmarked ever on Pinboard. I also tweet out these bookmarks as I create them.
As mentioned in this post, I have started to find some time to read a bit more, and to bookmark useful stuff. Here’s what I have found in recent days (if I am honest, less than I would have expected – although maybe the time of year is to blame for that).
I’ve seen enough of this now to know the cycle. You all know the cycle. Government business is being done badly. Everyone’s fed up. Influential voices outside the incumbent delivery team grow and grow. Eventually they get a go at it. Rinse. And repeat.
Nearly ten years ago, Google shipped an unassuming, totally unbranded laptop to a large group of journalists and tech enthusiasts as part of a 60,000 unit pilot program. That laptop was the CR-48, and it was designed to showcase a project Google had been working on internally for well over a year. It was called Chrome OS.
Where we’re working to fix the plumbing, we should be doing so specifically to enhance capabilities that improve boroughs’ ability to tackle real-world problems. We can only determine if we’re doing that well by proactively working with colleagues to deliver some real-world outcomes.
So much of our lives are subject to the unconscious biases and technological evangelism’s of the people who create the virtual worlds and services we spend so much of our time in and our current fascination with ethics is a desire to create a controlling framework around the tools and systems which are now controlling our lives.
You can find everything I have ever bookmarked ever on Pinboard. I also tweet out these bookmarks as I create them.
A short reflection on the year, and some thoughts on what I need to be doing better in this new year (and decade!).
The last year has been pretty good, I think. It’s certainly gone by quickly. Work has been good – intense, but good. Much bigger organisation than I have been used to than before, much bigger team… with all the benefits but also challenges which that brings.
I’ve been super-lucky with the people I work with – Neil is a great boss and we get along famously, which makes life a lot easier than it would be if that were not the case. The people who were here when I arrived have all been incredibly welcoming and supportive, as well as positive about the changes we have made. On top of that, the folk who we have recruited during the year have all had an amazing impact, each person bring their own unique improvements to what we do and how we do it.
I moved into a new flat, which was great. Much closer to the people I needed to be closer to, as well as a five minute walk to the station, which is very handy! It’s a nice space too, and I feel very comfy and at home there, which was not the case for my previous place.
I’ve managed to find the time for more reading – literature rather than blogs etc – which has been a good thing. A mixture of actual real life paper books, plus stuff on a Kindle (had to buy a new one as I managed to lose my previous one!), plus audio-books – mostly during my fortnightly long drives to and from Lincolnshire.
This kind of reading does wonders for my well-being I think – providing that occasional escape from reality that’s so needed from time to time, as well as giving me the chance to think about things that don’t normally crop up. I do feel slightly annoyed with myself that I haven’t written down anywhere all the books I started and finished – it would have been good to have a proper list to see exactly what I got through in the year.
Looking forward, there’s some key things for me to get done in 2020.
In work, I need to get some roles filled on my team to enable me to take a step back and focus on the areas where I can really add some value. Right now I’m covering too much and am dragged into areas where I shouldn’t be so involved – not least because it’s stuff I’m not actually always very good at. Getting my management lead roles filled will help so much with this.
I also need to improve the way I communicate at work, and this will take a bit of creative thinking. I am generally at my best, I think (colleagues probably will disagree!) when I am wandering around the office, chatting to folk, but this is hard to scale and has resulted in a situation where the knowledge held by the team differs wildly in terms of who I have spoken to more than others. At the same time, people don’t like lots of emails, nor an over-reliance on tools like Teams for comms, so I suspect a balance is needed between individual chats, larger all hands style get-togethers, and the odd bit of writing delivered by whatever medium suits it best. It would be good to be able to innovate a bit and be creative with different formats for the latter.
I’d like to better monitor and track exactly what I am doing and achieving at work – not least because as one moves up the org chart into more managerial positions, it’s sometimes hard to really define the impact you are having. Terence Eden’s suggestion seems a neat one to be able to monitor this stuff without it turning into too much of a chore.
Another work-related thing is that I want to do better with my reading and writing about work-related topics. I chuntered on about this back in March, and then didn’t do anything about it until November, which outlines what a challenge I’ve found it. I must acknowledge a truth pointed out to me by Paul Brewer before Christmas, that I tend to be a lot more busy in sharing content when I’m looking for a job – that’s where the motivation comes from. He’s definitely right, and it is perhaps a good sign of how settled I am in Croydon that I don’t feel the need to be promoting myself, or what I think, quite so much.
