Monthnote January 2021

A new year, a new attempt to return to semi-regular blogging. I’m trying to post little things often, rather than getting trapped into writing long posts that never get finished or published. You may have noticed I posted a video from Janet Hughes and a note on using CloudReady to bring an old laptop back to life.

The photo adorning this post was taken on my phone on the fens near The Wash at Gedney Drove End, near the RAF bombing practice site. Yep, it’s as bleak as it sounds. Beautiful in its way though.

The start to this year has been interesting, continuing the carnage from 2020. Having been in a ‘tier 4’ location before the festive break, the new lockdown barely affected me. I’m pretty used now to the limited world I inhabit.

Work has been challenging and the issues at Croydon are fairly well documented. Even people not existing in the bubble of local government are aware of it, so it must be bad. However, we keep on keeping on, making things a little bit better everyday whilst dealing with some of the more unpleasant cost-cutting measures that are being introduced.

One of the good things about lockdown is the sheer amount of cultural stuff I’ve been consuming. 2020 was a bit of a record in terms of book reading for me, 58 books read in total. In January 2021 I got through five, which is a good start:

  • Our Game, John Le Carré – classic Le Carré: middle aged bloke reads things and thinks. Gripping but I have no idea how he makes it so
  • An Introduction to English Poetry, James Fenton – a wonderful introduction to reading poetry, makes it all seem so simple
  • A Very British Coup, Chris Mullin – fast paced thriller, no Proust by any stretch but it rattles along
  • The Dancer at the Gai-Moulin, Georges Simenon – another brilliant Maigret (last year I started reading them in order – this is number 10 of 70 odd)
  • The Hatred of Poetry, Ben Lerner – interesting book length essay, the main thrust of which is that poems always fail because they aim so high

At least three of those are very short, you may notice, which certainly helps with the numbers. But it also helps with the flow – too many long reads one after the other does affect one’s motivation to read, I find. Also a weird mixture of thrillers and literary criticism. Hey ho!

Music-wise I have been utterly obsessed lately with Taylor Swift’s two albums from 2020, Folklore and Evermore. Have had them on almost permanent repeat for the last few months. Special mentions though to the re-release of the KLF’s better known tracks, and Four Tet’s Parallel.

Lockdown is also great for watching films. This month I saw some really good ones, most for the first time:

  • Synedoche, New York – absolutely baffling, I have watched so many YouTube videos explaining what this is all about, but I still am not really sure!
  • Frances Ha – nice, short, heartwarming and quirky
  • The Royal Tenembaums – I’ve never watched this all the way through before and I am pleased I put the time into doing so. Lots of whimsy but the time passed by very quickly and there were a fair few laugh out loud moments
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri – Overall I really liked it, had the feeling of everybody knowing what they were doing. I found the Damascene conversion of one character a little hard to take though.
  • Away We Go – slightly smug, somewhat whimsical, but fun overall
  • Burn Before Reading – a brilliant way to absolutely waste an hour and a half. A tale of idiocy in which nobody learns anything.

All in all, a decent start to the year on various fronts.

Bringing a knackered laptop back to life with CloudReady

As part of the fun and games that is homeschooling, my daughter started off begging and borrowing computer time from me and her mum. It wasn’t ideal so I casted around for a better solution, so she could have her own bit of kit.

I had a fairly ancient, tiny Windows 10 laptop – the sort of thing that might have been called a netbook 10 years ago – which I hadn’t used in ages because it needed to install an update to the operating system. I couldn’t perform the upgrade though because there wasn’t the space to download it on the tiny amount of storage on the laptop! I tried fiddling with SD cards and things, but no joy.

But I came across a thing called CloudReady, which is a product of a company called Neverware. Put simply, it turns pretty much any laptop into a Chromebook – a very simple computer than runs a web browser, and pretty much nothing else.

Getting it set up involved downloading an installer and putting it on a blank USB memory stick, which slightly – but only slightly – fiddly. Installing it on the laptop went like a dream, took about 20 minutes max and there weren’t any problems.

The end result isn’t exactly the same as an official Chromebook, but it’s pretty close. It runs the open source project Chromium rather than ‘Google Chrome’ – but that doesn’t seem to matter too much. She has been able to do the usual things to personalise it, with her own choice of desktop wallpaper and so on, and loves always having a machine available for her work, that belongs to her.

So, if you’re struggling with old tech at home, and if everything you need is accessible on the web, then take a look at CloudReady. Likewise, if you are organising the reuse of old laptops for people that really need them, then CloudReady provides a great, free way, to turn them into usable, easy to maintain computers.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash

Digital dreaming in a virtual yurt

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.

Annie Heath shared this screenshot of the yurt on Twitter

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.

The wonderful sketchnote produced by the lovely Rich Clarke

We are doing it again on Wednesday 4th November, and you can find out more about that and sign up here. Over 40 people already have, so word is spreading.

Links of note 27/1/20

I find this stuff, so you don’t have to etc etc

Keep, Fix, Enhance, Swap, Replace: Five options for public service reform – Eddie Copeland

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.

What does good product governance look like? – Kylie Havelock

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.

Our (dxw’s) guides on delivery – Richard Norris

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.

Why mission patch stickers matter (and how to get a Croydon Digital one!) – Annie Heath

A tribute to the humble laptop sticker, used by CDS and digital teams everywhere to celebrate good work and communicate values.

Delivering digital service: this much I have learned – Matt Edgar

…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.

Links of note 13/1/20

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).

The coming storm – Paul Clarke

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.

Chrome OS has stalled out – Android Police

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.

How to explain to CEOs why fixing the plumbing matters  – Eddie Copeland

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.

Ethical technology? – Catherine Howe

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 year in review, and looking forwards

nordwood-themes-C0sW3yscQXc-unsplash.jpg
Photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

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
  • keep publishing weeknotes when I can
  • 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.

Weeknote 6/12/19

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.

Gone well

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.

Reflections

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.

Cultural input

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:

Weeknote 15/11/19

Reflections

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.

Gone well

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.

Cultural input

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.

Weeknote 8/11/19

I may publish these on different days, but will always title them as the Friday of the week they cover.

Reflections

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.

Gone well

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.

Cultural input

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.