CROYDON IN CRISIS: Our Town Hall reporter KEN LEE on the latest high-profile departure from the council
That loud splashing sound heard outside Fisher’s Folly yesterday?
Could it be the noise you hear when another rat dives off the council’s sinking ship, from one of the upper decks where the “directors” are to be found..?
Neil Williams, the Negrini appointee as Croydon’s first chief digital officer who was promoted by Katherine Kerswell only two months ago to take on additional responsibilities, has taken another job, with the British Film Institute at Waterloo, where it has been announced that he will start in early 2022 as their new “executive director of technology and transformation”.
It’s hard to imagine what Williams must have told the BFI when submitting his job application.
But from their description of Croydon Council and the digital empire Williams managed to build while working here, it is impossible to recognise the realities of a clunky and difficult-to-navigate website, a Crap App that has never functioned properly, and a place where straightforward administrative tasks can now take months to be completed.
And that’s before we get to Williams’ Utopian vision of a “Smart City”, in a borough which, on his watch in pursuit of that goal, has been shorn of the majority of its bus shelters.
According to an announcement made by the BFI yesterday, Williams, “joins at a critical moment as we develop an overarching strategy and roadmap that will support us to become a digital-first organisation, with a focus on the user experience and improving public access to our programmes and collections”.
That should all sound eerily familiar to Croydon-watchers…
According to the BFI’s version of events, while at Croydon, Williams has “… led on a number of transformative projects including a shared platform run by the town’s local tech community to grow it into a thriving economic and technical cluster, and reimagining their IT to support agile working.”
“Thriving economic and technical cluster”?
“Agile working”? Tell that to the 500 frontline staff who have lost their council jobs in the last two years, as the council spiralled into dysfunctionality, yet Williams continued being able to recruit for middle-management appointees in his Croydon Digital Service empire.
“I’m all about using technology and digital products to create great user experiences, make the world a better place and help organisations work smarter and adapt to change,” the BFI quoted Williams as saying.
Back in 2018, when Williams was recruited to the new, six-figure salaried role by that master of self-regarding bullshit, Jo Negrini (remember her?), the council said, “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.” Those are our italics, for emphasis.
“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.”
Back then, at a time when there was only the most cursory of scrutiny of any council function, Williams claimed to be “passionate about public service, in particular the role digital plays in making services and support simple and intuitive, designed around users’ needs“. Italics. See above.
Back then, Williams said, “I’m fiercely proud of this brilliant, diverse and creative borough – Croydon is a great place to live and work, so I’m delighted to have this opportunity to play a part in its continued growth at this exciting time.”
As recently as September this year, the council’s new CEO, Kerswell, as part of her reorganisation of the council, effectively promoted Williams, bolting “director of UX/customer journey” on to his job title. Yeah, we’d like to know what a director of “customer journey” is supposed to mean, too.
According to Williams himself, it involves, “… leadership of a new division charged with transforming the user experience of accessing council services through every channel, and improving customer service culture internally. Responsibility for technology, digital transformation, smart cities, customer contact and high volume life events services (births, marriages, deaths).”
Yep, areas listed there, some of which today barely function – to the point that the council is issuing court summonses to residents for failure to pay their Council Tax, when those same residents have been unable to speak to anyone at the council, or make their payments (ahem…) online.
Williams had arrived in Croydon with an impressive record while working at Whitehall’s digital service. Working in local government, though, with greater constraints on resource and ever-diminishing budgets, may have become a hard adjustment to make, particularly in the past year.
He never made any secret of the mission to build a little tech empire.
Last month, one of his appointees wrote, under the headline, “Building the Croydon Digital Service”: “First, we built our own team.”
And they listed the “vital digital roles”, such as “content designers, user researchers, product managers and delivery managers”.
Yet after three years of “transformation” under Williams, the council still lacks a fully functioning, effective smartphone app, with its CrapApp still having no facility for residents to report something as commonplace as a missed bins collection.
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