However I am definitely feeling it as a negative thing, that I am not reading or writing enough. This presents itself in a number of ways – I find it harder to know what I think about things, having not spent the time understanding various viewpoints and writing about them to process how I think about them and what the right things to do are. It also means I become a bit insular, and not developing my own thinking in response to what is happening elsewhere enough.
So, the things I would like to start doing to fix this are:
dipping into Feedly every day to get some reading done
bookmarking good stuff in Pinboard, and regurgitating them out into Twitter via some automagicery
maybe, maybe find the time to restart Digital Digest, using the bookmarks as a starting point
Finally, I need to connect more often with some of the amazing people in my network that I just don’t get to speak to enough. Maybe this could take the form of having at least one chat with someone every month – even if it’s just a phone or video call – for that regular opportunity to share stories and experiences with great people who I just don’t see often enough.
Health wise, I really need to get my diet sorted. The days of my being able to eat what I like and it have no impact on my waistline are very much over! I’ve started today as I mean to go on, fruit for breakfast, soup (no bread!) for lunch and am resisting the biscuits and other snacks as best I can. I also need to better control my diabetes – again whether it’s because of age, I don’t know – but the last year has seen a more than usual number of ‘wobbles’, which is worrying.
Alongside this, I need to improve my fitness, which really is woeful. I suspect I have done no serious exercise since I stopped playing football when I was 16! Honestly, it’s embarrassing. I need to acknowledge my very low starting point here though and not embark on anything too strenuous to begin with! Any suggestions welcome, but colleagues have already recommended that I should start walking the 7 flights of stairs to our floor in the office rather than take the lift, which sounds reasonable (by which I mean exhausting).
Finally, to keep getting through the (e/audio)books, maintaining a decent balance between challenging and entertaining reading, and maybe (again, maybe) start to scribble down a few creative words of my own. I’m not sure what that actually means in practice, but I have always felt almost a yearning to write creatively, but have never dared to start due to the fear of disappointing myself.
To track 2020, I’ve decided to do something I’ve never done before, but I have bought a paper diary with one page for every day, which I am going to use to write down what I’ve done, read, eaten and anything else noteworthy, in an attempt to carve out some space for reflection and build up a bit of a log for how I am doing on a daily basis.
I’ve not posted one of these for three weeks, which perhaps is something I should apologise for – although I am hardly inundated with demands for one. The bonus is that in covering three weeks in one note, I actually have some things to say.
Also, I have fiddled slightly with the running order, see if you can spot it.
Last week I took a week off work, and did pretty much nothing. I had an eye test (more on that later), a haircut, met some friends (nice to be reminded that I do actually have some), and read quite a few books (more on that later). I felt rested, and realised that in fact I do quite like not working sometimes.
At work, the alpha of the new website went live a couple of weeks ago with the content from adult social care – a marvellous thing to happen. My role is very much of the periphery and yet it was nice to see folk so happy.
I also took a day off to go up to Glasgow and deliver a little talk about what we have been up to in Croydon. Got some good feedback which was nice because external validation.
Room for improvement
My eye test revealed to me what I already knew, which is that I can add hyperopia to my long-standing myopia. It’s so bad I was advised I had to get varifocals because swapping between two pairs of specs would drive me mad, it would have to be done so regularly. Another sign of getting old.
I have a fairly bad case of presenteeism in my job, in that I feel the need to be in the office all time – because, you know, I’m so important. Taking time out recently has reminded me that actually everyone is just fine without me around. It’s fine – and in fact, it’s probably better! This jars somewhat with my messiah complex but I guess I just need to deal with that.
The time I spent putting slides together for the Glasgow event gave me plenty of time to think about and reflect on the work we have done during this nearly whole year. The realisation for me was that by far the most impactful stuff we have done is in the space of organisation design – getting CDS into the shape it needs to be, with the right skills and attitudes in place to enable us to kick on and do some great work in the future. Yes, there have been successes in the delivery space along the way, but building the team, and bringing the rest of the organisation along with us, has been the major achievement. I suspect that not enough thought is given to this work when other places are planning some kind of big change programme, whether ‘digital’ or otherwise. Also there’s no cookie-cutter approach to this, time needs to be spent understanding the people, the history and the rhythms of an organisation to know what the right thing to do is.
