Croydon’s latest ‘digital offering’ has left parents and carers of some of the borough’s most vulnerable youngsters angry at the way they have been fobbed off with yet more sub-standard service. KEN LEE reports
Neil Williams, Croydon’s recently appointed chief digital officer, has his work cut out when he turns up for his new job, as he will inherit a set of online offerings that are supposed to help residents access council services but which are riddled with poor functionality, maze-like navigation, and full of broken hyperlinks and misinformation.
Jo “We’re Not Stupid” Negrini, the council’s £200,000 per year chief executive, has spent millions of pounds of council cash on IT projects in an unrelenting drive towards conducting ever more of the council’s business online. Council Tax, benefits, housing, repairs, fly-tipping… there’s seemingly no end to the range of council activities which now are supposed to be accessed online.
The council’s executives have wallowed in the acclaim of Croydon winning vacuous awards such as “Digital Council of the Year”, when judges swallowed whole some typical council bullshit. Croydon, it was claimed, has a “mantra” that “no one gets left behind”. If true, it is an unfortunate choice of slogan, as those who originally coined it, the US Marines, might attest from their involvement in Vietnam.
When council leader Tony Newman puffed out his chest (in his slightly-too-tight dinner suit) to go up on stage to collect the award last year, ringing in his ears was the judges’ citation which praised Croydon’s “breadth of its community empowerment and the range of digital activities, which had a material impact on changing people’s lives in different ways”.
A material impact on changing people’s lives in different ways. Seriously.
The harsh, daily reality for thousands of Council Tax-payers is somewhat different, as they struggle to deal with an increasingly remote local authority, where speaking to a council official on the phone is often out of the question, and where simply getting useful information or accessing the services that they desperately need has become an impossible ordeal.
Last month, Croydon Council launched a new web-based service which it calls Local Offer. It is typical of the arms-length aproach the council now prefers when it comes to dealing with the public.
As with so many aspects of Croydon Council’s services, there is a gaping chasm between the claims made by the local authority about the competency of its own work, and the experience of the people who have to use – or “interface”, as Negrini would no doubt describe it – the sub-standard service.
“Our new website provides clear, accessible information and advice about the help and support available for children and young people with SEND in Croydon,” the council’s new site chirps. SEND, which the site fails to spell out, stands for Special Educational Needs and Disability.
The site “allows you to view services and organisations within the new and fully searchable service directory,” the council promises.
But parents and carers of children and young people for whom this digital service is supposed to have been designed have contacted Inside Croydon angry at the manner that they feel they have been fobbed off by a council which increasingly appears to hide its staff away from the people they are supposed to serve.
“This new website was never announced to parents,” one said. “We only found out about it by accident, from a parents’ group newsletter.”
Another, once they had discovered its existence, was unimpressed with the site. “Navigating to find a link to assessments for the disabled under-18 and their carers proved very difficult,” they said.
The information that can be found on the council-hosted site is often inaccurate or out-of-date.
For example, Local Offer explains how the borough’s Autism Champion – a position which the local authority has a statutory duty to fill – is “Councillor Andrew Rendle”.
Rendle, the site explains, “is the Autism Champion for the council. For more information on autism please see his Autism webpages”.
Except that Rendle is not the council’s Autism Champion.
Rendle ceased to be a councillor more than two months before this site was even launched. Perhaps no one working in the council’s IT department had got the message because the Autism Board (chair: A Rendle) had failed to hold any meetings for nine months from October 2017.
In fact, Jerry Fitzpatrick, a councillor for Addiscombe West, has been the council’s Autism Champion since June this year, six weeks before the launch of the Local Offer website.
But, through no fault of the councillor, there is no mention of Fitzpatrick on the Local Offer site, nor any means for parents and carers of children or young people with autism to be able to contact their “champion”.
So much for Croydon Local Offer allowing users to view “services and organisations within the new and fully searchable service directory”.
So much for having ” a material impact on changing people’s lives in different ways”.
But there are other, fundamental technical and presentational flaws in Croydon Local Offer in its failed effort to provide access to available services.
Page after page of the site refers to various services without offering the hyperlinks to the agencies, council departments or documents and information, rendering the site next-to-useless for the people it is supposed to help.
It’s not that there was not the intention to provide the links. Throughout the site there is parenthetical copy with helpful hints such as “Insert internal link”, where those responsible for building the pages have failed to complete their job and cut, paste and insert the vital url into the web page.
On one page it states: “Other education services can be found here.” Except they can’t, because no one has bothered to insert the relevant links, and no one appears to have noticed in the month or so since the website’s launch.
As one parent said, “It looks lazy and slapdash.
“This is simple incompetence by people at the council, across a range of departments, including those in IT responsible for publishing a useless website, to those working in SEND and children’s services, who haven’t bothered to check their own site and get these things corrected for more than a month.
“To have it published in that state makes it look as if they don’t really care. Which going by the experiences of many other parents and carers, seems too often to be the case.”
Another carer who has tried to use Local Offer told Inside Croydon, “The advice portrayed on the site is reflective of Croydon’s lousy SEND department.
“It is confusing, misleading and unprofessional, with no direction.”
And will give chief digital officer Neil Williams plenty to work on when he starts his new job.
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