Hounslow Digital Apprenticeships by Shiza Touqeer

Around this time last year, I had just graduated from university and I was very uncertain about my career. Certainly, many fresh graduates have fears that they will not find a stable job due to their lack of experience and minimal professional knowledge. I wasn’t any different and the anxiety of staying at home was taking over me to the point that I was thinking, I might not be good enough to get a job. That is when a family friend suggested me to apply for the position of an apprentice at London Borough of Hounslow as an ICT Client Support Officer working as part of the servicedesk team. 

I was reluctant to take up the position of an apprentice because many people had suggested that I have a degree and I should just apply for permanent positions instead. Regardless of the uncountable suggestions, I decided to apply and successfully got the job, which boosted my confidence. I started to work on the apprenticeship in November 2019 and I would definitely say that this has been one of the best decisions I have made.  

Prior to being an apprentice, I had many misconceptions about not being equal to the rest of the team or having to complete jobs that nobody wants to do however, once I began to work in my current position, I was positively surprised. Apprenticeships not only prepare you to face the professional world heads on but they also help to build up knowledge. Thankfully, I have been in a team of people and managers that have never made me feel like I was an apprentice and gave me equal amount of responsibilities with my other colleagues which made me feel very confident.

AWS Challenge with Loti team 

I have also had the opportunity to participate in an AWS challenge as part of an apprentice day with Loti, which me and my team managed to win due to our team effort. Me and my fellow apprentices worked on an idea to develop the “Test & Trace”, application where we made sure that our targeted customers’ needs were met. That day, I realised that there are many doors that can open up for us and participating in such activities actually helped me understand that no opinion or idea is a bad one, which led us to victory.  

Apprenticeship course 

I have been part of the Firebrand Infrastructure Technician course and that involved meeting up tight deadlines and be part of group projects and trainings. I can argue that this has been anything but easy so I would recommend not to take apprenticeships easily. Being part of the servicedesk and working on my portfolio have been a challenge however, I have made sure that  I request enough “off the job” time from my manager and let my colleagues know whenever I need to juggle between the two.  

Reflections 

I would recommend people to take up apprenticeships because they are a great way to enhance skills and allow you to connect with likeminded people. It has been a very positive experience for me so far and I look forward to completing my apprenticeship in the upcoming months.  

Designing our digitally-optimised future services

Designing our digitally-optimised future services

It has been an intense but exciting six months since Hounslow’s new Digital Strategy, a central plank in how we will achieve our transformational ‘One Hounslow’ vision, was agreed by Cabinet.

We have designed and implemented an innovative, lean governance to support the implementation of the strategy and embed service design thinking into all digital projects.

In the first six months, five major projects have been shaped and agreed through our Design Authority covering a diversity of areas such as Children’s Safeguarding, Regulatory Services, Planning and Building Control, and Educational services.

This has all been achieved through remote working – something which none of us imagined when we were developing the strategy!

The Digital Design Authority is designed to give a rounded view and agreement from a wide range of disciplines that reflect the council’s broader needs. So, in addition to the core IT capabilities you’d expect in a Design Authority (such as technical architecture, security, information governance), we also have professionals from Communications, Procurement, Finance, HR and Organisation Design and two senior representatives from Services.

The power of commitment from a Service Owner

Our Design Authority works by inviting a ‘Service Owner’ to sponsor and lead the presentation of an outline business case on the proposed digital project to the group, supported by Digital and IT. Service Design works with the Service Owner and others to develop the business case – in a genuine collaborative, co-design effort.

Some other things that we believe also help are that we use concise PowerPoint slides rather than long word documents. Over time and with some internal coaching, our Business Relationship Managers will take on this role. Also, we have focused on ‘Futures’ priorities project where service design has the most potential benefits.

This approach has been very well received and has been instrumental in helping to build in service design thinking and moving forward at pace on a number of key projects.

“This (Design Authority) is a breath of fresh air and an absolutely sound approach”  Sarah Scannell, Assistant Director Planning

Where next?

Last month we held a retrospective on our first six months of Design Authority. We used a retro tool to do this online, asking the group what they liked, learnt or thought was lacking.

