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CIO interview: Matthew Wallbridge, head of ICT, Croydon Council
Croydon’s ICT boss talks about why being “good” isn’t good enough and building a new ICT delivery model
Croydon Council is in the midst of a massive shake-up, having decided to completely change the way it delivers IT.
There is a perception out there, rightly or wrongly, that councils generally have a chronic phobia of doing things differently than they have for the past 20 years. That perception may be true in some cases, but it does not apply to Croydon, something its CIO, Matthew Wallbridge, is keen to prove.
The local authority’s sourcing strategy programme is not just about getting a new supplier or designing a fancy website, but making real, quantifiable changes, from the way it works with suppliers to the way public services are designed and the way staff are recruited.
Croydon is already leading the way when it comes to IT. According to Wallbridge, it was the first public sector organisation to implement the Microsoft Windows 10 and Office 365 bundle across its entire estate, and it has already won over local residents with a popular online digital account where people can pay their council tax and access their benefits claims, among other things.
To ensure people could take advantage of its digital offerings, the council launched a campaign in 2014 to improve digital skills among local residents – partnering with Doteveryone to deliver workshops and training across the borough on how to use smartphones and the internet.
The skills drive has been hugely successful, says Wallbridge. “There are about 20% of people in Croydon who are digitally excluded, which tend to be those who need the council's help the most,” he says. “They are at a disadvantage because they are not digital, so they can’t access their bills as easily, can’t do price comparisons and so on, so financially they are worse off.”
“Simply by giving people the skills and equipment, we can change their lives”
Matthew Wallbridge, Croydon Council
When the council decided to conduct an IT hardware refresh within the organisation, giving staff new laptops, it refurbished the old ones in order to give them out to the local community, either free or at a nominal price, says Wallbridge. “Simply by giving people the skills and equipment, we can change their lives,” he adds.
Wallbridge took up his role about 18 months ago, and quickly began shaking the trees and picking the low-hanging fruit. He doesn’t come from an ICT background, but a business transformation one, and says he has “learned ICT as much as I need to learn ICT”.
One of his main goals is to ensure that ICT is a “really embedded business” and ensure the council has a clear vision of what it wants.
Good isn’t good enough
Going forward, the focus is on thinking about what ICT really means. Croydon is “pretty good” at IT, says Wallbridge – but that’s not good enough.
“I want ICT to be better than good, I want it to be great, I want us to deliver changes that makes a difference to people’s lives,” he says.
One key strand of this vision is about having the right suppliers in place. Last year, Wallbridge submitted a report to the council’s cabinet on delivering a new ICT model for the authority – one that enables service change, “providing quick, flexible and cost-effective transformation”.
Like most councils, Croydon has a longstanding outsourcing deal in place. In 2013, it awarded a nine-year, £73.5m contract to Capita to deliver the council’s ICT services, including its service desk, networks, managed printing and desktop and infrastructure support, among other things.
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Now, one of Wallbridge’s key priorities is to build a new ICT model. “We are looking at moving away from long outsourcing deals” he says, explaining that his new model is all about having a “mixed economy, shorter contracts, bringing in specialists where we need specialists, but also moving to more agile delivery”.
“Our current Capita contract is nine years, but when we go out to tender again, no one is getting even a five-year contract,” he says. “Your requirements and technological developments change so much in the space of a couple of years, which is why I have never understood nine-year contracts.”
Outsourcing contracts are the status quo in local government, and although they usually deliver an OK service, things could always improve. Wallbridge’s report to the cabinet says there are areas of the current service that are “not meeting the organisation’s needs”.
Getting out of a long outsourcing deal could be costly for Croydon if it means breaking the contract. But in this case, there is a break clause in the contract in May 2019, when the authority is allowed to break all of, or part of, the current deal.
Croydon isn't looking at potentially breaking the contract because the supplier is “bad” in any way, he says, but it just doesn’t fit in with the council’s ICT vision. “Capita has done really well for us, but it’s not going to get us to great” says Wallbridge.
Home to Croydon Tech City, the borough is full of businesses that are doing lots of innovative, cutting-edge technology, something Wallbridge wants to take advantage of.
Key drivers for the council’s vision are having the ability and opportunity to work with local tech companies to create Croydon-specific solutions, and having easy access to tech experts.
“We want to have a mixed supplier base, and within that, looking at how we can utilise businesses in Croydon,” says Wallbridge, pointing out that the borough is open for business and, with rent a quarter of the level on offer in Shoreditch, it should make an attractive offering.
Taking back control
Croydon is also looking within itself to ensure it has the right culture and people in place to deliver on its vision. “We don’t want to simply be a council doing IT, we want to be at the cutting edge of technology and think of ourselves as a great ICT team, regardless of sector,” says Wallbridge.
“Being great is entirely reliant on the people we have. We need to recruit the right people,” he adds. Croydon has partnered with the Resourcing Hub to find the right talent, and is now “experimenting with recruitment”, he says.
“We don’t do the standard application process,” says Wallbridge. Instead, the council asks applicants to do things a bit differently, such as submitting a video of themselves, and having a two-way conversation instead of a standard set of interview questions.
“I want to talk to people about why they want to come and work for Croydon,” he says, adding that the council has a number of exciting projects going on.
Wallbridge is particularly keen to recruit women, local people, ethnic minority groups and those who would not necessarily go after a job in IT.
Croydon is a diverse and happening borough, and the council’s staff need to be able to reflect that to ensure the services they build are fit for its residents, he says.