Quite a bit to cover because three weeks.
TV – finished second series of The End of the F**king World and it was marvellous. Better, I think, than the first, it was funny, sincere and heartwarming – but only just, so not mawkish. Thoroughly recommended.
Books – Lanny by Max Porter is an absolute marvel of a little book. I loved his first one too and this is just as good, occupying a space somewhere between a story and a poem, full of magic and warmth and ideas.
Also, somewhat to my embarrassment, I’ve discovered a penchant for historical detective fiction all of a sudden. I blitzed my way through the first two of C.J. Sansome’s Shardlake series of books, which ludicrously cover the adventures of a hunchback Tudor-era lawyer. I know, I know. Anyway, my life won’t be changed by it obviously, but the pages kept turning and I was gripped – until I finished and then I felt a bit ashamed.
Finally in books, I’ve started Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, which is a slight thing but delightful so far.
Listening – more of Underland on long car journeys, but also Audible’s podcast about Rupert Murdoch, The Sun King which was ok enough, but did leave me wanting to know quite a bit more.
In music I came across Arthur Russell for the first time, whose work really rewards repeat listening – extremely diverse and loads of fantastic little surprises that pop up when you’re least expecting it. Also I went to see Sam Fender play live – he’s a millennial geordie Bruce Springsteen (which I consider to be a good thing).
Phew, that’s a lot of words. Well done if you made it this far. Something to amuse you, as a reward:
Ah, LocalGovCamp. It went well, I think, despite (perhaps because of) the fact that I missed the social bit the night before due to a spot of, ah, gastric issues. This meant I turned up fresh as a daisy and was able to concentrate.
The sense of community is strong still with LocalGovCamp and more could be done with it. We have a chat within LocalGovDigital shortly to see what happens next – not just with the ‘Camp but the network generally. A highly motivated, self-supporting group like this isn’t to be sniffed at, and is I think an important part of the patchwork of initiatives that can support improvement across the sector (including central gov inputs via Paul Maltby’s excellent team, plus others like the LGA, LOTI, and suppliers too).
I think there’s a need for LocalGovDigital the network to assess what it is good at and what is – for perfectly good reasons – beyond it. Individuals within the community probably need to do the same, especially me. I’m a good champion for the community I think, a tub thumper and a rabble rouser, but I don’t have much time or indeed skill for doing some of the doing that needs doing.
LocalGovCamp – see above.
Some really great people have been joining the team in Croydon and it’s having an impact. That’s good. New roles, and new people – more capacity sure, but also capability, people who can do things and help out in a way that wasn’t possible before. I’m already seeing existing members of the team respond positively to it as well which is exactly what we want to see.
I’ve been improving lately, I think, at providing more feedback and engagement with folk in various bits of the team. I probably need to structure this better as it’s pretty ad hoc, but equally don’t want to over-formalise and lose some of the spontaneity which, to my mind, adds value.
Room for improvement
I missed a school governors’ meeting because I forgot about it, so as always let’s put diary management as something I could improve.
One thought led to another and I ended up spending a fair bit of listening time on Godspeed You! Black Emperor, who are wonderful of course but also sometimes easy to forget.
I listened to the Radio 4’s book of the week thing about Anarchy, a history of the East India Company. Good stuff but it gave away just too much, so I don’t feel the need to read the actual book.
(Incidentally I listened to it via the BBC Sounds app, which is a travesty of usability, but also of not really knowing what itself is.)
I’ve not done much reading but have looked longingly at Rachel Cusk’s Transit and Kudos, having thoroughly enjoyed Outline earlier in the year. They sit on the bookshelf, mocking me and my tiredness.
On telly, I binged the first series of The End of the F**king World which was terrific – unsettling and darkly amusing. Perfect.
I may publish these on different days, but will always title them as the Friday of the week they cover.
It’s LocalGovCamp this week, 10 years after the first. A rather different event than that one – it’s a weekday, it has an agenda. But that’s just an indicator of where we are these days in the sector, I think. This stuff is pretty mainstream, it’s people’s actual jobs and so the event reflects that.