The feedback was brilliant – highlighting the positives that the group sees but also being very open about what could be improved or changed. For example, some members of the group felt we need to provide more detail on full costs and outputs, even if only estimates. We were challenged whether there was more we could do to quantify outcomes at the outset. And the need to identify efficiency savings (as well as user benefits) was reinforced – no prize for guessing which department that came from!

Service owner Martin Forshaw, Assistant Director Children’s Safeguarding led the case to our first Design Authority back in March. The proposal was strongly backed and some very useful steers and inputs given. He told us afterwards:

“The thought of being the first to do this was terrifying! But it went well judging from people’s response and comments in the meeting. We have a great opportunity to take a fresh look at how we design our services and I’m looking forward to seeing this as we work through it together.”

Following agreement on Children’s Safeguarding at the Design Authority, we brought in a partner to deliver a discovery phase, working with a ‘blended team’ drawn from the Service, Digital & IT and service design specialist skills. We are coming to the end of that discovery – and it has been done completely remotely. But that is a story for another week…

Keep in touch

If you would like to contribute to, or talk about any of the work, you can get in touch with Franco Degan, Andrew Connor or Barbara Munden in the Digital and IT Team

Cognitive shade

As Head of Digital Services at Hounslow, continuing to look after our colleague’s mental health has been critical. The Digital and IT teams were amongst the first to be sent home a week before the official lockdown whilst seeing a doubling in our service demand and most members of the team have not been to our main building since that time. As the crisis continued, the working environment has been become ever tougher with the team maintaining an onsite presence throughout this time alongside the pressures we all have in our personal lives currently. 

For IT teams the pressures are unique.  In normal times working in IT is a stressful job , surveys have shown over 70% of staff find it stressful  – in the public sector we are helping  people who deliver critical services and sometimes it is hard for staff not to take criticism personally. 

During this time a member of our ServiceDesk team Aman passed away suddenly at 22 from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy which had a huge impact on the team (https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/johal-family).  We raised money for this cause through  a 19 challenge  such as to Do any exercise for 19 minutes every day for a week, Do 19 minutes meditation every day for a week or finish every meal with a piece of fruit for 19 meals and had great participation across all teams. 

The pressure on mental health has been immense for all staff. The support the council has provided has been fantastic with resilience webinars, continued support from the paid for Employee Assistance Programme from Validium, regular updates from senior managers using Microsoft teams.   

All staff are being encouraged to take their holidays on a continued effort to achieve work/life balance. In addition, within our teams we have had quizzes, some virtual pub nights, show and tells for all teams every 2 weeks. We have encouraged people to stay in contact with each other as they would do if they were in the office and call people just to catchup as you would do over coffee or at the desk in more normal times. 

We have had a couple major system issues to deal with, which has been even more ‘fun’ with the number of staff at home across the organisation having increased 5-fold.  All this alongside supporting Council meetings going virtual out of hours – the work has frequently meant late night working and weekend working.  

I have been engaging with our Organisational Development teams on setting up specific seminars for Digital & IT staff through MIND as Hounslow as an organisation is likely to be working remotely for the foreseeable future  This will help to ensure we continue to offer support over the extend period of time alongside regular communications to ensure we all remain in touch with each other. 

Support

If you need support with your mental health, please ask – people will help.  A good starting point for support is https://www.mind.org.uk/ , https://youngminds.org.uk/ or  https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/ 

Children’s Safeguarding project – a new way of working

The Children’s Safeguarding project is a new way of working for Hounslow, supporting our One Hounslow transformation. Martin Forshaw, the service Assistant Director, was the first ‘service owner’ to bring an outline business case to the Council’s Digital Design Authority, a new group comprising disciplines from across the council to review all key digital projects.

We have started with an 8-week discovery phase, working with FutureGov as our partners, aiming ultimately to deliver a redesigned Safeguarding service which is customer-focused, employee-friendly and digitally optimised.

A key aspect of this is the data and as a joined-up part of this project we have also brought in some specialist help to redesign and improve the management reporting for this Service.

We are working collaboratively as a blended Hounslow and FutureGov team in an agile way to understand how we can best redesign the service to improve the user experience for clients, professional partners and staff; and where we can improve efficiency and ultimately enable social workers spend more time with their client families.

