Coming up for air – Meeting COVID-19 with Agile approaches. Phase 1



The Now, feels like a very different space from before. Technology is moving at a pace in our organisation like never before but it's been the human factors that have really shone through as we've delivered change over these past few months.  

The early stages of the crisis were all about improving our infrastructure to handle the vast numbers of remote workers (70% of our workforce). Things had started well after the PM's announcement to work from home but we soon realised we needed stronger foundations if we were to build more digital solutions. We replaced our firewalls, put in a new VPN system and accelerated completion of Office 365 email and Teams. We also commissioned an external audit of our tech processes as we needed smooth running from here on in. Lesson 1 - Build on strong foundations 

In February we’d completed the procurement of our new digital platform for residents and agreed a 2 year rollout plan. As the virus hit we needed to use this platform in new ways. Our first digital form was for businesses requesting financial support, which we released through our website. We then quickly mobilised digital forms for our help hub which enabled residents to request help with food, supplies, medication and general support. We started out with a simple form available 24/7 with a contact centre staffed by redeployed workers from around the council. Later we were to build this out into a case management system linked to our food distribution warehouse. The system has dealt with thousands of requests since. Lesson 2 - Agile collaboration can save lives 

Behind the scenes we began to use data in new ways. We had already started building an intelligence platform using Microsoft Power BI and had delivered a customer insights dashboard. We developed dashboards for our senior team to view data on COVID-19 cases, deaths in the borough, staffing levels, school attendance and requests coming into our help hub. There's been multiple iterations since. With management information at our fingertips live, we were able to reduce frequency of senior meetings which helped us get on with the tasks at hand. Lesson 3 - Work Smart, Be Data Driven 

Microsoft Teams usage really exploded after we rolled it out in just over one week. We led the way by using teams for our management board and extended leadership sessions. Things quickly caught on and I put down the pace of change to both a necessity and what was happening in peoples personal lives with similar technology. We'd had Skype integration with our phone system for many years but Teams is much more intuitive. In the Highways teams it was used to support lone working, in Education we used Microsoft Teams to recruit Head Techers as a couple of examples. Lesson 4 - Social Digital Movements Work - Let it go   

When our waste and recycling centres reopened we needed an online booking system through our new digital platform for residents. It was difficult and complex and we were two days late with the forms which caused problems for residents getting through on busy phone lines to book. Two days before sites opened our system was live and has since handled thousands of requests. This has enabled minimal queuing, proper social distancing and safer highways around the centres. Lesson 5 - Fail fast, take the flack, product is everything 

Last night saw the first full council delivered virtually, including the election of the new mayor. This was delivered through a Microsoft Teams Live Event and it went really smoothly. We benefited from learning of other councils who blazed the trail and expert preparation by cross council teams with councillors. This felt like a fitting conclusion to phase one of this crisis from a digital perspective. Lesson 6 - Remember to enjoy and celebrate the victories as well as learning from the defeats

Our progress has been down to real collaboration, appetite for change and focusing resources on the right priorities. Our staff and teams have been outstanding to a person, delivering change whilst their lives were impacted like everybody else. Above all it’s been about a One organisation approach to digital and an open door for Agile transformation. I’m proud to serve alongside people with such professionalism and dedication to public service. Lesson 7 - Digital is everyone's business   

The final and most important lesson from my experience of this unique time is around people. People are our organisation. We're playing the long game, we need breaks, stability, empowerment and above all Trust. Get back to developing the organisation, teams and individuals with a strategic view. We must also look after ourselves and our wellbeing - Lesson 8 - Look after your people, trust them and give them flexibility



By Paul on 5th Jun 2020
Paul is the Strategic Director of Resources at Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council.