Weeknote 27 April - 1 May 2020

Weeknote 27 April - 1 May 2020

3 minute read

On home offices, generic capabilities and insensitive language

I’ve been working from home full-time for about 7 weeks. I am lucky as we’ve got a decent desk at home and the Council was already well set up to support working from home. This week I added an aerobic stepper and a cardboard vegetable box to raise my laptop and PC screen as I’ve noticed I’ve been stooping, especially towards the end of a day full of video calls.

We’ve sorted out the basics to allow over 4000 office workers to keep working at home. Getting a device to someone who needs it is quick, easy and requires minimal bureaucracy. We may have to do more if the lock down continues or we decide to make working from home the default. There are going to be lots of difficult questions about furniture and home utilities. What do we do for people who don’t have a corner of a kitchen table to work on, let alone a spare room?

Generic capabilities vs specific use cases

Some of our attention has been shifting from the tactical response to the COVID-19 crisis back to the strategic changes on our roadmaps. Some old debates have resurfaced including where we should be putting our limited money and effort. For example, should we be building generic capabilities that can then be used in many places or should we work on the most urgent use cases? I don’t think there is much of a choice to make.

I am a fan of generic, re-usable capabilities. You might not be proud to admit it but spreadsheets are easy to use for all sorts of things and are often the first step in automating or digitising something. We are getting better at quickly moving to shared work spaces and better list making tools1 and they have been really useful for teams leading our COVID-19 response. Unfortunately, it is nearly impossible to design these sorts of building blocks up front. With hindsight, the capabilities we are using now seem obvious but they emerged over time as the result of providing things needed for specific, pressing use cases. They are the survivors from a chaotic, iterative, evolutionary process and there are many other carefully designed and planned tools which have failed along the way.

We should leave the job of creating generic capabilities to others who can afford to put in (and lose) all the effort and money needed. We should focus on combining and adapting these to provide tools for specific use cases. Sometimes we may find we can re-use what we have built and we might get better at spotting these opportunities in advance but the main driver of our work should be what our service teams and their service users need right now.

A word about a good cause

The National Cyber Security Centre attracted attention for replacing ‘whitelist’ and ‘blacklist’ with ‘allow list’ and ‘deny list’2. I particularly liked the quote in the press release.

“If you’re thinking about getting in touch saying this is political correctness gone mad, don’t bother.”

  • Ian Levy, NCSC Technical Director

This is a small step for the NCSC to make and, obviously, doesn’t mean there are no more significant issues to tackle but I hope it sets a good example for people who haven’t had to face racism (or other sorts of prejudice):

  • learn about the effect that phrases and behaviour can have on others
  • accept how this makes other people feel, especially if you are lucky enough not to have to experience it yourself
  • encourage feedback, own up when you get it wrong and fix it3
  • amplify the voices and efforts of those affected and their allies.


  1. We are using Microsoft Teams and SharePoint lists 

  2. NCSC press release on their change to terminology 

  3. Every time I write a list like this I remember an occasion when I didn’t live up to it or realise I’ve recently got it wrong again. If you are also finding this difficult I recommend following Better Allies for regular reminders and practical suggestions. 

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