Getting started

We used the first week of the project as our planning week to get the project set up for success. We had a team kickoff workshop where we were able to:

  • Establish the team and define roles and responsibilities within it.
  • Set up the project communications and rhythms, particularly how we are going to work together remotely throughout the project.
  • Plan the project work and what we would like to achieve in each sprint.
  • Started identifying user groups that we wanted to engage with going forward.

Research planning session

We kicked off the actual project work with a research planning session. Using Microsoft teams and the collaborative online tool called Miro, the team started off with an introduction to design research from FutureGov and then worked together to map out the research plan for the project.

The research plan covered the key research areas (what we want to find out), the key user groups (who do we need to speak to and how many people) as well as the methodologies we want to use (how best can we speak to these people to get the information we need).

Next steps

Having a draft research plan in place, the next phase of the project includes recruiting the users and actually conducting some of this research to learn more about the current service, uncovering the main pain points and opportunities within it.

Alongside this, we are mapping out the current end-to-end user journey within the Safeguarding service. This way will help us identify potential pain points within the service as well as opportunity areas where digital improvements can be made which will lead to more efficient ways of working.

Keep in touch If you would like to contribute or talk about any of the work, you can get in touch with Franco Degan, Barbara Munden or Priscilla Kurewa.

Cyber Essentials Plus!

Digital and IT are pleased to announce that the Hounslow Council has achieved a new security certification, Cyber Essentials Plus!

Cyber Security

Cyber Essentials is a Government backed scheme to aid organisations of all sizes in the UK to protect themselves from the most common forms of cyber-attacks.  The scheme consists of two levels, the basic certification which is a technical self-assessment of the organisation’s cyber security and the much more involved and difficult to pass Cyber Essentials Plus which not only requires the self-assessment but requires third party penetration testers to assess and verify your cyber security.

We applied for the second level, CE+, are pleased to be among the first public sector organisations to be successful.

Our Security team worked alongside third party security assessors and our own Digital and IT team during the run up to Christmas to complete this work.  We even had a bit of a ‘high-five’ moment when we learned (during our Christmas get-together) that the penetration testers had been unable to forcibly breach the network security measures we have in place in our new building.  They needed to be granted access by our team to carry out the assessment.  The team allowed themselves an extra couple of chicken wings from the Christmas finger-food buffet that day ..it was wild 🙂

The Cyber Essentials Plus badge assures our residents and partners that we provide a secure IT service by proving that we have cyber security measures in place which helps to reduce our risk of cyber-attacks significantly (this scheme quotes up to 80%).

In achieving this certification it is a clear indication that we are doing the right thing when it comes to securing and protecting data. 

With Digital playing an important role going forward, we are committed to maintaining the high standards we set for ourselves and ensure that we maintain and exceed the standards recognised through this certification for years to come.

Useful Links:

https://www.ncsc.gov.uk/cyberessentials/overview

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cyber-essentials-scheme-overview

Keeping things speedy…

We’ve been very fortunate in being well prepared for the whole organisation working remotely, catering for a new normal of over 1500 staff members using VPN on a regular basis.  That’s an increase from the usual 500 or so.   On occasions some things have been a little slower than normal for some applications but workable. 

However, we’ve also seen a huge transition to Microsoft Teams as the conferencing and collaboration tool of choice for the organisation.  Teams use has exploded from two hundred to well over a thousand concurrent users every day, this introduced a few challenges.  And we like a challenge. 

We saw that that as VPN use increased along with increased used of Teams video conferencing, we began reaching the limits of the VPN solution.  The impact of that was a reduction in video quality on Teams, sometimes to the point that video cut out altogether.   

This was because the video and audio network traffic is sensitive to delay and other traffic was holding things up, a bit like an ambulance trying to get through a traffic jam at 8am (if you remember what that was like).   

We decided that, given the importance of collaboration and face to face communication, we didn’t want to ask anyone to stop using video to reduce the problem.  So, the team looked elsewhere and instead decided to implement split-tunnelling on our VPN for our Microsoft collaboration traffic, specifically Teams, Skype, SharePoint and Outlook.  We found some excellent information pulled together by Microsoft and several various VPN providers which detailed exactly the split tunnelling solution we were looking for (links below). 