It’s a bit sad that the unconference element isn’t there this year, but last year it did feel very flat after the energy of the Friday. My head injury didn’t help my own experience of the unconference, admittedly.Maybe we can bring it back, but separate it from the more formal event. Or maybe we just don’t need it anymore. It’s not like anyone is complaining.
Two really interesting conversations, the sort I love and need to find more opportunities to have. The first was with a very early stage start up, looking to see if we’d be interested in their prototype offer around reducing loneliness. It sparked a fascinating (to me!) discussion about where the value in their proposition was. For me it wasn’t the tech (pretty standard service directory) but in the demand aggregation and market creation and energising they could provide.
Second was with our adult education service, where we are helping with some equipment upgrades and things. Part of that work involves a new virtual learning environment, which provides an opportunity to rethink the model of delivery as a whole. Gave me a chance to mull on Raymond Williams, Ivan Ilich and how they are still relevant in the digital age, as well as reminisce about lovely things like School of Everything, which seems to be still alive but only just. Hopefully these chats can formalise a bit into experiments into how this stuff can work in practice.
I booked a week off, so yay. No plans for it other than a much needed eye test. There are lots of books that need reading!
Room for improvement
I let things get on top of me on a couple of occasions this week. Sometimes I worry that I am too emotionally involved in my work – I take everything so personally! Of course the flip side of this is that it’s that approach that means I’m motivated to do good things. Still, maybe I should try and balance it a bit better.
I started reading Jon Savage’s new Joy Division book, which I’m thoroughly enjoying. I can’t claim Joy Division belong to me – they mean too much to too many other people – but they’ve always been an important band in my life. Interestingly I appreciate them more and more as I get older. I wonder what it is about the music made by very young men at the start of their career that somehow resonates so much with duffers like me.
Anyway, my standard Joy Division tip: as well as the excellent studio albums, do dig out the live recordings which reflect another side of their work: more angry, quicker, and louder.
The Joy Division reading of course had my mind making links all over the place and it got me digging into Krautrock, which I’d never really explored much. Early days, but I’m very much enjoying bits of Neu! and Harmonia in particular.
I had my fortnightly long drive up to Lincolnshire and back this weekend which gave me the chance to listen to some more of Underland, Robert MacFarlane’s new book, on Audible. It’s extremely good (although I find some of the bits talking about caving and other claustrophobic topics terrifying) and I thoroughly recommend it – and I do wonder if his books work better spoken aloud than read to oneself internally.
Inspired by Annie, here goes. Format open to change as things progress.
Mood has been a little low this week. Am getting over a cold – nothing lethal – which has left me a bit tired and meh. In order to sleep I imbibed Night Nurse for probably too many nights in a row than would be considered good practice, resulting in a certain fogginess of mind which didn’t help. I’ve gone cold turkey on that now, with positive results.
My daughter was 7 last weekend. She’s growing up fast. I don’t want to miss as much of it as I am.
We had plenty of visits from people at work this week, which was nice as it gives us a chance, in articulating where we are going and where we are currently at, to reflect on how well (or not) we are doing. That I am writing these words under this particular heading should indicate I reckon we are doing ok. Always more to do of course! But I recognise the fortunate position we are in, and the good work we are able to do as a result.
We won a couple of dollops of central government cash to support some work we are doing with other councils, which was nice. My role was very much on the margins, but well done team.
Also – I’ve published something on this blog! There’s a result. I ought to get something written for the other one too, in fact have a couple of posts brewing, but need to get them done. It’s important! I keep telling people that. I should listen to myself, on this topic anyway.
Room for improvement
I need to get a better handle on what my actual job to be done is – I’ve found in the last 10 months or so I have a tendency to get sucked into detail. Sometimes that right, but other times it isn’t the best use of my time, or the talents of others, and I need to check why I’m feeling the need to intervene in certain areas, and whether I am better stepping back and letting the others just get on with it. Mostly I should do that.
But then, detail! It’s so intoxicating.
A colleague left the team, which I regret, and I wonder what I should have done to ensure they didn’t. Again, maybe I am overestimating my ability to influence such matters. Even so.
I need to take some holiday. I think I’m still in contractor-mode, trying to reduce my number of non-working weeks as much as possible. But that doesn’t work now, and I’ll probably get in trouble with NeillyNeil as well as HR if I don’t take some leave soon. Also: rest.
