A look back at my role as interim head of the Data Analytics and Insight Team at Lambeth Council.
Lambeth Through the Looking Glass
Lambeth is the largest inner London borough with a diverse and welcoming population of more than 320,000 people. The borough is one of the most densely populated areas in the UK with 12,000 residents per square kilometre. This compares to 5,600 for London as a whole and only 366 for all of England.
Forming part of historic Surrey, Lambeth is a vibrant and diverse community — promoting art, drama, music and personality from around the world. There are more than 150 languages spoken by its residents. While many feel it’s a fantastic place to live, there’s an ongoing need to address social and economic inequalities.
The local council offers many services helping to provide better schools, jobs, streets, homes and wellbeing for its residents. The goal is to deliver equitable experiences and outcomes for everyone — regardless of age, ethnicity or financial standing. Data plays a critical role in the success of these initiative.
One Team, Many Functions
Since November 2020, I held an interim role as the Head of the Data, Analytics and Insight (DA&I) Team at Lambeth Council. Our team works within the Performance and Business Improvement division under the guidance of Dami Awobajo. In terms of delivery, my first job was to understand Dami’s aspirations for his division as a whole — and how this fits with the needs of the Finance and Investment Directorate. Working closely with Dami was essential to remain aligned with the Council’s core objectives.
The mission statement is summarised as: “A confident, collaborative, enabling directorate that drives forward positive change to deliver the Council’s ambitions and make a difference to residents' lives. In the modern era, data plays an increasing role in delivering Lambeth’s aspirations”.
The key responsibilities for the head of data include the following:
- Plan, prioritise and execute data-related projects.
- Identify and define data-driven strategies to improve people’s lives, reduce costs and drive decision making.
- Create a framework for recording and tracking team activities.
- Support the delivery of initiatives to help people affected by coronavirus.
- Outline a consistent and repeatable way to execute predictive analytics and other data-driven projects.
- Effectively handover work-streams and working practices to a new permanent head of the data team.
- Enhance the use of Python and related technologies for processing and exploring data.
There’s a great balance of skills and abilities in the team — and everyone is eager to learn more. The changes we made were largely behavioural — we also filled in a few technical gaps along the way.
The Data Team
This DA&I team sits at the heart of Lambeth Council with the aim of providing meaningful insights with data. As a team, we work with divisions and departments across each of Lambeth’s directorates.
During the height of the pandemic, the team helped to deliver solutions for COVID-19 variant surge testing, self-isolation support, contact tracing and support for CEV (Clinically Extremely Vulnerable) citizens.
The DA&I team comprises 3 distinct and complementary sub-teams as Figure 1 shows.
The spatial team deals with location-based information including housing, commercial property, postal boundaries and other geographical assets.
The analytics team transforms raw data into meaningful information using custom visualisations, data analytics and machine learning algorithms.
For the data team, a continual balance between speed, focus, compromise and improvement helps to deliver critival services to staff members, Lambeth residents, partner organisations and central government.
The integration team brings data together from many sources and ensures it is consistent and coherent.
While the three sub-teams have different responsibilities, data suppliers and consumers often require assistance from each area of DA&I.
During my time with Lambeth, our team developed four core needs that summarise how we work together and with others. The remainder of this document describes these needs and how they influence our approach, tooling, process changes and the engagement with suppliers and customers.
4 Needs To Make a Better Team
The Need for Speed
When faced with a crisis, speed and agility are essential. My appointment coincided with global reports claiming more than 50 million positive cases of COVID-19. Lambeth, like most other local authorities, focused on the welfare and safety of its citizens. During this time, my team had to divert resources, change priorities and manage concurrent requests for data services.
It’s possible to make an organisation more efficient without making it better. That’s what happens when you drive out slack.
For the DA&I Team, the COVID-19 crisis accelerated the innovative use of technology, with a range of data-driven interventions being launched or repurposed during the pandemic.
The following points helped us accelerate delivery of critical services:
- Create an environment of early and frequent delivery, where user feedback heavily influences how services change and evolve.
- Leverage the Microsoft Power Platform for capturing, processing and visualising data.
- Work closely with stakeholders and subject matter experts to understand their needs and benefit from their expertise.
- Prefer demonstrating software and services rather than describing them.
- Identify strategic initiatives and also quick wins across the Council where data and predictive analytics can help.
