30 November 2020

We recently invited Jennifer Wynter, Head of Benefits and Housing Needs, and Matthew Cain, Head of Digital and Data, at Hackney Council to join our own Lily Dart, Experience Director for a fireside chat about service redesign and creating a supportive and successful culture.

Lily Dart (LD): My name is Lily Dart, I’m the Experience Director for FutureGov and I’ve been a designer for about 17 years, mostly in the public sector and mostly in transformational environments. Can you both tell us a bit about yourselves?

Jennifer Wynter (JW): My name is Jennifer Wynter, I’m the head of the Benefits and Housing Needs service in Hackney Council. I’ve been in local government, local authorities for about 30 years now, maybe a little bit more. I’m currently responsible for about 200 staff, we process £275 million worth of housing benefit, associated benefits every year to 38,000 residents. We also have everything to do with housing need within my portfolio, whether it’s sleeping response, homelessness, housing advice, social housing lettings and temporary accommodation or the procurement management maintenance of thousands of units and temporary accommodations. So it’s a big portfolio.

Matt Cain (MC): I’m Matthew Cain, I’m the head of customer services digital and data at Hackney. Having previously worked in consulting and advisory services for senior leaders in high profile and sensitive environments. My work spans private, public and third sectors with particular expertise of advising central government departments on digital transformation.

LD: Thank you very much. All right, well lovely to have you both here. So we had a quick chat before this session just to understand a little bit about what your experience has been on the service redesign that we worked on with you. When I asked about your most important takeaways from that service redesign, you mentioned that making sure the team and the organisation was ready was a really key factor, Jen can you tell me a little bit more about that?

JW: Yeah sure, so having such a busy frontline service that’s really under pressure, as you can imagine, homelessness in London in the middle of a housing crisis, we’re very, very busy. I’ve just been in the process of bringing together two very different large services, joining them together, and having to do a complete restructure from top to bottom, which involved deleting every single post and starting again. And recruiting people for aptitude and attitude rather than technical knowledge or experience.

What that meant was that I was able to create one officer role, and that gave us complete fluidity and flexibility so the staff can move around the whole service, and work on every single team and everybody understands where they fit. And that one part of the service creates the whole, we can’t achieve anything unless everybody’s onboard. So we got through that point which put us in a really nice stable position to take advantage of any new opportunities that came along and made sure that we could really cope with some real service redesign.

LD: That’s amazing, thank you. And for both of you, that was one kind of key piece of action that you took to make sure that the team and organisation were ready, but what other things did you do?

MC: Another really important element of this was trust. Jen and I trust each other immensely and we’ve worked really well together in the past, and generally trust our staff to an incredible amount. We’ve heard a lot this morning also about thinking big and that’s really got its place. I think the interesting thing about our journey is that we agreed on the problem, and we didn’t worry too much about where we needed to get to. We knew that the problem was big enough, we weren’t going to solve it all, and we weren’t going to tackle the housing crisis, we were reasonably modest. We stuck with the problem and trusted that the process would take us to a better outcome.

JW: I think it was also very much prioritising the service design, and really leading on that and making sure that we talked about it at every opportunity. That we kept constantly surfacing it and there was real leadership built around it. We talked about it at every opportunity, every forum, every meeting and just making sure that there was no hierarchy around staff within the service design so that everybody could contribute freely. Everybody was given the autonomy to contribute, but also to fail. And I think in local government that doesn’t normally happen, we’re quite hierarchical and we never want to fail. We want to have something planned within an inch of its life before we even start. So getting people to work in this way, it’s been a challenge but really freeing, it’s been great to watch staff get involved in it and shake off those shackles and just get involved.

MC: Firstly, we were really studious in never calling this transformation. Transformation comes with all sorts of connotations, often used by people that look like me, and if that doesn’t give you enough pause for thought, I don’t know what will. We were really clear that we were talking about service redesign, not some pre-packaged idea that we were going to impose on people.

The second element, Jen was very good at rallying other people in the council towards the challenge of us all having a role in preventing homelessness. It’s been too easy for councils to hunker down, whether in children’s services or in adults or wherever else and focus quite inwardly. Jen was very good at drawing in the expertise of civil enforcement, children’s social care, of colleagues in the mental health alliance and so on and so forth. And saying ‘look, we’ve all got a role in preventing homelessness, work with me and help me, we’re going to do this in the best possible way for our residents.’

LD: That’s excellent, I think it’s really key to the success of service design more generally, to be able to look out to that broader context and understand the context that you’re operating in, and that can be missed quite a lot. Also lovely to hear you say you’re letting people fail, which is incredibly important.

I think one of the things that in my experience has been mostly missed in many transformations is the other point that Jen made around actually repeating the message over and over again. We tend to say something once and go ‘well we’ve told everyone, we’re done now, thanks.’ There are different studies on these types of things telling us differently. I think it’s seven, eight, nine even fifteen times before people actually really absorb what‘s being said, particularly when they’re busy and they’ve got other kinds of tasks going on. It’s such a critical part of really embedding the message and embedding that purpose going forward, which is great.

