Coronavirus Learning Log Week 5: Collaboration and storytelling

Key Challenges:

  • Explaining why we are doing this work
  • Harnessing the ability to collect and share data
  • Working across silos
  • Being open and accessible
  • Operating differently

Telling the story


So far our work has focussed largely on prototyping a way of working involving gathering data on a different way of working in response to the coronavirus. We’ve used theory and analysis to explain our logic behind the project and we’ve been focused on illustrative stories to explain our work to different audiences.

We know that we now need to move from concept to operationalising

We’ll explain how we’re approaching this in the coming weeks but thinking about this led me to consider how a journalist might approach it.  It would probably go something like:

  • They pitch stories to editors, or storyboard the idea to see if it warrants covering
  • They do their research, selecting and sorting relevant information
  • Over time a narrative starts to emerge, making for a cohesive story
  • A story or narrative that gains mass appeal has the potential to influence behaviour and decision making

Our narrative so far has been – ‘Over the coming weeks people and public service organisations will do things that they have never done before. Some of this novel practice will be useful for the future’ – having pitched that idea we are now looking at how we can collect and share data, from which discernible patterns or narratives may emerge. Our intention is that these will, in turn, influence the way we think about public services both during the coronavirus pandemic and in the future.

Collecting and sharing


As a team we’ve been discussing this week how we should move to more ‘data informed decision making’ – we’ve recognised that we’ve not reached all the areas we would like to in our events and discussions and therefore may have gaps in the evidence we are collecting. A conversation inevitably ensued about data during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of my colleagues really felt that the ‘flatten the curve’ narrative was doing its job.  He shared with me a podcast he had listened to, featuring Carl Bergstrom, a computational biologist at the University of Washington, there was an interesting point made about the way data visualisations can be used:

  • To demonstrate how the world or a situation is: saying to the public; here’s the situation, take or leave this information
  • To tell you how you should be behaving in life; and what actions you should be taking

The graphs we’ve seen about the need to keep hospital capacity below a certain point serve both purposes in that they illustrate both where we stand in NHS capacity as well as providing a visual aid to the motto ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’

What that particular model did, argues Bergstrom is ‘show people why social distancing is necessary’.

‘The model itself is arguably neutral. However, they are made for a reason’ he goes on ‘Models have a feedback – they influence our behaviour in a way which in turn changes the situation we’re in, which changes the data’

We want to use these learning logs to present different ways of working and mapping the responses we’ve seen, using different models for visualising it. That data will hopefully serve to make a point that we should be looking to adapt the way we work and identify those innovative practices that we may be able to carry into a post coronavirus world. On the other side, it may also help to demonstrate the mood of public sector workers and provide a detailed picture of their response to the coronavirus. Importantly, we need to interpret that data fairly, gathering a wide range of views, avoiding assumptions about how services are operating or should be operating.

Working across silos

In these learning logs I’ve talked a lot about working together as an organisation and using our skills and abilities to advance this project to share knowledge gathered from responses to coronavirus.

One way we are doing this is by working closely with our communications department. Considering that Audit Wales has adopted this project as a way for the performance audit teams to conduct their work, during this period of unprecedented disruption, the project requires a clear communications strategy for sharing information and who better to turn to for that than our comms team?

While we’ll be presenting a lot of the knowledge gathered through infographics and data, we want to look at how we can share what we are learning wider.  We want to expand on our current strategy of writing these learning logs and publishing them on the GPX blog to a relatively limited audience. One idea that was suggested is that different people could contribute content each week, as a means of showcasing different perspectives. Making this project part of the wider Audit Wales comms approach, allows us to reach a larger audience, while simultaneously presenting the project as an organisation-wide responsibility, rather than a niche activity, limited to one department.

Another way we are overcoming silos is by trying to dispel lack of communications within our team itself. As I write this, we’ve just agreed to have weekly skype meetings where we discuss what we’ve leaned in an informal and discursive setting. At the moment, that learning is represented by these blogs, and – much as I like to think of these as a useful resource – they have their limits in that the slight confirmation bias of the editor (that’s me), and the mental shortcut of retrospective coherence (by which we order and structure experiences), stifle our attempts to communicate freely and openly as a team.

