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Interview: How Croydon is applying GDS lessons to digital service delivery

The first chief digital officer at one of London’s largest boroughs talks about plans to transform user experience, procurement and cultural perceptions

Croydon Council is pressing ahead with an all-encompassing digital agenda as its first chief digital officer (CDO) Neil Williams seeks to apply key lessons from his time as a pioneer at the Government Digital Service (GDS).

Williams was one of the GDS’ first hires and worked in the inception and development of the Gov.uk platform for seven years, having witnessed the expansion of the team from 14 people to 140 in a year’s time.

As well as leading agile, multidisciplinary teams, Williams was one of the key figures behind the introduction of roadmapping in central government and driving transparency around planning and building digital services. These learnings are now informing the transformation plans of his first local government role.

Croydon has a “reputation challenge”, according to Williams, which, along with the motivation of developing his home turf – the CDO has been living in the borough for a decade – is among the factors that attracted him to the job.

“When you mention [Croydon] to a lot of people, their first thought is to make a joke about it. And we are changing those perceptions and prove people’s perceived ideas about Croydon wrong,” Williams tells Computer Weekly, in an exclusive interview.

“In a way, it’s much like my reasons for taking on Gov.uk, which was a mission where there were a load of naysayers said that would never work. And I found that very attractive,” he says.

“I am hugely motivated by being part of that change, helping to make Croydon a leading place to live, to work, to have a business. And I think this digital transformation is a core part of that.”

Internal IT

The new role of CDO at Croydon covers a lot of ground. It is accountable for all the internal IT the council uses, including hundreds of line of business systems, as well as an external-facing side, so the application of digital approaches in the borough, under aspects including smart cities, with ongoing trials including internet of things projects around air quality monitoring and damp and humidity detection in social housing.

Williams is also tasked with initiatives around supporting a tech economy, so providing digital skills to the residents and developing a local talent pipeline. But a crucial aspect of the CDO job is the delivery of digital services, where significant change is expected for the next 18 months.

Driving citizen-centric services

The approach to digital services delivery led by Williams has residents at its core, data being one of the key elements. Historically, the council made efforts to shift more services online and managed to generate some savings, but users’ expectations of modern apps and technology have not been taken into account.

“We now need to focus more on the user experience, so we’re continually improving based on user needs and making services more convenient to use,” says Williams.

Adopting such novel ways of working is something that not many local authorities have done, the CDO pointed out, but some have a head start of where Croydon currently is, including Hackney, Essex, Brighton and Camden, who have been applying the lessons from GDS into their contexts.

“What’s happening now is that LAs are actually being more proactively encouraged from the centre. So collaborate and share more, adopt GDS standards and methods, collectively apply pressure and disrupt the [technology] market, because we’re all trying to solve the same problems,” says Williams, in reference to the Local Digital Declaration, the joint initiative from GDS and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, which was released last year to outline a common vision for the future of local services.

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According to the CDO, the key underlying priority of the new plan at Croydon is gaining a deep understanding of what users need in order to provide a good experience.

Achieving that aim happens through design, continuous iteration and requires a range of skills to be continually available. It is nevertheless a challenging task, considering the complexity of a large council like Croydon.

“The risk in a local authority with many service verticals is that you might end up, for example, in a situation where someone facing financial difficulty who can’t pay for council tax, rent or other services having different parts of the council potentially going after them for things,” says Williams, stressing that getting the whole picture of users’ life context is paramount.

Following the footsteps of what has been done at the GDS, the idea is to start with the user-centric outcomes and work backwards from there, according to the CDO.

“That means thinking about what are we trying to achieve, what that user experience looks like. Then designing, testing, improving all parts of the service and continually making them better,” he says.

“As soon as you start improving the front part of a service – the bit the user sees on the website or app – you extremely rapidly hit a constraint in the system, which will typically be down to technology, procurement, process or skills.

“To make services people can easily use, you have to work on redesigning the whole service,” says Williams.

Redevelopment and continuous improvement

To demonstrate the value of the new approach, Williams introduced a blog, Croydon Digital, which brings together perspectives from Croydon Digital Service (CDS) staff as well as other stakeholders including other council workers, local businesses and residents where the digital progress is documented and collaboration is encouraged.

The blog is used as a test case to demonstrate what agile is under an Alpha project. Since its introduction, the team learned what the requirements are “very quickly” based on feedback, which informed the next stage of the process, where a beta is now being developed. The staff working on this will then go on to become the corporate team.

“The next thing we’re doing straight after that is the website,” says Williams. “We’re going to redevelop croydon.uk in the same way that we did Gov.uk. My ambition is that we can do it in 18 months from start to finish.

“The important thing is the quality of the user experience and getting right rather than being on time. A website is never finished. It’s a continuously-improving space, which we’ll be doing forever. It’s really a question of when is it ready enough,” he says.

