Public Services > Central Government

GovCamp, an "inoculation of creativity"

David Bicknell Published 22 January 2018

‘Agenda-fluid’ unconference refreshes the public sector digital parts other events can’t reach


For those of us who only write about the UK public sector, and who don’t actually work in it, it’s possible only to have a divorced, external view about what’s going in digital government.

You can talk to as many people as you want. But you can’t truly capture the internal discussions among teams, the ideas and energy that goes into digital government, the successes and the failures, and even the frustrations along the way, because you’re not part of it.

GovCamp, which takes place on one Saturday each January, but which takes volunteers almost a year to plan, offers a unique insight into the work taking place in departments and agencies and the wider public sector to drive and create digital government.

GovCamp brings together around 250 attendees from a range of all sectors public, private, academic, charities and private individuals, all of them with an interest in how the public sector does digital. For Saturday’s event, nearly 600 people applied for 250 places, and many of them will have been fretting through the autumn as to whether they would get a place after lottery registration closed on October 31.

Saturday’s event, held at the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), according to those attending on the day and from the almost universal responses on social media over the weekend, appears to have been a significant success, with attendees describing the energy at #ukgc18 as “different yet familiar, much more inclusive and open.”

Organisers said they had tried to ensure that there was a diverse group of people ‘pitching’ sessions, and that inside sessions, there was a move away from fewer voices dominating them. GovCamp is an ‘unconference’ in that there is no pre-set agenda. The discussions throughout the day is built by people’s pitches, which typically then drive sessions lasting 45 minutes. The agenda is, as someone memorably noted, ‘agenda-fluid’.

The lead organisers for GovCamp are Sarah Baskerville, James Cattell and Vanessa Williams, with support from David Buck, Janet Hughes, Amanda Smith, David Durant, Mustafa Mohamed and Hugh Wells, largely using collaborative online tools such as Trello, Google Docs, Google Hangouts, Slack, and WhatsApp.

This year’s event also involved a group of 32 ‘Campmakers’ – I was one of them - from the public sector community who helped out with a wide range of tasks from live blogging, sponsor logistics, lunch, front desk, cloakroom, support for attendees in need of special assistance, official photos, queue management, clean up and a “pub ferry crew”. There was even support for introverts who need pitching a discussion in one of five groups of sessions . This year there were ten rooms, 73 speakers, and 55 separate talks, the most ever had at a UK Govcamp.

The event also drives a wealth of social media interaction. At the last count, now no doubt out of date, there were nearly 3000 tweets about GovCamp , and a Pinterest Board has been set up to capture blogs, pictures, and tweets of note.

The event attracts significant sponsorship. This year there were 21 sponsors who raised over £14k of sponsorship, around half of which is used to cover the costs of running GovCamp, with the rest used throughout the year to support other public sector unconferences and GovCamp-like events. 

You can apply if you have an idea for an event or project that doesn’t have existing funding and is for people in (or interested in) the UK public sector, broadly about transparency, engagement, service delivery or collaboration involving technology and run on a not-for-profit basis. 

Sponsors this year across three different categories were: dxw, Made Tech, Difrent Group, Teradata, and Accenture; AdviceCloud, FutureGov, Defra Digital, Delib, RedQuadrant, GDS, MakeDo, Open Data Institute, and Pilot Works; We are Lean and Agile, Surevine, Sensiblecode, Convivio, The Satori Lab, hippodigital and Glyn R Jones.

This year’s event also attracted two Permanent Secretaries, Clare Moriarty from Defra and Richard Heaton from the MoJ.

Among all the energy, goodwill, inclusion and bonhomie, there are also some serious topics tackled in the sessions.

The recently released government shared services strategy was the subject of some critical discussion, and there were also a well-attended session on ‘Action vs atmospherics: What makes change happen?’ led by Claire Moriarty, which discussed how Civil Service groups such as One Team Government have set about bringing together people in policy and design, and getting discussions going about ‘getting stuff done.’ Recently an unconference was held for Permanent Secretaries and Director Generals, so conversations have started but is that making change happen? The session asked whether this change going to happen by making action plans or through something more nebulous.

Other sessions discussed what a job description for the government chief data office should look like, how people can be encouraged to move away from being apathetic and cynical, so that organisations can be more effective, and how best to involve people who don’t live in London, especially those in the North of England. The session suggested that there is a lot going happening in terms of ‘digital’ outside of London but people don’t know about it because things aren’t connected up. The session discussed issues such as tools, technology, and trust and jobs outside London.

There were also sessions that discussed whether the word ‘digital’ had lost all meaning, the idea of a

‘Fail Camp’ to discuss the lessons learned from failed projects, and the role of the CivTech Accelerator for Public Services in Scotland. 

It was suggested to me that GovCamp effectively serves for attendees – and organisers - as an “inoculation of creativity” that helps them make it through the years in their day job.

So what happens now? For now the organisers will be recharging their batteries before casting an eye towards next year’s GovCamp. Although the actual day is ‘amazing’, for the organisers it’s mentally, physically and emotionally draining. But by early February, the organisers will be in retrospective – and then, planning - mode, which, I’m told, involves a time-honoured tradition of karaoke.

Given the way Janet Hughes was bouncing around to music in advance of her upbeat and infectious welcome to GovCamp attendees prior to pitching, it could be quite an evening.

BTW, for those already suffering withdrawal symptoms, there are now only around 363 days to wait until #ukgc19. Hang in there!

(Picture, courtesy of David Pearson, shows Defra and Ministry of Justice Permanent Secretaries Clare Moriarty and Richard Heaton chatting with organiser Janet Hughes at GovCamp)


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