Doing this has eliminated the quality issues we were seeing on video conferencing and so far we are seeing reduced utilisation on the VPN in the region of 15% – 22%.  From the initial idea to going into full production for all colleagues took us five days. 

Before: 

Forced VPN configuration

In the image above from Microsoft, all the traffic from the VPN client is going to the VPN Gateway. 

After: 

Split Tunnel VPN configuration

This image from Microsoft shows some traffic going direct to Office 365, and the rest forced to continue through the VPN. 

Links: 

Optimize Office 365 connectivity for remote users using VPN split tunneling 

Guides for common VPN platforms 

Running a virtual workshop using MS Teams

Hounslow Leadership Group (HLG) consists of the most senior 100 managers from across Hounslow Council. The group meets every month to discuss the Hounslow hot topics and input and shape the strategic direction of the council.

As with the rest of local government the council is adapting to new ways of working as part of it’s response to the coronavirus. With much of the council working at home and a large number directly involved in the immediate response we were unsure whether the April HLG meeting was going to go ahead.

Set up on the day

What started as a conversation around should we hold the meeting at all soon, turned into realising that it was essential that it took place.

Conversations had started to turn to recovery and it was important to engage the wider leadership group in the recovery stage of the pandemic. This approach is an important part of the #1Hounslow internal transformation programme and essential to ensure we are operating according to our values.

Digital has been at the centre of the response phase, with massive increases of staff working at home, spinning up a new contact centre, creating digital processes for the Community Hub and using data in more strategic ways. But the question – can we do all this using our digital tools, making it interactive and engaging – we then had a week to pull it together.

A team from Digital & IT, Organisational Development and Corporate Transformation worked together to make the magic happen.

We had used MS Teams for a number of other events in the Council, such as the weekly live Q&A with the Chief Executive to all staff, so it was a natural progression to use Teams for HLG.

What we did

In terms of planning, whilst the meeting had been in the diary for a while, we needed to ensure that we knew who was now able to attend and to enable us to allocate colleagues in the workshop groups.

Colleagues were put into groups of about 10 people, with a facilitator of each group volunteered to then feedback during the main session.

We used Microsoft Teams live to stream the main event, with individual Teams meetings for the workshop sessions. Staff were invited to the workshop groups the day before so they had two Teams meetings in their diary (main live Teams event and the workshop normal teams meeting).

Example of Calendar for meetings

Workshop facilitators and all the Directors who were presenting or hosting were made presenters of Teams live event. There were two producers.

On the Day

We opened the session with a quiz – we wanted to have something informal whilst people were finding their virtual seats. Colleagues messaged the answers to Mark, (Director of Digital & IT), and he read some of them out, so we had some interaction. He then introduced the session, explained how things were going to run and work, with some ‘ground rules’. Embrace the Digital – Be in the virtual room!

We then wanted to ensure that we were able to get a sense check of how people were feeling at the time, especially important as we were not able to see everyone. We used www.slido.com for some interaction and got colleagues to answer the question – How are you feeling at the moment?

The results of this gave the Chief Executive an understanding of the thinking in the virtual room to frame some of the discussions.

Niall (Chief Executive) welcomed and thanked everyone for all the amazing work and for taking the time to attend, Kelly (Director of Public Health), Clive (Executive Director of Finance and Resources) and Mandy (Assistant Chief Executive) gave updates on our response to the pandemic. Mandy then introduced the workshop session.

The workshops asked colleagues to focus on the future, from response to recovery and thinking about what we want to retain, restore and reinvent for the communities of Hounslow. During the workshop they were all asked to complete a template that everyone was able to collaborate on – attached at the end of this post.

Image

The main session, continued to run empty (with just the two producers and a couple of other presenters), while they joined the workshop Teams meetings. Workshop facilitators led the discussions and captured info into the template.

Thirty mins later everyone re-joined the main Teams live event where Steve, Director of HR and OD led the feedback from the workshop facilitators and discussion. We prepared the order that they would feedback in beforehand so that everyone was clear what was going to happen when.

