Croydon’s digital strategy – an update

A review of digital progress in Croydon and a goodbye from the first (but by no means last!) CDO.

It’s been a while since we created Croydon’s first digital strategy, and 2 years since I last gave an update.

Is it still relevant, given Covid changed everything? How much of it got done given the council cutbacks? And what’s next given I’m leaving, the council’s under new management and its priority is now decent core services and rebalancing the books?

The strategy is under review

Though not yet past its use-by date (it was titled 2019-24), the strategy has gone off a bit sooner than expected. It belongs to a different time, with forewords from leaders who no longer work here, so it has been quietly retired from the Council’s website while we review what’s needed now.

It’s also served most of its purpose as a North Star that attracted, retained and guided our digital doers for the last 2-3 years. The vast majority of deliverables (in the sections headed “what we will do”) are either done or finishing in the next 6 months, and those that aren’t were deliberately de-scoped when the context and cash limits changed.

It lives on in its secret double life, as an exemplar digital strategy that continues to influence others beyond our borough walls. And the vision and goals remain as relevant now as ever.

The aims stay the same

While the detail of what gets done will necessarily flex with the times, the guiding vision and themes from the strategy hold true, and I hope they’ll continue to inspire what Croydon does next.

In short, there’s no choice. We still need to become truly digital.

That means being a more digital council – a workforce that makes best use of technology to work efficiently, so we can help as many residents as possible with the budget we have.

It means offering more and better digital services – so that more residents can get help earlier and faster, at their own convenience, for more things.

And it means becoming an increasingly digital borough – with the skills, connectivity and smart city intelligence to help local people and businesses thrive in the new economy.

As before, we’ll go further, faster if we underpin delivery with collaboration and data – which means the council, wider public sector, commercial and community partners working together wherever possible, sharing tools and insights, and making things open.

These goals became more important, not less, as a result of Covid and the council’s financial challenges. The strategy describes desired outcomes for each theme, and we’re by no means there yet.

How much we got done (with a reduced team)

So where have we got to on all this ambition, since mid-2019? If those are still the aims, how much closer have we moved Croydon towards them?

The answer is: pretty damn far, in spite of incredibly challenging circumstances!

Some deliverables were brought forward by Covid and the council’s financial situation, whereas others were delayed. New tasks emerged and others were shelved as the political and executive faces and priorities changed.

We also made multiple rounds of cuts to the digital function itself. With a team that’s now just over half the size of comparable councils’ digital divisions, we’re proud we’ve still delivered most of what we said we would, some ahead of schedule, and kept a talented team together in spite of high, often predatory demand in the job market for their skills.

Here are the highlights, and a flavour of what’s up next.

Digital council

Like many organisations, the council’s workforce took a leap forward in digital capability almost overnight last year through the wholesale adoption of remote working and online collaboration software (in our case, MS Teams). I’m immensely proud of how my team made this happen with speedy network upgrades, remote support and training, and bespoke internal software to manage the emergency response – even personally couriering laptops to councillors to keep critical business going. It was, quite frankly, incredible.

Less visible but hugely important progress included finishing a complex cloud migration, tightening our cybersecurity, implementing major replacement systems for various council services, introducing new spending controls and standards assurance for all council technology, new custom-built tools for tracking projects and savings across the council, and reforming our approach to supporting specialist applications.

More recently we’ve completed procurement for a new telephony system, which – having been delayed for historic and commercially sensitive reasons – we and residents now desperately need. We look forward to putting it live in the first half of 2022.

We’ve been laying the ground for the next priorities which include an upcoming device refresh to replace ageing laptops, improvements to our ERP system to manage finances better, and savings and consolidation across all software and contracts. The council is also crying out for a new intranet to help engage staff in its renewal journey, and more streamlined internal process flows for many of its corporate functions. We’re turning our attention to those things now, albeit with a stretched team.

Digital services

Croydon.gov.uk has been overhauled with an all-new publishing system, all-new design system, and nearly-all new content (this is where the cuts hit us, leaving a number of sections that will have to now be improved more gradually). The new site was designed with residents, using words and structure that make sense to them, and by doing the hard work to make complex services simple – creating things like step-by-step guides instead of disjointed webpages, and directories instead of huge PDFs.

One of the highest priorities 3 years ago was making My Account better, the system residents use for most of their online transactions. It works but it’s slow, only includes a subset of services, could be much more intuitive, and runs on costly customer relationship management (CRM) technology. By early 2020, after reviewing our needs and options, we bought a box of tricks called Liberty Create to replace My Account and build new online services better and cheaper – one of a new breed of “low code” systems that enable small teams to build digital products 3-10 times faster than coding by hand.

But then Covid struck. So we pivoted to saving lives and livelihoods instead of the planned My Account rebuild. With low-code at our disposal we enabled the local emergency response rapidly and with zero contract spend, building a dozen bespoke, full stack services to shield residents, administer grants and help people self-isolate. Feedback from residents (about the user experience) and the internal teams we worked with (about our collaborative and fast-paced delivery) could not have been more positive.

We resumed work on improving the core online council services this year, and the fruits of our labour will be unveiled in early 2022. It’s a lot later than we initially planned, but a much-improved online experience for Croydon residents is coming very soon. Some bits have already gone live – like a new end-to-end digital service for dropped kerbs, a better online engagement tool chosen by our comms team, and improved online experience for contact and complaints (with work ongoing to improve internal handling). A much-improved service for building control applications is about to go live, and a big release for the Love Clean Streets app will provide better feedback to residents who report flytipping and similar street-related problems from the new year.

