This is a late post – over the past week the attendees of UK Gov Camp ’15 have been posting their thoughts and reflections. Glen did his last week (he’s more ‘on it’ than me).
This is traditional; part of the joy of a govcamp is everyone talking their time to summarise their version of the event. Glen has provided a decent summary of a govcamp but the one thing that I always forget in advance is that everyone’s experience is entirely different. As such, what follows is a summary of one person’s experience of UKGC15.
Before providing a few thoughts I should say that I find govcamps difficult. I’m an introvert at heart and have always found the group discussion element of things a difficult forum to operate in. I usually leave the event feeling a bit frustrated and yet unable to put my finger on exactly why but over time I have come to believe that this is an evolving thing. As such, I find that my experience of Govcamp evolves as I spend some time in the bar, chatting to people, and then reflect on the conversations over the next week or so.
Now onto some reflections:
1) There is a new challenge caused by our increasing recognition of the need to design services around the customer
Ben Taylor's introduction to a session on the challenge of customer services in a more enlightened age will be the one that continues to make me think for a while. Ben posed the question, in more depth than I plan to – if we design services that are individually designed around the customer then how do we create a level of organisational structure around these interactions?
There was some really good input from other campers about what they are trying to do in their local authorities (yes, a session about service delivery was dominated by localgov folk – some stereotypes stick) and this topic will be one that sticks in the back of my mind percolating for a while yet.
2) We’re all socialists now
I’ve been in local government for 6 years now and in general have come to the view that councils should do the jobs that they are best at and then get others, who know better, to do the things we aren’t. For councils this means, for example, getting other people to design the IT systems we need to use – as a local authority I think we’re just too small to have teams of people designing, coding and maintaining systems. And with over 400 councils this makes a lot of sense – a company working with even 10% of these councils is bound to have more resilience and capacity (not to mention skill) than any single council can.
And yet, as I toured around Govcamp loads of people were very sceptical about the idea of asking the private sector to do these things and a belief that it was far better to manage them ourselves. I think there were three reasons for this:
1. Scale: Some of this comes from a central government perspective, where there is the scale to actually sustain this level of in house resource.
2. Market Failure: One camper suggested that the private sector was also sceptical as selling the same thing to lots of local authorities was making them too much money.
3. There is another way – Collaboration: The final, and possibly more compelling, reason was that many people saw an alternative in collaboration and sharing that would be better than everyone doing their own thing AND better than leaving it to the market.
There are counter points to all of this but the latter is one that sticks with me – especially due to my well-known love of shared services as a way to save money without outsourcing.
I do worry that collaboration leaves us fully at the mercy of one set of collaborators and might not allow for the flexibility we need in the future but I shall be pondering local government and capitalism a little more in the coming weeks.
3) Continuous improvement relies on people
A session on continuous improvement was fascinating and there were lots of thoughts of how to build on initial projects (including the use of astro-physicists!); however, I think it all came back to people.
4) Re-inventing is inevitable – and perhaps right
A session designed to find out why we keep reinventing the wheel and what we can do to prevent this instead led to a discussion of all the reasons we might want to keep reinventing things. I particularly enjoyed the parts where campers who were talking about not re-inventing things then set about explaining how things could be easily reinvented!
I imagine the answer is that not reinventing things requires a lot of compromise from those receiving those things whilst simultaneously not leading to any progress. Probably, we are all just a victim of the human need to constantly improve – and perhaps that’s not really a bad thing. It’s not as short term efficient as perhaps it might be but sometimes that’s not everything.
5) Democracy is in a lot of trouble
Most people in the democracy session seemed pretty disengaged with politics, political parties and the political process. I don’t think twitter is going to save us here.
6) IT moves far quicker than I do
I’m not an IT person; I’m not against computers and I try hard to keep up with what’s going on as I know how important it is – however, I just have other priorities I guess. Visiting Govcamp this year and listening to a lot of pitches that I didn’t necessarily understand made me realise things are moving even quicker than before – new efforts will need to be made on my part or else I’ll become one of those ‘back in my day’ merchants!