According to Williams, roadmapping and working in an agile way means that it becomes possible to reprioritise tasks on a continual basis.

“Sometimes that thing is on fire. Sometimes something is broken,” he says. “We’re having a problem today with something, for example, and we have to drop other stuff and get on it. That needs to be easier to do because this is a world of constant flux.”

Volume is a challenge, says Williams, especially considering the limited resources in local government: “But all the more reason really to invest in that capability, so that you can pivot easily, you can make sure that you’re continually investing that effort in the next most important thing.”

Building capability

Williams’ main focus at present is on capability building. This will involve a shift from a traditional IT function that until recently was responsible primarily for internal technology to one that is also accountable for the website and digital delivery.

To enable that vision, multidisciplinary teams are being created, grouped around themes related to internal and external projects, with skills covering the entire digital service transformation spectrum. This will include staff focused on areas ranging from the website and the build of citizen-facing digital services to the implementation of back-end software and user training.

“Each team will have everything end-to-end from the internal systems through to the stuff that the resident uses, contained within one team, which is completely able to solve entire problems around all the services we offer, working in an agile way, in sprints, delivering whatever the next most important thing is for all of the services that relate to their theme,” says Williams.

Under the new approach, one such team will have responsibility for all services relating to people – so services including social care, public health and housing. Another will be focused on place-related matters, so areas such as building controls, streets and highways and waste, while a third team will own corporate  services like revenue and benefits and council tax as well as communications and all the corporate IT.

According to Williams, organising the technology function into people and skills needed to deliver service transformation based on user needs backwards is a novel approach, particularly in local government.

“That’s quite radical, and I don’t think that has been done in a council in quite this way before, so we’re breaking new ground here in Croydon,” he says.

New roles

Many new roles will be recruited into CDS, which currently employs 70 staff. This will include positions such as product managers, agile delivery managers, service designers, user researchers and an interaction designer. Other roles, around the transactional service stack, will also be needed, in areas such as Microsoft Dynamics and CRM, and will be gradually advertised online.

Williams is convinced that even though salaries in local government are not comparable to high paying private sector digital jobs, the strategy that is being shaped at Croydon will make it a very attractive place to work:

“There will be some exciting roles and we know how to attract good candidates to those,” says Williams. “Croydon is a really cool place to work, and a really ambitious council. We may not always be able to compete on salary but we can compete on culture and ambition: we are a fun team, passionate about what we do.

“The whole council is full of people who are there because they care about making Croydon better. And with all the regeneration and vision we have here, it is quite appealing for people who want to come and join us.”

Many of the new roles that will be required to support the digital initiatives actually exist within the council’s outsourced service provision, the CDO explained, but change is also underway in that space.

Moving towards supplier disaggregation

A shift to a disaggregated supplier model is another significant part of capability building for the new way of delivering services at the council. This will involve a move, happening this month, from a single contract with Capita to various suppliers.

The new supplier pool includes Littlefish, an SME from Nottingham who will take over user support and the IT helpdesk, Xerox for print and Vodafone for telephony. Capita will remain part of the picture, with a reduced scope.

“We want more choice and there’s a collective ambition around trying to make that better,” says Williams. “We want the incumbents to innovate faster and maybe to move away from this continual cycle of re-procuring every five to 10 years. The way to deal with suppliers should be agile too.

“It’s not like we’re trying to completely disrupt models and take [incumbents’] business away,” he says. “It’s that we want to work with them to move things forward a bit, maybe by disaggregating some of the large chunks of software and making them smaller parts so there is a little more flexibility.”

According to Williams, the council is also keen to encourage more bidding from SMEs as part of its new approach to procurement: “We’re talking to Croydon companies about whether they can get ready for it next time – we’re keen to support our local SMEs in making sure that they know how to bid for [local government contracts].

“There is obviously a fair amount of competition,” he says. “But I want them to bringing that to the table and be aware of the opportunities that we have in the council as one of the biggest employers and one of the biggest spenders in the local economy.”

Future vision

In a year’s time, Williams expects his function will have delivered a “much better website for the council”. He also expects his team will have a grip on demand management and a clear public roadmap, so the pipeline is evident to all stakeholders.

Driving transparency around the project pipeline will also mean small and medium-sized enterprises will stand a better chance of doing business with the council, he says.

Significant improvements are also expected for some of the council’s core business systems, covering areas including adult and children’s social care casework, planning and building control, and revenue and benefits.

Beyond the technical deliverables, Williams also expects the culture will have “shifted a fair bit” in terms of driving understanding around the new ways of working, with a learning development program for all staff around digital also in the horizon.

“We have really good technology here in terms of our laptops and our software that all has access to,” says Williams. “What has not been done enough is training and support to make the most of it.

“There’s a whole bunch of efficiency gains to be had in the council, but also just making it feel a better place to work, by ensuring we’re a place that has great technology and supports people to use it to best effect.”

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