Some of the biggest improvements will flow as we embed and iterate the new CRM, rebuilt from the ground up make sure residents get the answers they need behind the scenes. Unless further Covid response projects come up, this will be in place in March.

Underpinning it all, we fully achieved the promise in the strategy to embrace best practices for digital service design and operations: agile delivery, multidisciplinary teams, user-centred design methods and working in the open with blog posts like this one, as set out in the government service manual and local digital declaration. This is the lasting legacy that will ensure continuous improvement of Croydon’s online services, be that at a slow pace with the reduced current team, or faster when the council’s next able to invest.

There’s loads more to do of course, including rationalising websites that we no longer need, and redesigning the long-tail of council services one by one for the digital age (many of which haven’t been significantly changed since the 70s). Given we can only do one at a time, work is happening right now to scope which ones to transform first when the My Account rebuild is complete.

Digital borough

The headline here has to be securing a landmark deal with Valo Smart City to deploy new smart bus shelters throughout the borough. It’s great news for Croydon that will bring in at least £6.75m income to help fund public services, while introducing real-time journey and wayfinding information, free Wi-Fi and smart sensors for air quality, noise, footfall and traffic flows. It’s a disruptive change, in both senses of that word, and there are many steps still to go – but it’s exciting (and the good kind of disruption!) that Croydon has brought this innovative new entrant to London’s media market.

We made big strides forward in connectivity through our open access Digital Infrastructure Toolkit (a UK first, praised by DCMS) that’s attracted multiple 4G/5G small cell deployments to Croydon, and worked with providers to bring fibre to social housing blocks and elsewhere.

On the skills front, we delivered digital inclusion training for Croydon residents in partnership with RedDoor IT, ClearCommunityWeb and the LGA, designed and distributed Get Online guides through Age UK and libraries, worked with partners including Microsoft and Vodafone to help families get online in lockdown, and Amazon and Sopra Steria to inspire Croydon students (especially from under-represented groups) to consider tech careers.

We continued various Internet of Things pilots, and created the Town Centre Hubs project (part of SLP InnOvaTe) which has seed-funded local mobile apps and high street footfall sensors to help business recovery in South Norwood, Thornton Heath and Purley.

We’ve continued to play a role in promoting Croydon’s tech cluster, by hosting this website as a free, shared resource for the tech community, expanding it with a directory and skills pages, and taking a lead role in events like Education Evolution and London Tech Week. As cuts took hold, we’ve had to significantly dial down the council’s efforts in organising socials, programming events and producing content – and shelved our plans to convene a steering committee. We’ve kept the site ticking over through volunteer effort with semi-regular blog roundups and job listings, but the future of Croydon Digital is uncertain unless other local tech teams can step up to play a more active role.

Unfortunately, some inward investment propositions we were excited about have not come to pass, but Croydon continues to have a vibrant and varied tech cluster that’s survived Covid, gained a university campus with a Digital Hub, and highly attractive conditions locally for more growth post-pandemic.

Collaboration and data

We made LocalGovDrupal happen and it’s awesome.

For over a decade, local government digital folks have talked about the need for common platforms instead of wasting money building 333+ versions of the same thing. Other than commercial products, few if any council-specific platforms have emerged. So it’s no small feat that we created the conditions for one to finally happen, repurposing Brighton’s website code with grants from DLUHC. Now 22 councils (and counting) are sharing a single platform for their websites along with the ongoing costs of development, design and user research.

With similar support from DHULC, we collaborated with Leeds on a Digital Inclusion Toolkit and 4 other councils on user research into adult social care.

This website – croydon.digital – remains our only real bit of shared local digital infrastructure, despite lofty intentions to curate a suite of common tools in Croydon. Open data ambitions also slipped down the priority list but we continue to work closely across health and social care to safely join up information. Innovating with artificial intelligence for predictive early prevention will also just have to wait for less stringent times.

We are, however, working now on a review and consolidation of the council’s disparate systems for geographic data, and the Valo Smart City scheme will result in rich environmental data from a network of sensors, giving services better business intelligence.

We’ve established and held onto a reputation for Croydon as one of the sector’s leading digital teams and have shared our expertise and learnings generously with our peers, nationally and internationally.

Where next for digital Croydon

With the strategy in early retirement, what’s the plan now?

My successor (to be announced) and the team that remains will develop a new programme for the next phase, aligned to the priorities for Croydon’s renewal.

Elected local politicians in the council’s Scrutiny and Overview committee will bring constructive challenge first, to help shape what that looks like.

The output will likely be a new roadmap and delivery plan – rather than a whole new strategy – that will keep pushing us forwards towards our desired outcomes for a digital council, with user-centric digital services, in a thriving digital borough.

Personal reflections, and a goodbye

It’s been an honour to do this job for the past 3 years, and make a contribution where I live. I had hoped to do even more, but in the extremely tough circumstances I’m proud to have achieved as much as I did. As a wise man told me when I was weighing up my move from national to local government, “You won’t be able to fix it all, so get comfortable with just making progress”. I’m comfortable that I did.

The progress will continue after I leave at the end of January. I look forward to reaping the benefits as a resident, and keeping in touch with all the new friends I made here as a member of this spirited community. Thanks for having me, Croydon. See you around?

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