Public Services > Central Government

Public sector digerati anticipate annual GovCamp ‘unconference’

David Bicknell Published 19 January 2018

Saturday's event held at the Ministry of Justice continues recent tradition of being a ‘must-attend’ event for both digital government veterans and newbies


Tomorrow sees the annual ‘unconference’ of those working in and having an interest in digital government in Whitehall and the wider public sector.

This year’s GovCamp , being held this time at the Ministry of Justice, a stone’s throw from St James’s Park Tube station in London is the 11th iteration of the event, which first begin in 2008. 

It’s the hottest ticket in town (well for digital government, at least) and those that didn’t get one in the ballot are certain to have been begging, stealing or borrowing one to get in. There is an array of sponsors for this year’s event too. 

You might ask, ‘What’s an ‘unconference’? Well, it’s a ‘conference’ without a pre-organised agenda and speakers. Attendees pitch a session, which then drives the agenda for the day. GovCamps typically are free to attend, focused on attendee participation and ‘relentlessly positive, constructive and creative.’ Those who haven’t attended the event are welcomed and supported, and even those of a nervous disposition nervous of standing up and pitching the session they’d like to discuss are universally coaxed, cajoled and supported to pitch, and always applauded for their participation.

Organisers say the intention is to provide an inclusive, supportive environment, whether you’re an introvert, extrovert or ambivert, shy, confident or somewhere in between, enjoy networking or prefer to sit in the corner looking at your phone during the coffee breaks. It’s an open space where you can meet new people, pitch ideas, catch up with old friends, learn from peers, and come away with experiences you want to share and ideas you want to try out.

There is a serious point about digital government though. GovCamp arguably reflects the temperature of digital government in Whitehall and the wider public sector. The enthusiasm of the participants should be matched by that of ministers and departmental leaders.

That was amply demonstrated last year by the attendance of Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (Defra)Permanent Secretary Clare Moriarty who not only turned up for the day, but pitched and led a session. She also appeared at a meeting of the Teacamp group which meets each month to discuss digital developments, usually with guest speakers. Moriarty’s involvement and Defra's subsequent involvement in driving other Civil Service unconferences arguably highlighted it as a department that was visibly open to digital ideas.

So where will the heart of departmental leadership on digital government beat loudest this year? The Institute for Government has been calling for a minister for digital government to drive changes in the way government works, to save money and provide better public services. Such a role, though, doesn’t look likely to appear.

Oliver Bowden has been given the GDS portfolio within the Cabinet Office in succession to Caroline Nokes, but at the end of a busy week of statements and questions in the Commons on the Carillion fallout, not to mention a grilling on Newsnight (which he survived), it’s doubtful that he’s even had a chance to think about digital government and GDS. So what a statement to make if he turned up at GovCamp.

Given the impact made by Clare Moriarty’s involvement last year, it would send a message if Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary and Civil Service chief executive John Manzoni turned up. That would say something about the importance of digital government to the Cabinet Office when there’s a perception – from some - that digital (and data?) influence seems to be gravitating more these days to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). That said, the Cabinet Office is still working on appointing a chief data officer for government. 

You'd expect senior GDS people to be at GovCamp – director general Kevin Cunnington usually makes a point of showing up – and given that the event is at the MoJ, the deparment's Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton might be expected to put in an appearance.

Look out for regular updates and live blogging from the sessions on the day and a post event wrap-up to come.  


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