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.