Interview: Hackney’s Matthew Cain on changing councils, chatbots and local government Verify

Hackney’s head of digital Matthew Cain talks to Gill Hitchcock about redesigning parking permits, prototyping a chatbot and exposing staff to external good practice.

Hackney Town Hall – Photo credit: David Giles/PA Archive/PAImages

For many people, working at one of the handful of local authorities piloting the Government Digital Service’s flagship identity assurance scheme GOV.UK Verify would have been an exciting – if challenging – opportunity not to be missed.

Just as the work was kicking off, at the end of 2016, Matthew Cain decided to leave Buckinghamshire County Council – after just 18 months in the role.

He admits that, with this and other big projects emerging, it was too early a time to leave. There were, however, several reasons that the London Borough of Hackney drew him away.

The first was Hackney itself. Having lived there for a decade, he “loves the place” and saw a huge chance to be part of what the council was achieving under the leadership of ICT director Rob Miller.

Cain also wanted to move somewhere bigger. At Buckinghamshire, he managed a team that began as two people, although at various times was as large as 12.

Hackney’s 80-strong digital team includes people working on development, business intelligence, master data management, information governance, corporate knowledge management and more.

The context is very different too. Cain joined Buckinghamshire at the start of a three-year journey to save £2m through digitisation: “It dictated a particular way of working that didn’t have much time for being gradual and emphasised delivery over development of people.”


 Hackney, on the other hand, has seen significant transformation over the last few years. “Turning up and going ‘I am from this digital team, I want to improve your service and I am going to so by brute force over the next 12 months’ wouldn’t cash in a Hackney environment,” Cain says.

In addition, Buckinghamshire’s digital function is set up to drive change from the centre, whereas Hackney’s digital team is part of a wider IT function responsible for the day-to-day ICT experience. Cain believes this will allow for much bigger digital opportunities over the long term.

“While the core of the way I work is about user-centric design and thinking and agile, in Hackney it’s about applying those methods in new ways,” he says.

But Hackney is not without its challenges – and its skills gap is forefront in Cain’s mind. Rectifying this will mean recruiting specialists in service design and user research, as well as creating opportunities for existing staff to work differently.

Cain says his team has been “lucky enough” to get in external experts to speak and has started visiting other organisations – such as Waltham Forest Council, GDS and suppliers like Microsoft and FFW – to see how they operate.

“It’s about giving people exposure to new ways of doing things and chiselling out bits of time so that people can work in new ways,” he says. “We had a team who spent a month prototyping a chatbot. We had never built a prototype before.

“They asked ‘What do you think we should do next?’, and I said ‘You haven’t spent enough time with users’. That was literally about going into the street with a chatbot and saying to residents ‘Can you use this, what can you learn from it?’.”

Cain says that empowering teams to innovate and work across silos in this way is the single most important factor in digital success for local government.

“It’s a cliché,” he says. “But if you can align people from across the delivery chain with the ICT, so have all of your touchpoints with a service in a room together, and understand a problem from multiple perspectives, you will get much further, much faster, and the end result will be better than if you do it any other way.”

Of course, Cain’s time at Buckinghamshire – albeit short – taught him a lot. Working on the local government Verify pilot, which involved a major redesign of the county’s parking permits, was a tough ask for the council, and he is clearly proud of the team’s commitment and continued dedication to the work.

“Verify was a huge carrot for us because we had no other means of assuring customer identity, and certainly not in a digital way,” he says. “But it also a stick, because the GDS train was leaving the station and we had to be on it.”

Although he acknowledges that the work on Verify was incredibly taxing, he says it helped take the council much further, much faster, than it would have done if left to its own devices.

Cain also got the chance to flex his parking permit experience when he arrived in Hackney – the borough has, in 12 months, gone from asking residents to visit the cashier’s office with two forms of identity and a cheque, to having 85% of them self-serve online.

“We have learned how to do it in parking and that gives us the confidence to use those approaches elsewhere and get them to work,” he says.

Thinking back to his first week in Hackney five months ago, Cain says he did not stop the world from spinning; instead he focused on asking some core questions of his new team.

“I wrote them up on a whiteboard in my office at the end of the first week,” he says. “How can we: improve the quality of what we do by being more user centred; use agile principles to decrease risk; make this look and feel like a great place to work; help services understand that it’s central for digital to improve outcomes and reduce costs; and what are we going to deliver next week.”

Cain used these questions to frame his approach to work and at the forefront of all this, Cain puts a user-centred approach.

“If you can genuinely achieve it, then you can reduce costs; you need fewer people fixing things and you’ll have fewer people getting aggravated because something doesn’t work,” he says. “You can dramatically improve the outcomes for colleagues and residents.”

Colin Marrs

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