7) I’m more lucky than I perhaps realise
Over the years I keep hearing stories about how many people feel frustrated by the narrow mindedness of their senior managers. I’ve rarely had experiences like that despite working with a number of these types of people in local government. This makes me think that either I’m very naïve or just very lucky. I’m feeling positive so I’ll go with the latter.
Govcamp is a funny beast – I love nothing more than spending a day talking about the public sector and how we can make it better and yet equally I do find the camp experience a little on the stressful side. Nonetheless, when I read back the above, and reflect on the multitude of other stuff floating around the back of my mind somewhere, it’s obviously a day well spent.
I’m a big fan of tradition. Watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation on Christmas Eve, always booking my birthday off work, never wearing an away shirt to a home football match; tradition has a great place in my life. Okay, that last one was superstition rather than tradition, but it still counts.
It’s a tradition that after a Camp of any kind I, along with other campers, produce a few reflections on the event just gone. Some of these have been short bullet points, others more detailed treaties on life, the universe and everything; this is somewhere between the two.
Here are my own reflections on UKGovCamp15.
I didn’t miss the introductions
Long-time campers will have been slightly surprised to see that there wasn’t the usual obligatory round of audience introductions, where everyone in the room says who they are, where they are from and something they are hoping to get out of the day (or words to that effect). This can take the best part of an hour (there are a lot of people there) and can result in some classic moments of humour or insight, as well as helping put some faces to some twitter names in time to set up later conversations.
However, no matter how much I might enjoy having people look at me and be forced for those few seconds to be aware of my existence, I’ve never been convinced that they are all that cost-effective in terms of time. A sizable portion of the audience dread it (not everyone is extroverted after all), a sizable portion spend most of the time thinking about what they are going to say rather than listening to anyone else, a sizable portion go on for far too long despite being told to be brief, a sizable portion say something really boring while a sizable portion work hard on saying something funny and unique which turns out to be neither.
I quite liked the first hour or so being effectively enforced networking, and meant I managed to catch up with people I’d have not done if we’d all dived straight into sessions.
It’s getting less vague
We seem to be moving away from discussions about “should we be doing this?” and “why can’t we do this” on to “how can we best make this happen?”. It might just have been me, but I didn’t hear a single person saying that they were banned from using the internet or social media. I’m not saying that all the battles have been won of course, only that those resisting are the exceptions rather than the rule.
I left with some wonderfully specific information to follow up and find out more about, from Verify to work being done by Parliament to how to fit rubbish chutes to the outside of buildings; in some ways some of the sessions are feeling a little more like micro-hackdays than talking shops. I like this.
It’s still VERY digital
GovCamp sprang up with a digital focus, and digital has played a key role in its evolution over the years. However, Gareth pointed out to me that digital seemed to be the default solution for just about every conversation had that day, and he was right. Every issue seemed to boil down to either a need for more open data, the need for some sort of software or the need for GDS (or its local government equivalent – more on that another day…).
The way these things are set up means that the conversation is created and had by the people who attend; I’d love to find a way to get some less digital people to come along next time though.
The rule of thirds
There were a few people I spoke with who felt that the audience was changing slightly, which got me thinking about its make-up and where a happy balance might be. To me (and I’m sure there are proper stats which can prove or disprove this properly), it seemed that about a third of the audeicne were hard-core campers, with years of t-shirts in the wardrobe. Another third were those who had been to one or two events and were somewhat involved in the wider community, while a final third were new to it all and taking part for the first time.
I think this is about right. Too many of the first group and it feels like you are talking about the same things with the same people all over again. Too many of the middle third and you have to wonder where all the experience has gone. Too many of the final third and the group memory disappears, dooming them to repeat previous mistakes all over again.
The other side…
I have to admit; attending GovCamp after leaving local government was a little bit different. It has changed the way I think slightly; not in terms of who I spoke with or what I said, nor the values to which I hold dear; rather in what conversations I actually had.
