Image by Dr Neil Clifton via Creative Commons
By Steven McGinty
In March, the London Borough of Croydon was named Digital Council of the Year at the Local Government Chronicle (LGC) Awards – a showcase event for sharing innovation and improvement in local government.
The LGC Award judges commended Croydon Council’s ‘no one gets left behind mantra’ and highlighted that they were impressed with:
“the breadth of its community empowerment and the range of digital activities, which had a material impact on changing people’s lives in different ways.”
Council leader Tony Newman said that he was ‘absolutely delighted’ that Croydon had been recognised as a digital leader in local government. However, he also congratulated the other shortlisted councils, explaining that:
“These awards are as much about sharing good practice as they are receiving the prizes, and not only will Croydon continue to share our learning with other councils, but we will also look at what others have done to see if we can improve still further.”
Introducing new online services has been a major success for Croydon Council. In-person visits to the council have been reduced by 30% each year, reducing staffing costs and increasing customer satisfaction from 57% to 98%.
My Account, a service which helps people access online council services (without having to re-enter their personal information) is just one example of this success. Launched in July 2013, the service now has 180,000 registered users – over half of Croydon’s population – and the My Croydon app has been downloaded almost 20,000 times.
My Account and My Croydon allow people to carry out a variety of tasks, including:
- making council tax payments;
- booking appointments;
- reporting problems; and
- registering for school admissions.
These services alone have saved the council £8m, and it’s expected that a further £1.2m of savings will be made in the coming year.
Croydon Council has also become a paperless office environment through adopting encryption software.
The solution used is ‘government certified’ and used by 30 out of 33 of London’s boroughs. This level of security is particularly important for local councils who often share sensitive data such as social care records.
Apart from the benefits to the environment, becoming paperless has saved the council £100,000 per year on storage costs alone.
To ensure everyone can participate in the digital age, Croydon Council partnered with Doteveryone (formerly GO-ON UK) to help people who struggle with technology or lack digital skills.
The Go ON Croydon project was introduced to support the 85,000 people in Croydon who do not have basic digital skills. Reaching out to organisations such as community and faith groups, this year-long programme set out to highlight and promote the council’s digital skills initiatives. One scheme promoted by the project was digital zones. Staffed by volunteer digital champions and located in banks or retail stores, these physical spaces provided places where people could go to have their questions answered and to improve their basic skills.
The Go ON Croydon project clearly made an impact, with digital skills levels in Croydon increasing from 70% to 79% within one year.
The council also made the decision to distribute 1,000 of its old computers to community groups, providing further opportunities for people to develop their digital skills.
At the opposite end of the technology spectrum, the council has opened up a state of the art technology hub, known as TMRW, aimed at encouraging tech start-ups to locate to Croydon.
The hub, which was part funded by £927,940 from the Mayor of London’s Regeneration Fund, offers entrepreneurs and small businesses affordable co-working and office space, as well as other facilities such as event space, Gigabit internet services, and access to a 3D printing lab.
TMRW has been described as the UK’s official “fastest growing Tech City” and is home to a range of companies including one person entrepreneurs, developing virtual reality simulators and games, rockstar vloggers with over 1 million followers, and technology companies working with Samsung to develop the latest in connected car technologies.
Recently, Croydon have partnered with The Architects’ Journal (AJ) to create a competition which encourages proposals for innovative technologies that will “transform the public realm”.
With a guide budget of £2 million, the proposal should help the council:
- improve the area’s challenging post-war streetscape;
- upgrade pedestrian movement and wayfinding; and
- provide visitors with information about upcoming local events.
Councillor Alison Butler explains that Croydon will be undergoing significant redevelopment in the coming years, but highlights that this competition provides an opportunity to use technology to make Croydon a better place to live.
To address a problem, you have to first admit that you have one. For most local councils, finding problems is not difficult: whether that’s substantial budget cuts, increased demand on services, a lack of digital skills, or outdated and antiquated processes and structures.
The answer to many of these problems is to introduce digital technologies and to encourage digital participation from local people, as well as council employees. This is what Croydon Council have been successful at doing over the past few years.
Local councils who are still at the beginning of their digital transformation journey should look to Croydon, to learn from their experience, and to see how they could become a successful digital council.