When we spoke before you also mentioned the importance of culture in making that change accessible. We’ve talked a little bit about that, but what does a successful culture look like for this kind of redesign work?

MC: To bring us back to why transformation is such an ugly word and a critical enabler of the right culture for doing this is, it’s got to be inclusive. It has to start from a position where your lived experiences as a member of staff, your experience as a resident accessing the service is incredibly valuable to us. It’s a rich source of intelligence.

Yes, you might have been lumbered with average software for the last 10 years, and I’m sorry about that. Yes, you may be better at creating legislation and taking a statement strength-based approach, and we’ll help you on that journey. But fundamentally, it’s about an approach which is inclusive and an approach that expects everyone to be able to stand up, but creates a supportive environment when someone is presenting in a show and tell for the first time. Where if a colleague doesn’t feel able to be shaking pom-poms in the Slack channel, we recognise that their opinions are as valid as anyone else’s. In an inclusive culture, there isn’t going to be one tool that’s going to solve this problem. It isn’t all about digital, it isn’t all about behaviour insights, it isn’t all about better data. It’s the combination of those things that makes the change so exciting.

LD: That’s great, and I think to Jen’s point earlier as well, that ability to fail is different depending on your background and your context. For someone who’s of a protective class, they may be less able to fail, so looking at that kind of inclusivity first is really important. Jen, what do you think?

JW: It’s been very much as Matt said, the key thing for me was because we’ve got such a diverse workforce and we’ve got some really big personalities, but equally we’ve got some people who are much quieter. It’s about creating those opportunities for everybody to feel able to contribute in different ways. So big workshops, little workshops and one-to-one testing sessions, all these kinds of things enabled us to get really rich information from our staff and allow them all to feel really comfortable.

The sense of collaboration and camaraderie even with COVID now layered on top, it’s really noticeable that staff care. They care about each other and they really do support each other because they can see what we’re achieving together. And as we get those quick wins coming through it really drives that even more, and quite serious success criteria for us has been how many people we get on a fortnightly show and share. I think our record has been 164 out of the 200 staff workforce and then you’ve got people watching later, so those are the ones that are just turning up for the live event. It’s been quite amazing and if we’ve got less than 130 staff members pitching up, something’s wrong, you know. But they’re there because they want to be there, they’re not there because they’ve been forced to be, and that for me really shows that the culture is there, we’re going in the right direction.

There’s something about getting that rhythm set up. When we were physically in the office, someone would say ‘I’ve set up the show and share’, and as soon I started walking around in my heels, you’d see huge groups of people come running. But it took that in the beginning, it hasn’t always been there. Because people are busy, you know, they’re dealing with somebody who’s had a terribly traumatic interview, they want to do the best for that person. You’re up against the clock. How do you balance that, with doing a show and share? It’s been a real juggling act for some staff, but they’re coping with it and doing really well.

LD: I think the fact that you can do that kind of chivvying in the beginning, but actually if people don’t buy into the engagement it will drop off again over time. The fact that it stuck is a real testament. And actually, a lovely note on the kind of ‘show and share’ language as opposed to ‘show and tell’, we’re not telling you, we’re sharing what’s going on and want you to get engaged, that’s really lovely.

Okay so the last question for Matt, you’ve kind of referred to this a little bit earlier on that transformation is run by people who look like you, can you tell me a bit more about why transformation is a dirty word?

MC: Yeah I think it’s three big things, the first is that we know it’s just code for cuts. Are you saying either your job is under threat or you’re going to have to work harder for the same salary? Firstly I think it’s deeply discredited for staff.

Secondly, if we can transform things, happy days, but it’s beginner projects saying that’s the goal and it’s not terribly modest. And if you set yourself up in that way, you’re only ever going to have to fight to prove that you can, and that takes you to an organisational context which actually I think can be quite toxic.

I think the third thing is that we need an approach which is inclusive, by which I mean the lived experiences of our residents and service users is obviously at the forefront of what we’re doing. We’re open to different types of solutions, so some of our prototypes look like post-it notes stuck to the front of a personal housing plan and some of our prototypes look like sending a WhatsApp to a resident, all before we were building towards the bigger things.

What we did in this project, which I’d like to think it’s quite bold, essentially we set a very large amount of money aside to be able to do this and then follow where the opportunities were, knowing that some of those would save time, some of them might even take money but some of them are just the right thing to do.

And within a services complex of the benefits and housing needs, we were pretty sure that we would be able to show a positive return on investment through the programme, but we also knew that if we followed the evidence and trusted the process we’d get to a better outcome.

LD: Thank you so much, and Jen, any final words?

JW: Just that I love service redesign and hate transformation, but certainly design is brilliant and our working relationship with FutureGov particularly has been absolutely brilliant. It feels like family, sounds a bit cheesy, but there’s definitely quite a strong link there between the guys we’ve worked with in the service and it’s quite nice to watch those affections between staff and FutureGov officers, it works really well.

LD: That’s really lovely I think our team would say family to you too, so not cheesy at all. All right thank you both so much for joining us today, it’s been a lovely conversation to get to know you both a little bit better.

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