Interview: Neil Williams, Croydon Council's First Chief Digital Officer

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  • Neil Williams
Croydon is in the middle of an exciting transformation with an ambitious regeneration programme investing £5.25 billion in the borough.

Alongside the new commercial, retail and residential developments, there is also significant investment in infrastructure including a Smart City programme that seeks to create a truly connected and efficient place for businesses and make Croydon an even more exciting and vibrant place to work, live and enjoy. (source: Croydon.Digital)

Croydon BID wanted to find out more about Croydon and its digital future for businesses, by talking to Neil Williams, Chief Digital Officer, Croydon Council.

Last October 2018, Neil was appointed as the first Chief Digital Officer for Croydon, having come from the position of deputy director for the Government Digital Service (GDS), where he’d had specific responsibility for GOV.UK, the single government website, and he’d been an intrinsic part of its success since its inception in 2011. Neil gave us the opportunity to ask questions about his role, and the digital plans for Croydon.

So, as the first Chief Digital Officer for Croydon, how are you finding the new role?

I love it, and can’t believe how fast the past 9 months have flown by. There’s a lot of expectation, a huge amount to do, but it’s all really interesting. I’m really enjoying working locally, being connected to my local area – I live in Crystal Palace so have a vested interest in what I’m doing. I’m getting to know loads of great people in the community and enjoying building a great network around town. In terms of delivering digital services, compared to the work I did previously for central government, it’s much more real, tangible and close to the users working in a local authority. You can see the broad spectrum of people who we’re serving, including those in suits on their way to work, and people who are sleeping in doorways, on your way to the office and when you step out for lunch so you’re constantly alive to who the users are and what they need. As we provide a service to a large, diverse population, digital inclusion is clearly really important to us.

What does your role entail?

My remit covers these 3 broad themes, which in the new digital strategy we’ve dubbed: Digital Council, Digital Services and Digital Borough.

OK, tell me about them one by one. What do you mean by Digital council?

My team and I are responsible for everything around how the council uses technology to collaborate, communicate, to run systems, manage casework etc. We’re making improvements across the board to how the council uses technology to work more effectively and efficiently, including introducing culture and best practice from the digital industry. There’s a lot of legacy software, and a large IT estate – so it’s no mean feat just maintaining the status quo, let alone improving it all! But we have ambitions to really help the council become more agile and digital in its DNA.

What is meant by Digital services?

This theme of our strategy is focussed on how all our users - residents, businesses, visitors or students - interact with the council. Hackney, Essex, Camden, Westminster, Brighton and Adur & Worthing are already showing success in the redevelopment of their websites and digital services using the kinds of methods central government has been using and mandating for all its services in recent years, and I think we have an opportunity to do even better. At the moment, we think about 30% of contact between the council, and its residents, is online; our goal is to increase this figure to 75% in the next 5 years.

What is meant by Digital borough?

We’re looking at how we can best support economic growth and increased connectivity of the borough. For example, we’re looking at better fibre coverage, the introduction of 5G, doing things to connect and promote the tech scene here, and putting on more events for the tech industry.

We also need a focus on the strengths in Croydon’s tech credentials, and how we can engage with leading organisations locally, to really push Croydon forwards as a tech leader - especially in particular tech markets where we already excel like PropTech and GovTech – given the public sector services that are here, e.g. HMRC, the Home Office, Ministry of Justice, Land Registry. We’ve launched a new brand and website, Croydon Digital, to connect and promote our digital scene.

We want to connect further with the local education system too; and work with them to support the development of homegrown future talent for the growing tech industries, while making sure local people can access jobs of the future.

Tell me more about Croydon.Digital?

We set up and run the website in order to communicate with the tech industry, promote what they’re doing, highlight job roles here and events, and help the sector to flourish and grow.

Croydon is home to 2,045 digital, data and technology businesses, employing 7,725 people. We are a fast growing tech ecosystem, with 41% increase in digital businesses between 2013 and 2018.

So it’s already a huge success story – but we need to keep up the momentum. Check out the site and subscribe, and get involved to help us collectively bang the drum and attract more startups and scaleups to join us!

It’s clear there are huge opportunities for Croydon in terms of digital, and a lot that you’re doing to support its growth, what changes would you most like to see?

I’d like to see more start-ups base themselves here, and home-grown tech businesses, so people feel encouraged to take the plunge. I’d like to see more great tech-focused shared office and coworking spaces, like the TMRW hub, and more investment coming into Croydon tech. Also, I’d like to see many of our existing digital SMEs scale up.

I’d really like- and fully expect! - to start seeing some big tech businesses moving from Shoreditch as they discover the great scene we have here, and more international companies coming to use Croydon as their UK base. With Gatwick on our doorstep and 15 minute trains from London Victoria/Bridge, we are perfectly positioned as a gateway to the globe, as well as London.

There’s also a rebellious streak in Croydon, with its punk roots and maverick attitude, and this goes hand in hand with digital too. Digital can transform an industry completely; it can be disruptive…and inventive…which I think is very on brand for Croydon.

Thanks, Neil.


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