‘Intense scrutiny’ – Croydon’s tech chief on making the case for digital in tough times

Opama Khan tells delegates that focus must be on outcomes and benefits, rather than the technology itself

Opama Khan speaking on stage at PublicTechnology Live   Credit: Tom Hampson/Visual Eye Creative

The London Borough of Croydon’s financial challenges mean that the council’s technology team must continually demonstrate the worth of their work, its digital boss Opama Khan told PublicTechnology Live on 1 March.

 “So much good work has gone into setting up our digital delivery over the last four years. It is now under intense scrutiny [asking] ‘are these luxuries’?,” she said. “Is this something that a financially struggling council should be investing in or should we strip it right back to IT support only?”

In November 2022 Croydon Council issued a section 114 notice for the 2023/24 financial year, signalling it could not meet the legal requirement to balance its budget. The notice, which bars the council from new spending except in essential areas, is the third such notice it has issued in recent years.

Arguing in support of digital projects work means highlighting practical benefits rather than discussing technology, according to Khan, the authority’s head of digital services, access and reach.

“We say: ‘This is the problem, this is what users are trying to do when they come to the council, this is what services need to help them do things more effectively’,” she said.

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Khan said that she wants to use digital to make it easier to interact with the council, such as paying for a parking permit or a skip licence: “For me, it’s always about engaging with our residents and making their user journeys better.”

The digital chief added that it can be challenging to meet requests for financial returns on investment, given such projects tend to focus on supporting citizens and staff rather than cutting costs.

To share costs and expertise Croydon collaborates extensively with other local authorities on digital projects, including through the Greater London Authority and the London Office of Technology and Innovation. It is also one of 34 local authorities in the UK and Ireland involved in the LocalGov Drupal website development project, with Croydon contributing work on online forms and taking advantage of microsite designs developed by others.

Khan said that Croydon considers a range of citizens when developing digital services, including older people and those with disabilities. However, she added that public sector organisations have “a really important duty” to help people learn to use digital services, given that – for example – they are the only way to access the cheapest energy deals.

She said that her main aims are to improve digital processes for Croydon’s residents and improve the council’s efficiency, but added that the council also has to undertake basic work such as revamping its telephone system: “We are still at the fixing the plumbing stage.”

Sam Trendall

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