COVID-19 continues to impact businesses across the globe. At the time of writing, we are now close to 180 million cases worldwide. As a team, we made many changes to our ways of working during these challenging times. These processes and practices will live on as a part of the need for improvement.
The Need for Focus
The commitment from everyone I met was never in doubt during my time at Lambeth. People work ceaselessly to help others — preferring to work late or weekends rather than saying no. This is a commendable work ethic but equally important is to work in a sustainable way.
Throughout the pandemic, and beyond, time is our greatest asset. It’s not possible to slow down the clock but we can use what we have more effectively.
In order to focus on that task at hand, we are keen to:
- Prioritise work so the team is always doing what delivers the most value. Strive to complete a higher value task before starting a lower valued one.
- Avoid context switching wherever possible — even short interruptions can consume significant effort. Limit work in progress and encourage a culture of ‘Done’.
- Ensure everyone understands the business context for what they are doing. Without this, we’re unable to offer valuable suggestions and recommendations.
- Align work requests with explicit business outcomes. Help people to appreciate the difference between vanity metrics and measurements that drive business decisions.
- At the busiest times, I often hear people say “I don’t have time to think”. I’ve learned that everyone needs a little slack now and again. As Tom DeMarco says, becoming more efficient doesn’t mean we’re doing better work. Regardless of how busy we are, a whiteboard usually beats a keyboard when solving business problems.
The best solutions come from sharing thoughts and ideas in a safe environment where everyone can contribute.
The Need for Compromise
The word compromise often comes with negative connotations — at Lambeth Council, it simply means reaching a win-win agreement between us and the people we work with. The data team has a one-to-many relationship across all areas of the Council and it’s important to ensure that every request for help is treated in a fair and consistent way.
Perfection is the enemy of progress
The need for compromise doesn’t mean cutting corners or releasing sub-quality services. It’s a reminder to optimise the services we provide. It can be difficult to reach consensus when people believe they need absolutely everything on their wish list. The problem is, we rarely have time to do everything for everyone — especially during a pandemic.
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.
Key considerations for the Data Analytics & Insight Team are:
- Focus on the process rather than the end result. This removes a specific target and leaves room for learning and continual improvement.
- Don’t strive for perfection, set clear expectations at the outset and update them as you progress. This avoids surprises and helps to identify the point of diminishing returns.
- Demonstrate progress early and often. In this way, customers can provide valuable feedback rather than wait for the end result (when changes are much harder to make).
Of course, there are areas where we shouldn’t compromise such as safety, quality and integrity. Still, we shouldn’t wait for perfection before releasing something. Tomorrow’s ideas will always be better — the agility to change as we learn is what really matters.
The Need for Continual Improvement
No matter how successful we are, there’s always room for improvement. While perfection may be an impossible and impractical target, continuous improvement is always within reach.
I strongly believe that good leadership isn’t about telling people what to do. Rather, it’s supporting people to achieve what they’re capable of doing. In this way, team members contribute to why and how we do things as well as what needs to be done.
Key considerations for the Data Analytics & Insight Team are:
- Avoid carelessness but allow mistakes. Having to get it right first time stifles innovation and fosters the wrong mindset. Just ensure that everyone learns from their experiences and makes next time a little better than before.
- Engage at the beginning rather than at the end. Data processing and analytics can sometimes be seen as the last thing that gets done. It’s not enough to know what we are doing — we must also understand why we are doing it.
- Define clear success criteria and ways to measure how we are progressing. As the great Peter Drucker once said, “What gets measured, gets managed!”.
Within the Data Analytics and Insight Team our priority is to decide on what to do next rather than dwelling too long on what went wrong. This does not mean that we shouldn’t investigate problems when they occur. As long as we realise it’s better to focus on actions rather than results.
At Lambeth, the Data Analytics and Insight Team helps to bridge the gap between valuable business outcomes and the data that contributes to those outcomes. While data is an essential ingredient, it won’t, by itself, drive improvements and decision making.
This task rests with the team, their knowledge, experience and unwavering commitment to the cause. The journey from raw data to information to actionable knowledge is rarely straightforward, always unique and most definitely never boring.
As my current engagement comes to a close, I reflect on colleagues I have found, new friends I have made, and the novel experiences I’ve encountered as a by-product of my role at Lambeth.
Hopefully I’ve managed to repay some of the things I’ve learned and leave the Data Analytics and Insight Team a little better than I found it. I wish everyone continuing success and hope to meet again before too long.