One last thing to mention regarding communication; a word about randomised coffee trials. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, it’s a way of networking, where individuals agree to take part in the project, are randomly paired and then have to organise a chat with each other over coffee (choice of drink is optional). Trials of the idea occur across organisations, sectors or entire industries.  We for instance, are running pilots with Newydd Housing Association and the group CLARI (Change Lab Action Research Initiative), who are based in Nova Scotia. It’s a simple idea yet enables conversations between individuals who would not usually have an opportunity to network. The idea is just one way of making those conversations happen.

Open and accessible

Making information open and accessible is not only important to demonstrate accountability, but it is important if we are asking people to change behaviour and take action.  yesterday a colleague said to me ‘I went to the shop yesterday and there was a gang of boys stood in the doorway.  The shopkeeper told them to move, but it felt really intimidating. I was wondering whether I should call the police but didn’t know if it was a waste of their time’. She later found out that you can message the police via Facebook messenger for crimes such as this one.

This story stresses the importance of making sure that information is publicly available, so that individuals wishing to engage with public services can make the right decisions. Discussing this further, my colleague referred me to two websites she found:

Senedd research, describes what it does as providing ‘bite-sized and easily digestible information and commentary on topical issues and developments within the National Assembly’. It categorises this information from environment to economic, to human rights, and openly stresses the need for simple language in making the content understandable to the widest amount of groups and people possible.

The other resource was a home office website detailing the support that exists for victims of domestic violence – there’s been a particular focus on this lately and with Covid19, it is believed that the lockdown has been resulting in more instances of domestic abuse. The website specifically provides a definition of abuse as well as contact details for victims, and guidance on what they can do to get out of the situation.

This raises some important lessons as we start gathering and disseminating learning about novel and innovative practices. We want to make sure the information we produce is understandable and easy to access. Importantly, finding ways of achieving that goal can be viewed as good practice in and of itself.

Operating Differently

Earlier this week I attended a panel led webinar on Corporate Innovation. I will likely revisit this topic at a later date yet one subject to catch my attention was why we weren’t operating before, in some of the ways we are operating now. In the webinar Stuart Laws from the Ministry of Defence points out – ‘Some response teams have shortened working times for cleaning ambulances and getting those products into the market as quickly as possible. The problems in front of you, solve the problem, move on to the next problem. Think longer term when everything comes back to the ‘new normal’.

Later in the same Webinar, Dave Grant of Zoom, explained that ‘We’re taking the time. We moved fast before – we didn’t always move efficiently’. Ultimately, this speaks to a need to respond to immediate problems in new and innovative ways and then to think longer term about how those ideas can be employed in a ‘new normal’ setting ‘after all of this is over’.

We need to think carefully about how we capture the learning and understand what will be of value ‘after all of this is over’.

Learning Opportunities

  • Have a narrative. A good story to complement your intentions can help make your ideas easier to explain and rationalise to different audiences. Take care to remember that developing these is a continuous process and that your narratives or ways of describing your work to people may change as you progress.
  • Present any information or research that you gather in a truthful way; being honest about what the data you’ve collected shows, as well as drawing a discernible line between analysis and fact, and accounting for any discrepancies or potential shortfalls in the information.
  • In any concept that prioritises communication and working together as a value, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which your own thinking may be siloed and work to overcome that by reaching out to relevant organisations, departments or groups that you may have left in the dark.
  • Make sure the information produced is accessible to a wide range of people; it is not helpful if you’ve write a blog post designed to be read by everyone, that can only be understood by auditors. Constantly examine the accessibility and availability of your work.
  • in the process of finding innovative practice it is important to realise why we behaved the way we did before the pandemic. If it is the case that there was a great reason for acting the way we did, we may need to consider the effectiveness of substituting that method. If there was no good reason or the reasons behind a method were decidedly small, look for alternatives.

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