Limited due to cold-induced brain rot (I’ve spent a lot of my time playing some truly terrible games on my phone).
However I did manage to enjoy Clive James’ short collection of articles about Larkin, which I recommend to anybody who likes that sort of thing, by which I mean Larkin.
I’m three months into my new job and that seems a good time to reflect on how things are going. I’ll save the meat of that for another post, because this one is about how I am working within my network, or rather how I’m not very much at the moment.
I haven’t posted to this blog for some time, and most of that was just links – however recently even that has dried up. I’ve not even bookmarked anything, nor saved any items to read later in Evernote. My email newsletter has equally dried up.
The reason for this is that I’m not reading much. I’m still pretty old school and use a feed reader, and the counter on that read 5,000 unread items yesterday evening. To be honest I think it’s said that for a while and it just stopped bothering counting after that. I hit the “mark all read” switch on it this morning. It felt good.
Does this matter? I think it does because in many ways I am what I read, in that all my best work comes on the back of having read something that someone much cleverer or more accomplished than me has published. Without that stream of ideas coming in, being thought about and then regurgitated with my own half-baked spin on them, I’m missing something pretty important, and I’m sure my work suffers.
Not only that but my role in my network takes a hit too. I’ve always prided myself on being a good curator of interesting stuff for the people who follow me on this blog, or on Twitter, or subscribe to my newsletter. Having that active network has helped me a lot in the past, whether by opening up opportunities or simply sharing ideas and feedback. Not having that loop in place leaves me feeling somewhat bereft.
So what am I going to do about it?
I need to find a new rhythm, one that works for me in my new role. Part of this is about technology and tools, part about how I manage my time, and part about finding the right forms to work with.
First, I need to carve out some time everyday to do some reading. The fact that I spend an hour on the train every morning and evening ought to provide a good opportunity to do that, and perhaps if I didn’t get sucked into taking the chance to write one more email, I could use that time productively to scan through what my various RSS and email subscriptions throw up.
Key to making this work though is moving from what has been a pretty traditional laptop based mode of working to being mostly operated from my phone. This is because I can’t really do this effectively from my work corporate laptop, and I’m not lugging two computers around everyday. So I need to look at the apps I am using to make it as easy as possible on my phone.
Second, I need to figure out a workflow for sharing good stuff back out to my network. This has worked well in the past through bookmarking using Pinboard, which then fires off some IFTTT applets to ping content out to Twitter, into link posts on this blog, and into Evernote to read later or consider for inclusion in my newsletter. I need to get this back on track and ensure it still works, particularly when I am mostly working from my phone.
Third, I need to experiment a bit with how I publish content, particularly here on the blog. I’m not convinced the basic link posts that dominated for most of last year are a great use of this space – they are better suited to a medium like Twitter, and to be collected together in the newsletter. I’m really intrigued by the weeknote format that Jukesie has been popularising, and I do believe it would be healthy for me to be able to post reflective pieces here to get a better understanding of how I am progressing things at work, whilst hopefully sharing something useful for readers. There are a few different formats for weeknotes, some that baldly state what happened that week, others more reflective and personal. I think I’ll probably aim for the latter, but as with most things, it’ll probably take a few goes to get the tone and format right.
I also need to consider how I use the other platforms available to me. We have the work blog of course, for which I am contractually obliged to produce content. We also have a thriving internal network of Teams, to which it’s helpful to curate and post links and content to share with colleagues. I don’t want to end up duplicating loads of stuff and copying and pasting content from one place to another, so that might need a little thought.
Restarting the newsletter is also important to me. It’s been bothering me that I haven’t sent one out in ages and it’s a shame, because it used to get a load of good feedback. I suspect perhaps switching it from weekly to fortnightly might help ease some of the burden. The newsletter though is something that I will struggle to do from my phone. Whilst it’s technically possible, it would probably drive me mad attempting it!
In summary then, I need to find some time and space to read and research, come up with a mobile-centric workflow for writing and sharing interesting things with my network, and experiment with new forms of writing that fit in with the above whilst bring value to me and to my network. Seems reasonable, but probably not that easy.
If anyone has any ideas, I’d be really interested to hear them!