Neil Williams, the deputy director at the Government Digital Service, who is a resident of the north of the borough and a Crystal Palace football fan, has been named as Croydon Council’s new chief digital officer.
Williams comes highly recommended by former colleagues from a government agency, the GDS, which has a reputation for being at the cutting edge of actually making the public’s online experience easier and more convenient – something Croydon Council has never been accused of doing.
“It’s a fantastic bit of recruitment for Croydon,” one former colleague told Inside Croydon. “I do hope he gets the political backing from councillors and senior leaders to achieve a lot for residents. Certainly shouldn’t be any more crap apps!”
That is a reference to the council’s five wasted years after hiring Harwinder Singh to “develop” the MyCroydon app.
From Day One, that app’s functionality was poor, full of bugs, and unloved by residents and council staff alike. Having overspent the original £12,000 budget within months, Singh’s company eventually went bust. His reward for failure, as revealed by Inside Croydon, was to be taken on in-house by the council, being paid £787 per day by executive director Graham Cadle, who just so happened to be the godfather to Singh’s child.
The council’s misadventure with Singh and Cadle, and their involvement with a misfiring and over-spending Digital Enabling programme, ended up costing the Council Tax-payer hundreds of thousands of pounds, until earlier this year Cadle, Singh and Karen Sullivan, the mother of Singh’s child, all left their council positions and the crap app was binned. Details of Cadle’s generous golden handshake have never been revealed.
As the new chief digital officer will soon discover, though, not all the lessons were learned from the costly experience.
The council has recently launched a new app, again apparently bespoke rather than utilising existing and proven opensource apps, and the complaints have already begun.
For instance: this is a “Take Pride In Croydon” app for reporting fly-tips and street cleaning issues But it has no category for residents to report missed bin collections by Veolia. Or maybe that’s entirely deliberate..?
Williams announced his delight at his new job via Twitter: “After seven incredible, fun and fulfilling years at GDS, I’m leaving to become Chief Digital Officer at Croydon Council from October. Croydon’s regeneration, growing tech sector and digital ambition are hugely exciting and l’m looking forward to helping my fabulous home borough.”
In the council’s own press release, they said, “A highly regarded senior leader in digital communication with years of experience in central government, Neil Williams has a strong track record working at the forefront of digital transformation…
“As the council’s chief digital officer he will be responsible for the design and delivery of the council’s digital services for residents and businesses, making it quicker and easier for them to connect with the council through platforms such as My Account. He will also lead the council’s internal IT function, ensuring it is innovative, cost-effective and efficient; lead work on Smart Cities, using data and technology to make Croydon a better, more efficient and more sustainable place to live and help to support the continued growth of the borough’s thriving technology sector.”
What this also means is that the council wants to employ even fewer people, for fewer hours, to staff the phone lines to actually speak to Council Tax-payers, who are increasingly being forced to engage with council services solely online.
A Civil Servant with wide-ranging experience in three government departments, Williams joined GDS when it was established, in 2011, where he had specific responsibility for GOV.UK, the single website providing access to all central government’s services and information.
Williams says that digital services and support should be “simple and intuitive, designed around users’ needs”.
The council, which has a reputation for hosting a difficult to navigate, clunky website with bug-ridden forms which often do not work for residents or their own staff, together with a predisposition to publish many documents as pdfs, may be in for something of a culture change when Williams arrives.
At GOV.UK, Williams has this week published a working document encouraging government departments to… kick the pdf habit.
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