Twelve months ago I would have jumped at the session on developing digital skills in leaders, but this year I went to a session on continuous change instead. This is neither the right nor wrong thing to do, but is a change which personally I found interesting to note, and makes me wonder whether this is a temporary focus on different areas as I adjust to life outside the public sector or a more permanent situation.
I thought UKGovCamp15 was a great success. In no way to put down previous events (which were all fantastic too), this one took advantage of a perfectly suitable venue, a tried and tested formula (with a few tweaks) and a macro conversation around digital which is maturing significantly.
It will be interesting to see if and how these follow through into other camp events (I’m particularly looking forward to LocalGovCamp); if they are all of a similar level then I won’t have a massive task convincing my office to offer a little more sponsorship in the future.
(Photo credit @Sasha_Taylor - https://www.flickr.com/photos/sashataylor/sets/72157650059186610/page4/)
If you’ve not heard already, UKGovCamp15 is nearly upon us; it’s taking place at Microsoft HQ in Victoria on Saturday 24 January, bringing together a huge number of people who passionately care about improving the work of local and central government.
Govcamps, whether local or otherwise, are possibly the place I feel most at home. Last year I tweeted out that I looked around and felt that “these are my people”; not that I’ve worked with hardly any of them, but that they all are people that I aspire to work with in the future, and who inspire me to want to be better than I am. I reckon I could pick five random people and probably be able to start a semi-successful business with them of some kind; everyone brings something brilliant to the collective table.
This year is a little different for me. For the first time, I will be attending not as a member of local government but as a member of the private sector (albeit one who works nigh-on exclusively with local government). I’m interested to see if this makes any difference at all as to what I get out of the day, but it’s not changed my excitement levels at all.
I’m also in the position of having work colleagues joining me for the first time, as TSO are one of the sponsors for UKGovCamp this year (we're the one called 'Williams Lea Public Sector (TSO)' - I'll explain it on the day if you're interested!). It was one of the first conversations I had when we were looking at which events I felt were key throughout the year; this was right up there at the top of the list, and my new employers very kindly agreed to chip in a not insubstantial amount to support it.
In the process of having these discussions with colleagues I tried to go through what an unconference is and why these events are so fantastic; it was a lot harder than I thought it would be.
You see, on paper it is a pretty simple affair; a group of people turn up, host a number of sessions and have some discussions and then go home. There is no key note address, there are no product launches or special deals, there are no established themes in advance and no way of knowing just how much you might get out of it.
Only, it’s brilliant.
Every time I’ve attended one of these events over the last few years I’ve left enthused and invigorated for the year ahead. I've left full of ideas and inspiration, and with a clutch of new contacts to follow up on and talk with. I've left with a better understanding of the wider issues facing the sector and some of the innovative ways they are being addressed. I've even left knowing a little more about what some of the sponsors offer.
There are many blogs out there which talk about how unconferences run and why they are brilliant, so I won’t simply repeat things here. Instead, I’ll trust that the intangible outcomes which I've gone away with every time for years happen again and that I will leave excited about the year ahead.
It’s strange having been to a number of these and even been a campmaker before, yet still feeling as if I’m not worthy of acceptance amongst the govcamp herd. Other attendees are doing truly amazing things; addressing big, key issues facing the public sector, coming up with practical solutions, developing plans which then lead to real change and improvement. I turn up and talk, share some ideas and simply absorb; it feels like an unfair trade at times.
However, that’s not going to stop me from jumping in with both feet and getting involved again. This year I plan to meet a lot more people, either during the day or afterwards at beercamp, so please do say hi. I’m genuinely interested to talk about almost anything, from my current work helping redevelop council websites, to open data to blogging, to engagement, to getting kids coding, to supporting national work-based social networks, to the public perception of the sector, to how public and private sector can more effectively work together to, well, you get the idea.
That for me is the best thing about these events; the new relationships which spring up online and off. I deliberately call them relationships rather than contacts as that’s what they are; relationships which enable me to be challenged and to challenge in return, to survive over the years and the events and to spark thoughts and plans which turn into reality.
If I start even one new relationship after UKGovCamp15 it’ll all be worthwhile. I hope to start many more than that.