The main producer used the slide deck to produce the event, cutting between slides and presenters etc as appropriate – it was important we had some structure to the event.

It all went really well. Staff were really engaged and we got some great feedback. It was a bold idea to run the session as a virtual session with so much packed into it. But it worked!! Its essential to get colleagues engaged in the discussions, especially at this time and perhaps worked a bit too well, we have another one in a few weeks. We are happy to have any further discussions if anyone is interested as part of our working in the open for our Digital Strategy.

London Borough of Hounslow, Digital & IT

What we’ll do differently next time?

  • We would think about how we invite people to the main event so that we could use the Teams meeting chat function. We used an ICS file that colleagues individually downloaded into their calendar but it would have been good to have the chat functionality with everyone
  • Having a host really worked to provide some continuity through the sessions – we’d formalise this for next time
  • More guidance for the presenters in advance on the fact that there is a delay when slides move and they need to be in order/followed
  • Make it run to time more

What worked

  • Two producers works and provides some resilience
  • The slide deck gave a running order for the producer of the event to know what was happening when

Feedback from Colleagues:

We sent out a questionnaire after the session to ask for feedback from everyone that attended.

What was good:

“Loved the warm up round “

“The format worked well for such a large group and the ICT held up well”

What can be improved for next time.

“A ten minute break half way through “

“More interaction “

“a longer small group session – not everyone in my group had a opportunity to contribute as the time was not long enough”

“The small group session was not long enough and was hindered by comms issues eg not being able to hear other people due to poor connectivity”

What is the most significant thing you learned from the meeting?

“We can’t go back to how it was before. “

“How we are starting to think about recovery and how we might work in the future”

“I appreciated the opportunity to hear about how services were being delivered differently during the small group session”

Other Resources:

We have shared the resources that we used to make the event such a success, below you will find the agenda, the slide deck, instructions and the template we used to during the workshop.

Set up on the day

Hounslow’s new Community Hub call centre

As part of the Council’s response to the coronavirus we had to set up a new call centre for the Community Hub. The aim of the hub is to ensure that assistance is directed to the most vulnerable in the Borough. Whilst we were trying to estimate the volume of phone calls we might receive into the centre, it quickly became apparent that we may fall short of the capacity required. 

We discussed the issue with our Amazon Web Services account manager, Katie Blunt and by the next morning we’d had a call with AWS and VoiceFoundry.com along with an offer to stand up a dedicated call centre solution for us overnight. 

Our team were able to quickly pull together the details such as call routing design and estimates of call volumes and agents and began working with VoiceFoundry on implementing the solution. 

Amazon Web Services have provided the infrastructure for free and VoiceFoundry’s excellent team provided the commissioning work for free too. 

The solution is built on Amazon Connect and the call centre agent interface is browser based and extremely simple to use with nothing to install. 

We’ve received fantastic support from both AWS and VoiceFoundry.com to get this up and running and today we’ve gone live with the solution taking calls from the public.  Our sincere thanks to Katie at Amazon Web Services and to Daniel and Asad at VoiceFoundry.com for their support at this challenging time. 

We’ll also be looking next at integrating automated call answering using Amazon Lex conversational voice and text interfaces to further develop the solution and expand the capacity of the call centre team and extend the contact centre capabilities into the web. 

All part of our approach to the Digital Strategy.

Hounslow Cabinet approves the Digital Strategy 2020-2025

At a meeting of Hounslow’s Cabinet on 17 March, Hounslow Council unanimously approved our Digital Strategy for 2020-2025.

This strategy outlines the council’s digital vision to create connected and inclusive communities across the borough.

“The Hounslow Digital Strategy harnesses the tremendous opportunity to deliver transformation across the council” 

Cllr Pritam Grewal, Cabinet Member for Customer Services and Corporate Performance

Draft Digital Strategy

We want to hear from you about our draft digital Strategy.  We have been working with colleagues across the council to develop this important document to set the vision and direction for the Council.  How we are going to change our services to make the most of data and technology through making sure that we put communities at the centre of what we do. 

The strategy is going to the March cabinet. 

Tell us what you think