I recently had the pleasure of heading to the big smoke to interview the lovely Neil Williams to bring back our Digital Heroes series. He’s just left GDS after 7 years and will soon be starting his new role as Chief Digital Officer at Croydon Council. We sat down for a coffee (in the very swanky GDS offices in Aldgate East) and had a chat about all the cool things he’s worked on in the past 7 years, and all the good stuff to come in Croydon. 

1. What’s your name and where are you from?

My name is Neil Williams and I’m a farmer’s son from Devon who somehow ended up in digital. My family are all in Tiverton but I now reside in Crystal Palace a.k.a #thecronx.

2. What do you do for a living?

Until recently, I was Head of gov.uk but will soon be starting as Chief Digital Officer at Croydon Council.

3. Favourite band or artist?

Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds are my favourite band. In terms of artists, I love Benga from the Cronx, one of the forefathers of dubstep; Diary of an Afro Warrior would be one of my Desert Island Discs. I’m a big fan of the local Croydon music culture and a lot of my favourite artists are from there.

4. Creature of habit or maverick thinker?

I’d say I’ve got a bit of a split personality. I’m definitely a creature of habit at home – very domestic, love having a home routine which I guess comes with parenting. I’d say I’m more of a maverick thinker at work though. I like to shake things up and do things differently, I get bored easily otherwise.  I like to take on new challenges, which I suppose explains the change in role: it’s time to disrupt something else.

5. Biscuits – dunk or leave unsullied?

I think I’m a dunker; what is the point of a biscuit if not to dunk it?! Unless it’s a fancy big cookie that won’t fit in a mug. Your average packaged biscuit is surely made for dunking? (Bonus answer: Neil’s favourite biscuit is a fruit shortcake. I couldn’t ask this question and not find out his favourite biscuit too.)

6. It’s an interesting time for democracy at the moment. Where do you see the field of digital democracy going in the next few years?

In my time in the civil service we did a lot of work around ‘digital democracy’ and it was an exciting new frontier. There seems to be a world of opportunity for it in local government – co-creating service and delivery with the people it affects with lots of opportunity for digital tools to help. Part of the reason I’m so excited about moving from central to local government is being closer to users: gov.uk is impactful in terms of scale and reach but it’s a bit distant from users. I guess we can also expect e-voting at some point but we’re not there yet and the risk is too great.

7. What inspired your change in jobs after 7 years at GDS?

I saw the Croydon job ad and was really excited by it. I’d thought about leaving for a while but as different projects came up at gov.uk I kept staying a bit longer. When the Croydon role came up it was ideal for me and was way too good to pass up; I fell in love with the role and it just seemed like the perfect next move. It’s my local area and I really care about that. I’m really excited about the change and regeneration Croydon is going to see in the next few years and I want to be a part of shaping that. Like I say, I want to feel closer to users. It’s a bigger role with a broader remit covering smart cities and more of the tech sector in Croydon which is seeing rapid growth. It’s a tremendously exciting thing to be part of; I’ve had my head down looking at one thing for 7 years, so it’s going to be good to consider a broader set of challenges. It’s also come at an excellent time; it’s an exciting time for London with all the work Theo Blackwell is doing around smart cities.

8. What has been your highlight/best project during your time at GDS?

It’s got to be the initial launch of gov.uk. That was the most ridiculous fun I’ve ever had in my career. Working at breakneck speed to shut down huge government department’s websites and replace them with one centralised website was a liberating and empowering experience. Learning so much so rapidly about agile, user needs, user design and knowing it all had such a big cultural impact. People wanted it to fail and we were proving them wrong which felt really exciting. Going into Number 10 and telling them we were shutting their website down and replacing it with something more intuitive and user-friendly was thrilling and we were working directly with developers for the first time, putting users needs first and designing around outcomes.

9. What’s the coolest thing you think GOV.UK offers?

I think the resolute focus on simplicity of design, content and functionality is the best feature of gov.uk. We kept it simple and resisted the pressure to change that and make it ‘rich-media-y’. The design has stood the test of time and has been copied internationally. There’s some step-by-step navigation stuff currently in the pipeline which is game-changing. It’s going to bring services together into streamlined processes to make things way easier. A slightly morbid example but when someone dies and their relatives are particularly vulnerable, they need the service for reporting it to be simple and easy. The step-by-step navigation is going to be really valuable and make a real difference.

10. Can you pinpoint a specific time which stands out as the golden era of GDS for you?

The PR answer is that it’s all been brilliant throughout and I’ve enjoyed the whole evolution. But really, the most fun part was the start-up days; scrambling to make a functioning office, raiding other floors for furniture. We were so focused on the work that the rest didn’t matter, we just wanted to get going. It was really buzzy and exciting and nothing has compared to that feeling since. We were a small team all focused on delivering something, constantly iterating and working together towards something great. It’s grown so much, so rapidly and continues to evolve as the landscape changes. We got just enough permission to do this alpha thing and prove everyone who didn’t think it would work wrong. There was an unrecognisable energy; a team on our feet, working together, talking. There were only 14 people when we started out and those were the times I’ll always take with me. 

11. What will you be taking from your time at GDS to your new role at Croydon Council?

A relentless focus on user needs and the true spirit of Agile – owning your own process, continually iterating, not just installing some off-the-shelf methodology.

12. Other than presumably a shorter commute, what are you most looking forward to about joining Croydon Council? Sounds like being closer to users is the main thing?

Yep, being closer to users and also being able to help the local tech sector to get even stronger.

13. What are you hoping to achieve in the next 5 years at Croydon Council?

This question is going to hold me hostage to fortune isn’t it?! There’s a lot to do on making their digital services better and more coherent so I suspect and hope that’d be the most visible difference. But also Croydon itself is going to transform itself utterly. I want to maximise that opportunity and help make it a smart place to live and a successful place to learn and grow a business.

14. Any shout-outs?

Tom Loosemore for taking a chance on me before GDS even existed. Pete Herlihy for schooling me/teaching me the ropes on Agile. Everyone who’s ever been part of the gov.uk team for being part of this amazing revolution of how government serves the public online.

Big thanks to Neil for taking the time to chat with me. We’re looking forward to following all the good work he’ll be doing in Croydon and wish him the best of luck in the new role! If you don’t follow him on Twitter yet (where have you been?), you can do so here.

Until next time.