Public Services > Central Government

Govcamp tunes in public sector's digital channel

David Bicknell Published 12 March 2013

'Unconference' on London's South Bank fosters drive towards public sector digital agenda

On Saturday, 150 public sector digital specialists arrived at IBM's London offices on the South Bank by the Thames for a day of debate, discussion and ideas.

Govcamp describes itself as "the free, annual 'unconference' for people interested in how the public sector does digital stuff."

The format and agenda for the event is unique: there isn't one until the attendees stand up and 'pitch' a session, usually to a combination of whoops, polite applause or friendly banter from their colleagues for the day.

Ideas for hour-long discussion sessions included "Digital inclusion", "Reusable ideas - tactics for dealing with cuts", "G-Cloud Security" "How to talk about fast failure", "Women in digital", "How big and small companies can innovate together" ,"G-Cloud Procurement", "Digital channels for local councils" and "The future of digital teams."

From one session on 'The future of digital teams', it was pointed out that 'digital' is not just about communications, nor is it just about Twitter. It was also suggested that management in some central government departments is already worried by some departmental digital initiatives that they believe have seen the light of day uncomfortably early. That has led to some raised eyebrows - and/or investigations - along the lines of 'who signed that off?'

Other snapshots and quotes from the session included:

Government department members' frequently say: "I'm not technical" - in other words, I don't want to do that.
"They know they have to do this stuff - but they don't live and breathe it."
"It's not sufficient for the digital team to go off in a teenage huff."
"It's about socialising the operation rather than operationalising social"
"Transactional people coming in is a threat as well as an opportunity."

Another session on G-Cloud Procurement raised some interesting questions from buyers about how G-Cloud works, suggestions from G-Cloud advocates such as John Glover at Kahootz over what works well and how G-Cloud can evolve, and queries about what the forthcoming digital services framework will look like.

The ideas behind Govcamp have now started to drive the setting up of a series of smaller events such as LibraryCamp, Shrop(shire)Camp, and Localgovcamp as well as monthly, informal 'teacamp' get-togethers in London and Birmingham.

In a summary about how Govcamp works on its website, under a heading, "My boss wants to see a business case before letting me go", organisers point out:

"Well, firstly, it's a Saturday. Secondly, the combination of tight budgets, consumerisation and socialisation of enterprise IT, and public expectations of digital-by-default public services has clearly shaken things up in the last couple of years. The Cabinet Office is leading perhaps the most credible effort in a decade to bring more open source and cloud-based tools into the public sector, tackling the gnarly barriers of procurement, open data and IT security head-on.

"UKGovcamp is where many of them get together to compare notes and make new connections. In this turbulent new public sector environment, the informality and openness of govcamps are the key to their success. By leaving job titles at the door, mixing people from different sectors with different agendas and experience, they become a source of contacts, inspiration and good old-fashioned moral support which promises to help deliver real change in public sector IT."

Steph Gray, UK Govcamp co-organiser and former head of digital at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills said: "Every year I'm bowled over by the energy and enthusiasm of those who come along and help make this happen.

"We've found that this has become a real hot-house for ideas and innovation. You put 150 people into a room on a Saturday with no pre-planned agenda and it's amazing what emerges. Over the years, this has proved to be a real bellwether for the direction of digital innovation in the public sector. It's a unique forum for making new connections and discussing techniques which lead to real-world savings and improvements to public services around the country.

"Things we were talking about at our first event six years ago, like using Twitter or open source in government, have become commonplace, all the way up to the Prime Minister and Head of the Civil Service."

Dave Briggs, co-organiser and owner of Kind of Digital, said: "Once you see the ideas and connections really fly in an unconference you can really see why these things work. Our hosts at IBM have really got behind the event, and while it's great to have 150 people in the room, it's also great to read the comments on Twitter which are a really part of the debate and the discussion. The discussion is still going on via the #ukgc13 hashtag.

"We've found that this event, which was founded out of frustration that change wasn't fast enough, is really shaping the direction of innovation in local and central government. It's also grown into one of the largest events of its kind anywhere in the world - which is quite amazing."

Jan Gower, Public Sector Lead IBM UK and Ireland, said: "As the public sector continues to introduce the latest digital technology and social media tools, it has become clear that citizens and public servants are beginning to behave differently."

"Digital by default is central to government efficiency and reform, as services continue to be redesigned to meet the evolving needs of citizens. This is why we are backing such an innovative event that brings together people from all areas of the public sector, to share knowledge while discovering new and exciting ways of working."

Saturday's discussions and outputs are available at

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