Croydon might sit on the very outskirts of south London but the UK’s 13th biggest district is trying to position itself at the centre of Britain’s govtech revolution. In 2017, the borough won Digital Council of the Year and in 2018, it tried to solidify that reputation by appointing prolific govtech figure Neil Williams as its new Chief Digital Officer.
Williams, a Croydon local, joined the UK government’s Digital Service back when it started in 2011 and helped the department work towards its “digital by default” mission, running the gov.uk website. Since joining Croydon Council in October, Williams has been blogging about how he wants to digitally transform the relationship between the area’s local government and its users. TechSeedo spoke to him about his govtech vision and strategy for Croydon:
Techseedo: What was the most important thing you learnt about the govtech sector while you were head of gov.uk?
Neil Williams: Above all else, the power of focusing on users' needs. There are so many competing incentives, power dynamics and constraints to grapple with in a government context - ingredients which left unchecked can (and for many years did) result in products and services that nobody needs and that achieve next to nothing. But a persistent focus on user needs can cut through all that. It can be hard, it takes time, but the civil service responds well to seeing evidence of what works. By focusing on needs - picking a real problem that needs solving - GovTech can add enormous value.
TechSeedo: You’ve now helped digitise strands of both central and local government. From a govtech perspective, what are the main differences between the two?
Neil Williams: In local government the work feels much closer to the users. They're in the building with us using our face to face services and walking by on the streets outside. Many of the needs we meet in local government are incredibly real too (things like children's social care, housing and homelessness, addiction and mental health). Collaboration across organisational boundaries feels simpler and more solvable because all the functions of the council are under one roof, and under one chief exec - so getting people into one room and resolving differences of opinion is much more possible than in Whitehall, where the power struggles across entirely separate ministries can be intractable.
From a govtech perspective, the opportunities in local government are tremendous. Local authorities provide such a huge array of services - many of them reliant on a limited marketplace of incumbent systems that frankly have been too comfortable for too long and need disrupting.
TechSeedo: How will Croydon’s digital strategy affect the people who live in the area?
Neil Williams: We're just starting to write that strategy now (a new strategy, given I started in October) and aiming to publish in July. So I won't say too much now other than that we'll be radically improving our website and online services, so that more residents can self-serve for the most common things they need to do with the council, and so we can focus our efforts on helping those who can't use online services for whatever reason, and on helping the most vulnerable people who really need our hands-on support.
Over time, the ambition is to get smarter about predicting and preventing demand - stopping small problems becoming big ones by providing help earlier on and providing a more joined up and holistic service that meets all users' needs.
TechSeedo: How does the borough’s approach to technology compare to other UK councils?
Neil Williams: We're in a pretty good place. I'm lucky to have joined a council that already has a strong reputation for digital and technology. We won Digital Council of the Year in the LGC Awards in 2017 for our work on corporate IT, channel shift and digital inclusion. This was largely down to the rollout of laptops and Office365, the creation of My Account (shifting some of our most used services online), and introducing digital training zones in partnership with Martha Lane-Fox's Doteveryone to help residents improve their basic digital skills. We’ve earned ourselves a reputation as a tech-savvy, forward-thinking council that embraces innovation, through our work on Smart Cities. But there's also a huge amount to do.
It's exciting - and nowhere is more exciting right now than Croydon for this stuff. We're going through a massive £5.25bn regeneration. Skyscrapers, new retail and grade A office space are springing up all around us. We have a flourishing tech start-up scene and ecosystem already. We've got a complex transport network, a diverse and young population, and a compact town centre that makes us a great testbed for smart city tech. And we have a large government footprint here with HMRC, Home Office, Land Registry and more. So, we have the perfect conditions here, and the ambition as a council, to become the GovTech and UrbanTech capital of the UK.
This interview has been edited.